(This is the most personal post I have ever written and likely will ever write. It is long, but I needed to write it. I cannot describe now much of an influence this priest has had on my life.)
November 2, 2008
I stepped off the plane, as I had so many times before, at Seattle-Tacoma airport, recognizing the all-too-familiar sights. Down the stairs, across the bridge, and into a waiting taxicab. It was only a short ride to the Fauntleroy ferry dock in West Seattle, where the ferries chugged back and forth constantly between the mainland and Vashon island. Vashon is a pastoral haven in the Puget sound, only accessible by ferry. I walked along the dock as I had many times, into the chilly gusts of wind, inhaling the sea smells, taking in the natural beauty of the place one more time. I rode the ferry across to Vashon with a heavy heart. This time, I would not feel its peaceful tranquility. It would not be a place where I could relax and forget the everyday hustle and bustle of life. On the other side, my friend was dying.
On Vashon, my friends were waiting, friends I had met many years ago through Richard, very good friends, friends who had asked me and my wife to be godparents to their young son. This meeting too was bittersweet and full of anxiety. And so we drove to the little rectory beside the Church of St. John Vianney, in reality a modest western-style two-bedroom house. The door was unlocked. We went straight through to the bedroom, and I saw Richard. Rev. Richard R. Roach, S.J, Ph.D. He liked titles. He was so proud of both being a Jesuit and his doctorate from Yale.
Before me I saw a 74-year old dying man, racked by pancreatic cancer. A once robust priest had now fallen below 100 pounds, his skin pale and jaundiced. He was now heavily medicated, too weak to leave his bed unaided, and was drifting in and out of consciousness. He looked at me and smiled gently. He called me by name. “You have come to mean so much to me,” he said, “and I’m sorry to leave you so soon.” I told him that I had come to see him one last time, to thank him for everything he had done for me, and to bring him love from me and my wife. “I love you too,” he said, and slept.
I was adrift, in more ways than one. I had just finished the coursework component of the economics Ph.D. program at Columbia university, and was having serious trouble motivating myself to find a thesis topic and work independently. The days simply slipped by. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months. I was also in dire need of spiritual direction. After a few years of drifting away from the Church, she beckoned me back. A couple of years earlier, I had started going to Mass again, and took comfort in the liturgy. I was still woefully uneducated in the faith, the product of Catholic schools! But I was seeking to fill the void.
The first time I saw Fr. Roach was when he was celebrating the regular Sunday evening Catholic campus ministry Mass in St. Paul’s church at Columbia. I was immediately taken with him as a homilist—his crystal clear delivery, his intellect, his charisma, his refusal to dumb down or condescend. I was immediately gripped, and latched onto every word. I had never heard anything like him before (and have not since). It would be interesting to meet him, I thought. In the Fall of 1995, I got my chance, because Richard was tasked with leading the weekly Catholic graduate student social hour. In practice, that meant him opening a bottle of wine and musing about religion, theology, movies, politics—anything!
Our first interaction did not go so well. I had recently read Karen Armstrong’s History of God, and, naively, was quite taken with it. It seemed to make sense. Surely a man of his intellect would appreciate its erudition? Well, not exactly. He took a sip of wine, and looked down his nose at me with a puzzled expression. “Why in the name of God would you want to read such crap?” he asked. I was greatly embarrassed. I wanted to run away. But I didn’t. I stayed, and I kept coming back. And it changed my life.
Over the course of the next few years, Richard and I became good friends, unlikely as it seems, a religiously-clueless graduate student in economics and a brilliant retired professor of moral theology. I learned so much in those years, over countless social hours, lunches, dinners, walks in Central Park. I would ask questions, and he would answer, patiently and tirelessly. We talked about the hot button issues: abortion, contraception, homosexuality, the liturgy, Vatican II. There were also plenty of discussions about politics, culture, movies, and the arts. Richard loved theater, and introduced me to it. But he was also happy to see a movie—and while I found some of his choices a little too art house for my more mundane tastes, he was also happy to see such junk as Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion!
