For a Servant Leader

When I temporarily moved to El Paso, Texas in January 2010, I was on the verge of being Catholic.  My Presbyterian roommate knew this and graciously introduced me to Saint Patrick Cathedral, where I knew nobody, but where something I heard and saw and experienced drew me back.  The gospel for that Sunday was the passage from Luke 4 in which Jesus reads from Isaiah, and the rector of the cathedral, Fr. Rick Matty, gave a compelling homily about what Jesus did and didn’t quote from the Isaiah passage (salvation and not vengeance), and what that says about his mission and that of those who take his name – throwing in (characteristically, as I would find out) a handful of other stories speaking to the witness of well-known church leaders and of remarkable people none of us had heard of, and an impassioned injunction to “act like you love your neighbor.”  When I met him after Mass and introduced myself as a Mennonite with Catholic sympathies, he welcomed me warmly and told me, “You round us out.”

During the next several months, Fr. Rick’s example in word and deed would keep me even more on the verge – if I could have gotten any closer by that point without falling over.  I never once heard him preach without thinking, “Wow – if this is what being Catholic is about, count me in.”  His Christocentric zeal shone through constantly, not only in his preaching but also in the many social and pastoral ministries he helped to oversee, as well as in his personal interactions with parishioners.  One acquaintance there talked about a time when he was carrying the cross in procession and almost ran into Fr. Rick, who had stopped to acknowledge a little girl who had shyly greeted him.  When I would join some of my fellow choir members (who sometimes joked, as only Catholics can, about the prospect of homiletic drinking games based on how many times he threw in “just one more story”, or used the word “gift” as a verb, a frequent linguistic quirk of his) in singing for some of the weekday Masses, my hunger for the Eucharist increased as I noticed how conscientiously he looked at each person who came to receive it, giving his “The body of Christ” a profound double meaning: it is what you eat, and it is what you are.  This kind of pastoral attentiveness was one of the ways in which I saw him as a living icon, as he once said we are all called to be: people whom others can look through and see Christ.  And I had seen Christ through him.

Thankfully, I had the chance to tell him this before I left El Paso.  I also asked him to bless the hematite crucifix that I had acquired earlier that year, adding that “Father, will you bless my crucifix?” was not a sentence I would have imagined myself uttering a decade ago!  And I told him about the role he had played in my having finally decided to be confirmed in the Catholic Church, and said that I hoped to come back someday and take the Eucharist from his hand, to which he replied with a smile, “Well, I’m not leaving until you do!”  That opportunity came last summer as I revisited El Paso and rejoiced to at last be in communion with this parish community that had already given me an ecclesial home on my meandering pilgrimage.

I am particularly grateful now to have had these opportunities, since Fr. Rick died unexpectedly this past week.  His loss is being widely mourned in the parish and the broader community, where he had been known for his passion for justice and advocacy for immigrants as well as his humility and pastoral compassion.  I am remembering his homily last year on the Feast of the Ascension, in which he talked about the importance of preparing for our own departure by communicating with the people in our lives now.  The way to attain peace, he said, is to seek the peace of those around you.  From what I saw, he surely lived what he so passionately preached.

May our Church be gifted, as Fr. Rick would say, with more leaders like him.  Requiescat in pace.

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  • Carl Diederichs

    Wonderful! I hope I can someday (hopefully not for a long time!) be remembered so fondly for my pastoring.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Thank you Julia, for this story. It goes well with the reading for Jeremiah today: “I will raise up shepherds who will shepherd my people.”

  • Serena

    Thank you for this! I’m from El Paso as well, and Fr. Rick was one of the reasons I came back to the faith. I live in South Carolina now, and was saddened when I heard the news of his passing. The last Mass I attended that he officiated was Midnight Christmas Mass this past winter.

    • Julia Smucker

      Thank you, Serena, that is really touching to hear. I know he influenced many people’s lives and will be sorely missed.

  • Lee Ann beck

    Julia! This is beautiful. We must continue to put into practice all he taught us.

  • Ron Chandonia

    I read the post without even noticing the title, but what kept coming to my mind was that this was a Vatican II priest, exactly what the Council Fathers had in mind (but, alas, a breed that seems on the wane these days). Then I checked the title. Perfect.

  • Chris Sullivan

    Thanks Julia for an inspiring post !

    God Bless

  • Mark Gordon

    You still round us out, Julia. Wonderful testimony to your friend and pastor. Thanks!

  • Jimmy Mac

    I wonder if there was ever any SERIOUS consideration to ordaining him to the episcopacy. What a change his kind would be.

    • Julia Smucker

      According to one of the articles in the El Paso Times (linked in the post), he had no such aspirations (although he apparently had been given some kind of diocesan oversight at one point in the interim between bishops, or something like that). That actually got me thinking that maybe all the clergy who are most clearly not aspiring to move up in the hierarchy are exactly the ones who should be appointed. Just think what servant leadership we’d have then.