Find the joy: a dying priest’s message to the world

Find the joy: a dying priest’s message to the world April 8, 2012

An extraordinary story of life, death, and hope for this Easter, from the Des Moines Register:

Everett Hemann is a Catholic priest. He has prayed over death beds, consoled grieving families, given hundreds of funeral eulogies. He has preached about everlasting life.

After the doctor told him tumors filled his abdomen, Hemann took the pathology report to his car and read it. He knew advanced pancreatic cancer was a likely death sentence.

He wept.

He didn’t ask God to cure his illness or ask, “Why me?” He didn’t rage or consider curling up and withdrawing into himself. He decided to continue his lifelong mission.

He drove away that spring day last year and prepared for Holy Week, not telling his parishioners the news, not wanting to ruin the most important day of the year — Easter — at his church, St. Patrick in Cedar Falls.

On Holy Thursday, Hemann washed their feet. It’s a ritual he holds most dear, remembering how Jesus washed his followers’ feet.

“Symbolically, it expresses so much of what it means to be a pastor. You are there to serve others. You are there to wash the feet of others.”

Hemann, 66, recounted that day on a late morning last December, as the chemotherapy chemicals flowed through a tube and into his body. The oncology clinic’s small room didn’t hold much but reminders — a calendar on the wall and a clock, precious time passing with steady phone beeps from calls every few minutes.

They were from people all over Iowa reaching out to him. Parishioners and past and current students at Iowa State University called him often. He was priest at the university church St. Thomas Aquinas for 16 years before transferring to St. Patrick three years ago. Students called him Rev Ev. It fit his nature. He often bridged the gap between a priest and faith-questioning students with a quick joke and goofy faces.

A pilot and downhill skier, an enthusiastic traveler and friend gatherer, Rev Ev embraced life. How could he not grieve the passing of all that?

Instead, he stood before his congregation later that month and told them what it means to be a priest: Celebrating the joy of birth, faith, love, sickness and death. He told them he had cancer and would die. An audible moan filled the church.

“I have shed many tears but they have been tears of joy — joyfulness in how God has blessed me in this life,” he said that day.

“Now it’s time to begin the pilgrimage that leads to the cross, directly. Like Jesus I ask you to pray with me in my final hour. To keep watch with me. As I washed your feet on Holy Thursday, perhaps now I will ask you to wash my feet. I know that you will walk with me, wiping my face as I carry my cross to Calvary.”

Two years before, he sang a song to them when he became their priest. He sang it again: “Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you. Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.”

“When he sang to us that reached out to everybody,” said parishioner Harriet Picht, “and you wanted to be someone else’s servant.”

Hemann soon started a blog. He led community education groups on the subject of dying. He wrote a guest column for The Des Moines Register in November.

He had seen more clearly the purpose of his life, he wrote. In dying, he wanted to teach others how to live.

It would be his last sermon.

Read it all. You’ll be glad you did.

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