I didn’t realize at the time quite how much I had learned from him. There were his magnificently pedagogical homilies, and his numerous study groups (on topics as diverse as the natural law and the first seven ecumenical councils). But it wasn’t just processing information; Richard taught me how to think critically, how to apply the intellect in the realm of faith. And everything seemed to make sense, to fit together so smoothly. I felt I had entered a whole new world, and felt cheated that I had been locked out for so long. Suddenly, my thesis topic seemed so mundane and trivial.
Richard dedicated his life to the truth, and sometimes people simply did not want the truth. He always said that the only reason to accept the Catholic faith is if you believe it is true, and one was called upon to use one’s intellect to figure it out. As one of his best friends later said—and as was picked up in his eulogy—Richard has the uncanny ability of making people decide whether or not to be honest with themselves, and with God. As the friend noted, “This seems partly why those around him are either fond of him or else want to avoid him, and even the latter give him their grudging respect.” I’ve never met anyone with such keen powers to psychological evaluation. He could form judgments about people after the briefest of conversations, and he was hardly ever wrong. With such a gift, combined with his notorious bluntness and impatience, it comes as no surprise that he was not popular with everyone.
He certainly had his quirks. Impatient and a perfectionist, he demanded the best from himself and from others too. He was not a “warm and fuzzy” guy and younger people in particular were often intimidated by him. He spoke is mind, often too bluntly. In New York, he insisted on carrying a large umbrella, which he would use to strike a cab that dared to cut him off at a cross-walk! He was extremely independent, and always felt struggled with community life.
I think one reason we bonded so easily was that we had a lot in common, despite manifest differences. We were both outsiders, close to our mothers and with difficult relationships with our fathers. We were both shorter than average, and we both were more drawn to reading than sports as children. My wife claims I share some of his less admirable traits: his impatience, his constant anxiety, his argumentative nature, his need to control his surroundings. He once remarked he was something of a father-figure to younger men with strained relationships with their own fathers. I think he saw that role as flattering.
I owe Richard so much. Aside from everything else, he introduced me to my wife, who was a law student at Columbia at the time, and who occasionally dropped into the social hour. There was one time in 1996 when the three of us had dinner at Ollie’s, a cheap Chinese restaurant near Columbia, popular with students. Afterwards, as we crossed campus from Broadway to Amsterdam Avenue, we parted. I turned right, to walk home in the same direction as Richard, while my future wife turned left. Immediately, he was yelling at me; “What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you walk her home? Oh, for God’s sake!”. His trade-mark look of exasperation! I was clueless, of course. Anyway, we did get to know each other, but drifted apart after I moved to DC, and only got back in touch again in 2004. Richard was deliriously happy, and flew out to celebrate our wedding Mass in November 2005, along with a priest-friend who was then the assistant chaplain at Columbia. He loved to boast that he introduced us, and he deserves the credit.
My wife has her own recollections of that period. She remembers in particular Richard’s homily directed toward the graduating law school class. He explained that the words “juris doctor” meant more than “doctor of laws.” The real meaning, he explained, was, “teacher of the right thing to do.” He exhorted the future lawyers that Sunday to live up to that challenge. It affected my wife deeply.
Richard left New York in 1997, and returned to his home in the Pacific northwest. As always, he had to obey his Jesuit superiors. Richard was a native of Seattle, and part of the Oregon province of the Society of Jesus. Now, for the first time in his life, this academic was thrust into a parish environment. He was assigned to Vashon in 1998, and it was the happiest time of his life. Never comfortable with community living. Richard enjoyed the tranquility of Vashon, surrounded by his mountains of books, and accompanied everywhere by his faithful poodle, Malcolm. I myself moved to Washington DC in 1998, but made a habit of flying to Seattle at least once a year. Summers on Vashon were wonderful, a (literal) breath of fresh air from the muggy oppression of the east coast. We would always drive into Seattle to see a play or a movie, have a nice relaxed dinner, and take the night ferry back to Vashon, where I would sleep soundly in an atmosphere conducive to sleeping soundly. Before I got married, I would also spend Thanksgiving with him, something he always enjoyed. The buffet at the Olympic Four Seasons became an annual ritual for us.
