Yesterday I had the sad experience of burying my best friend, Fr. Joseph Reilly. I met Joe when we were both seminarians at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. We were in the same class, although I was one of the “new” guys in the class. Most of the class had completed a spiritual year at Immaculate Conception Center, but my bishop had decided that I did not need to do that, since I had completed most of a novitiate when I was with the Dominicans. Since I was already in my 30’s, I also wanted to get straight into the formal studies for the priesthood.
How Joe and I became friends, I don’t really remember, but we did. We learned that we had the same “affliction”; we both only had sisters (whom we loved very much) and no brothers. We did the things that friends typically did; went to movies, talked sports, religion, politics, watched Star Trek and the Simpsons. He came to be a little brother to me (I am 12 years older than Joe), and he could be a buster, like any little brother. I remember once, in the seminary, a group of us were discussing the movie Apollo 13, and I was talking about watching the first lunar landing with my family, that I had chicken pox at the time, so I watched in nearly 24 hours a day. Joe chimed in, “Wow JC! You saw the first time a man landed on the moon? I wasn’t even alive when the last man was on the moon.” Yes, Joe, I was older than you. In general we shared our lives with each other.
Both Joe and I were ordained in 2004; me for the Diocese of Trenton, and he for the Diocese of Allentown, PA. Joe was a faithful companion during my first year of priesthood when I was diagnosed with cancer, and then when my father got sick and died. Two months after my second surgery for cancer, Joe and I went on vacation to Williamsburg, VA. We had a similar attitude about vacations; we liked to just rest, relax, and pick up on some local history.
Joe also had his struggles in the priesthood. He suffered from depression. He became particularly severe about five years ago. He just had a tendency to take things very personally. He had such a deep love for our Catholic Faith, the Church, and the people of God, that when things didn’t go smoothly (which is common in a parish), Joe would take all that inside himself, and began to feel like a failure. This would lead to extreme feelings of loneliness. It got to the point, five years ago, that he asked to go on medical leave to treat the depression.
Joe fought that demon very hard. He made progress, but also had setbacks. He knew he was not ready to go back to the demands of a parish, so he lived in an apartment and worked in a furniture store. He continued to be a man of prayer, even when he felt that God was so distant. He was working hard to get back to public ministry.
Joe often felt forgotten during his medical leave. He kept saying that I was one of very few people who kept in touch with him regularly during his medical leave. I tried to reassure him that there were plenty of people praying for him, but often with the business of the priesthood, people would forget to call. He frequently countered, “But you always find the time, JC.” In July I took him, and another priest friend to a Trenton Thunder baseball game, and at the end of August, Joe came to visit me here at St. Mary’s. We talked and texted regularly.
Monday was my day off, and I was sitting on my couch, Dymphna (my new puppy) asleep in my lap. My phone started to ring, and the caller ID said it was Joe Reilly. I answered as I always did, “Hello, Joe Reilly!” but it wasn’t him. It was his mother. She told me that Joe was dead. She said that they had been trying to reach him for a week, so they got worried and asked the police to check on him. The police found him dead in his apartment. He had been dead for a couple of days. Apparently he was getting ready to go out when he collapsed on the floor, dead of a heart attack. He was only 36 years old. I’m still stunned.
Yesterday I drove up to his hometown of Minersville, PA for the funeral. His parents and sisters were so happy that I was there. How could I not be? He was my little brother.
The Gospel chosen for the Mass was from John, one that I use often for funerals, and it starts with Jesus saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.” How could Jesus be telling us not to let our hearts be troubled? I often start my funeral homily with that, but now it took a new meaning. My best friend was dead. He was only 36 years old, a brother priest. It made no sense that he was dead, and Jesus was telling me not to let my heart be troubled. At first the words did not seem human. But then I realized, that Jesus was not telling us not to grieve, not to be sad, not to be mourning. Rather He said, do not let your hearts be troubled. For Jesus, the heart was not the seat of emotions, rather it was the central core of the person which integrated their emotions, their senses, their intellect, their history, their will, their everything. It was their “I”. And that “I” is restless until it rests in God.
We know that Jesus, who shared fully in our humanity, wept at the death of loved ones. Just recall His approaching Lazarus’ tomb. He knows what it is to suffer grief, sadness, and sorrow. But His heart was always with the Father. He knew that His Father loved Him with an everlasting love. The Father loves us with the same kind of everlasting love, and He desires us to share eternal happiness with Him. When Jesus tells us to not let our hearts be troubled, He is encouraging us not to doubt God’s love for us, not to despair. Grieve, wept, be sad and the death of a loved one, yes, but do not despair.
Collapsing into my heavenly Father’s loving arms, gave me true consolation in the midst of my grief over Joe’s death. I will miss him for a long time, until we are reunited in heaven, but my heart is not troubled. God is with me, with Joe’s family and friends, and with him.