A Word in Season
Doing What We Are Called to Do
Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; then from the cloud came a voice, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him" (Mk. 9:7).
The words of the Heavenly Father reverberated off the mountaintop as Jesus was transfigured before the wondering eyes of his closest companions, Peter, James, and John. The dazzling light that clothed Jesus, the astonishing sights of Moses and Elijah at his side, and the quaking cloud of heaven would be burned forever in the apostle's hearts and minds. Peter, consumed by the sight, offered to build shrines to Jesus and the others on the spot. But Jesus dissuaded him. (See Mk. 9:2-10.) There was much work to be done at the moment; it was best to be about it.
The apostles would go back down the mountainside after the event, as yet still unaware that the most profound pinnacle of their dear friend's life would not be on the mountain of Transfiguration. It would be on Calvary, where he would die.
The shock of Jesus' violent death must have instilled deep fear and loss in those who loved him most. Yet his friends and followers were the very legacy God would use to recall the powerful witness of Jesus' life and ministry.
His death would never be forgotten or minimized; he died doing what he was called to do.
This month marks the ten-year anniversary since Fr. Lawrence M. Penzes, the former pastor of Our Lady of Peace Church in Lynbrook, New York was gunned down after he concluded his homily at the morning Mass. Fr. Larry, as he was affectionately known, died as he was doing what he was called to do.
I was 18 when I met Fr. Larry Penzes, a newly ordained diocesan priest assigned to St. Pius X Church in Plainview, New York. Fr. Larry was buoyant yet quietly hardworking. Generous and friendly, he was always finding ways to bring people together for a Mass, for a special project to help others, or for fellowship.
I have Fr. Larry to thank for instilling in me a desire to serve the local church. I remember how he talked me into running for a seat on the parish council. Then he encouraged our pastor to hire me as a youth minister.
The young people I knew trusted Fr. Larry. He made himself available to hear their halting confessions, or to give talks or pray the Mass in their homegrown chapel on youth retreats. He never shied away from the tougher problems teenagers faced. He taught that the only way to get out of being stuck on oneself is by taking time to serve people in need.
Fr. Larry's witness was a clear and honest living of the faith, not over-intellectualizing it, or underselling it. His life as a priest was not just a job, nor was his military career as an Air Force chaplain just a duty. Life was faith and faith was life and they all blended together seamlessly without being broken into compartments. He was a man with a ready smile, a ready handshake, and ready service. His priesthood was engaging because he engaged people and delighted in life.
Fr. Larry was simply one of the folks. He loved the New York Jets, and he was always ready for a celebration. I'll never forget his dressing up in a tuxedo, zipping around the dance floor at a formal event that brought church personnel and parishioners together. Or, the day he playfully donned clown make-up and became a mime in a youth workshop.
Fr. Larry was my first priest-friend, but not the last. He and two others witnessed the wedding vows my husband and I made in 1982. After that day, life took us in new directions. Fr. Larry was reassigned to other churches, eventually becoming a beloved pastor at Our Lady of Peace in 1994, the same year my family moved to Massachusetts.
Eight years later I was back working in another parish when the Long Island grapevine reached me with news of Fr. Larry's death.
Fr. Larry Penzes was 50 years old when a man concealing a rifle under his coat opened fired during Mass, killing Fr. Larry and a devoted parishioner seated in a front pew.
I was one of hundreds of people who jammed his funeral services that week. The pictured prayer card I received at his wake still graces our refrigerator door.
Today Fr. Larry's memory is honored in the parish auditorium that is named for him, and by prayers lifted before the image of Our Lady of Peace, a statue Father had commissioned for the church. These are just a few of the artifacts signifying a life whose high points were the both the Mass and the community that gathered around it.
Those accustomed to Fr. Larry's friendship-style ministry know that when he died, we lost 'a beloved son' in more ways than one. He was a beloved son of God and to his family and friends, and a beloved son of the Church. His words and ways are still worthy of our listening.
On the downside of the mountain, let us recall the light that energized Fr. Larry's zeal and fellowship. And let us be busy about the work that we are called to do.
Pat Gohn is a Catholic writer, speaker, and the host of the Among Women Podcast and blog. Her book Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious: Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood is published by Ave Maria Press. Subscribe to “A Word in Season” via email or RSS.