I could see him slowing down over the years, conscious of the fact that he was aging. He was less inclined to stay out late, and he was assailed by frequent illnesses. Still, I kept visiting Vashon. Richard loved London, especially for its theater, and we met there twice. He stayed with me once in DC. In 2004, we met in Rome where he officiated at the wedding of my sister. I remember he had the Jesuit office arrange a tour of the Vatican gardens for us. When the Vatican guards were disinclined to let my newly-wed sister into St. Peter’s because her shoulders were uncovered, he loaned her his black jacket! A year later, as I said, he came to DC to our wedding. Richard was like family, and I regarded him as family.
To me, Richard was a good friend and mentor. But he was so much more, a huge gift to the Church, a man who had touched the lives of so many people over the years. He was a Catholic convert who became an air force pilot in the 1950s. He was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1969. He became a leading American theologian, studying at the feet of people like Bernard Lonergan and James Gustafson. He earned a doctorate from Yale. For twenty-five years, he was a professor of moral theology at Regis College in Canada and then at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He was renowned as a brilliant teacher, and he transformed the lives of so many, as he did mine at a later stage. When I met him, he had just retired from Marquette and took up the scholar-in-residence position with the Catholic campus ministry at Columbia university. When he moved back to Seattle, he affected many more people, and was a blessing to his parish. He weekly homilies were eagerly awaited by those of us on the e-mail distribution list, and it was never a problem that they sometimes spanned ten pages! In them, he would expound on the readings of the day, as well as discuss the contemporary issues of the day through the lens of Catholic theology, always applying his rigorous analysis and great erudition.
For much of his life, Richard’s commitment to the truth at all costs brought him trouble. In the post-Vatican II milieu, he never really fit in. None of the camps wanted him. His strident and unapologetic orthodoxy and his resistance to liturgical deviation caused him to butt heads with many on the so-called “liberal wing” of the Church, including in his own Jesuit order. He stood up for teachings on sexual ethics when they seemed to be decidedly out of fashion. He denounced the “silly season” for the farce that it was. For years at Marquette, he ran parallel courses on moral theology with Dan Maguire, and the battle lines were drawn. Richard never backed down from an argument, as that would be to compromise the truth. He suffered greatly for his intransigence, including within his own order.
But he was never comfortable with the so-called “conservative” wing either, as he considered it phony and insufficiently Catholic. One of his closest friends in life was Elizabeth Anscombe; he told me they bonded at a conference when they were dismayed off by the pseudo-conservative Americanism on display. He personally opposed Richard John Neuhaus’s proposed alliance with evangelicals; Richard stood up at a conference and warned of the dangers of associating with the newly-politicized evangelical movement. As in so many other things, he was prescient. He also told of once being booed off the stage at a Human Life International conference for having the audacity to argue that the pro-life movement should cease bashing gays. Indeed, Richard was a central figure at the founding of the pro-life movement, but became rapidly disenchanted by its capitulation to the American right-wing political philosophy.
There were the other connections. He was close to Cardinal John O’Connor and claims that he found a theological error in the first draft of the peace pastoral that ended up propelling O’Connor to the see of New York. There was the murky story of how he was tasked with getting a number of Jesuits who were on Pinochet’s death list out of Chile. He never really liked to talk about that. He was friends with Fr. Benedict Groeschel, who called to convey his good wishes on that last fateful visit to Vashon while Richard still lived. He taught Scott Hahn, and his picture can be seen in Hahn’s first book, Rome Sweet Home. He knew so many, many people, but he never really boasted about it. In the last decade of his life, he was more than happy serving as a humble parish priest in a small semi-rural parish.
Richard’s health had been failing for some time. He had been diagnosed with a form of leukemia a few years earlier, and was scheduled to undergo chemotherapy. He did not take well to it. In February 2008, when my wife and I visited him, I was shocked my how much weight he had lost. A lover of fine food and wine, Richard was always somewhat overweight, but otherwise in good health. Now, he was thin and gaunt. The fact that he refused to buy new clothes exaggerated his weight loss. Still, he remained in good spirits.
For some time, a few people were planning a “Friends of Father” gathering, a surprise get-together of his closest and dearest friends. As his health waned, we wondered if he would have the strength for it. Last August, we met him at a restaurant in Seattle. Some local friends had lured him there surreptitiously, inviting him to a small dinner. At five minute intervals, each of the hidden friends would walk out, people he had known from Marquette and Columbia. I was first. I will never forget the look on his face; his jaw literally hit the floor when I walked in and hugged him. As more people arrived, some of his dearest friends, it became quite emotional. That night, he seemed pale and wan. But as the weekend progressed, he brightened up, and looked distinctly healthier. It was a wonderful celebration of a great man’s life. He was deeply moved, and profoundly happy.
There was one final surprise: at his regular Sunday Mass, the organizers had arranged a letter to be read from Archbishop Brunett paying tribute to Richard. In a very touching gesture, Richard knelt before his brother priests that morning—one of whom had flown from New York for the gathering, the same priest who presided over our wedding in three years earlier with Richard—and asked for their blessing. Tears flowed.
We left him in good spirits. I felt confident Richard would beat this illness, as he had so many years before. After all, this was a man who survived a heart attack in his late 30s. I was sure he had many more years left in him. But it was not to be. And I think he knew that. A few weeks after this timely gathering, on August 18, he was found to have terminal pancreatic cancer. He opted for palliative care. Although he never told me at the time, the doctors had given him a prognosis of 4-8 weeks.
When he got the news, he picked up his bible and read the following passage from St. Paul: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor? Or who has given him anything that he may be repaid? For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” He read this to me over the phone, and he said he felt like the living God was speaking to him directly, and that he was immensely calm and comforted. I cried.
When I received the news that he was slipping rapidly, I didn’t know what to do. I’ll spend Thanksgiving with him, I thought. But there was that nagging voice: maybe he won’t make it until Thanksgiving. The first big sign came when the weekly homily stopped coming. For Richard to forsake his beloved homily, things must be bad. I knew he was sleeping a lot, and getting up for only a few hours each day. I sensed the end was near. But I resisted. I hesitated. I’ll only be in the way, I thought. My visit would tire him too much. Then my wife told me that I was simply making excuses. And she was right. Part of me simply couldn’t face seeing him in that condition. But I knew what I had to do. I booked a flight for two days hence, Sunday, November 2.
I stayed in the rectory with him for a couple days, and I left on the red-eye flight to DC on the night of Monday, November 3. It was heartbreaking. Even as I was there, he was fading fast, and was unable to hold a conversation beyond a few words. The previous Saturday, he had stopped eating, and could barely take down any nourishment. He slept most of the time. As for me, I simply sat in the armchair next to his bed and read. His other close friends from Vashon were there too. His beloved dog Malcolm never left his bedside. One of his Jesuit brothers, Fr. Peter Ely, was with us. We prayed together. Fr. Ely read the prayers, while I and another friend held Richard’s hands. I knelt beside his bed for a while. The most moving part came when Fr. Ely read the litany of the saints. I’ve always loved the litany of the saints. I could barely hold it together.
The next day, I met another one of his brother Jesuits, Fr. Hugh Duffy from Ireland. The following day, Tuesday, November 4, election day, two very good friends from Ireland, a married couple, were coming to DC visit. They had last visited three years earlier to the day, on the occasion of my wedding. It turns out that Fr. Duffy had taught my friend in high school in Dublin, and also worked with the father of my friend’s wife, who had passed away a few years ago. I reflected on this remarkable coincidence. Here, on his remote island of Vashon, in the Pacific northwest, in a tiny rectory, I was talking to a priest who had connections to my Irish friends I would be greeting the very next day. Even as he lay dying, Richard was creating bonds among people and bringing them together.
Parting was difficult. I had rehearsed what I would say to him, but it didn’t make it any easier. Fr. Ely had kindly agreed to drive me to the airport, across the Puget sound. When the time came, I went into Richard’s room and took his hand. “I need to tell you something,” I said. “What is it?” He was lucid, more so than earlier in the day. “I need to leave now for the ferry to fly back to DC.” I said. “I told you I would see you again after August. I kept my promise.”. “I know,” he whispered. “I want to thank you for everything you have done for me,” I said, “thank you for your friendship, your teaching, your guidance, your life. God be with you over the next few days.” “Take my love back with you,” he whispered. “My wife and I love you very much,” I said. I then bent down and kissed him on the head. And then I walked out, out into the crisp clear November night, into the fragrant aroma of the Pacific northwest, into solitude, out of the rectory for the last time. The tears kept flowing.
For the rest of the week, we waited, and still no news came from the west. We hosted an election party and cheered loudly when Obama won. I knew Richard would be happy with that news too. I took a day off with my friends from Ireland. On Friday night, we left for the eastern shore of Maryland with our friends, to spend a weekend in the scenic town of St. Michaels. Richard died that day, Friday November 7, at 12.55pm local time. The waiting was over. Fr. Ely left a message on my cell-phone just before we began the trip, saying that Richard had died peacefully in the Lord. That night, I was exhausted. I slept for about ten hours, and remained in a state of total exhaustion for the rest of the day. It was over.
November 13, 2008
My wife and I flew back to Seattle on Thursday morning. Richard’s funeral took place at 7pm, in his church of St. John Vianney. The celebrant was Archbishop Brunett, and the two auxiliary bishops were there, as well as the Jesuits from Richard’s Seattle university community and other diocesan priests. The funeral was simple and moving. In accord with his last wishes, the homily was delivered by Fr. Ely, and the eulogy by his confessor, Fr. John Topel. I was a pallbearer. Seeing Richard’s body was hard for me. Even harder was carrying the coffin on my final journey with him in this life, as we left the Church and walked with toward the waiting hearse.
The night was perfect. Cool, calm, clear and fragrant, with a visible moon illuminating the overhanging trees. Richard loved evenings like this. He always felt at home amid the natural beauty of the Pacific northwest. As we stepped out of the Church, I saw two lines of priests waiting for the final procession, two lines of while albs like pillars against the dark night beyond. The choir was singing On Eagle’s Wings, which I knew was one of Richard’s favorite hymns. The priests sang softly in the night. The walk was one of the hardest of my life. The grief grew with each step. When we reached the hearse I was in floods of tears and my body was shaking. The archbishop gave the final blessing and the coffin was placed in the hearse. Standing behind me, Fr. Hugh Duffy, the Irish Jesuit I had met a week earlier, held out his arms and embraced me. I then walked back into the Church, still sobbing, and embraced my wife. I took one last look outside. Goodbye, my friend.
Richard was such a blessing in my life, and he was the channel of so many other graces, undeserved and unwarranted though they were. He was my dear friend, my mentor. I met my beloved wife through him. Although I never took a class with him, I learned more from this man than from anybody else in my life. He made me a better person in so many different ways. He forced me to face the truth about myself. My faith would be nothing without his influence. He blessed my life and he changed my life. I owe him everything. I will never forget him.
May he rest in peace in the Lord, and may the angels carry him to paradise.