Remembering a Priest Who Knew Christ, Knew the Cross

Remembering a Priest Who Knew Christ, Knew the Cross May 11, 2012

Fr. George W. Rutler remembered a friend and brother priest today:

St. Agnes


Rev. George W. Rutler

Church of Saint Agnes

May 11, 2012

On the first month’s remove from the death of a man, the custom of reticence loosens, and the proscription of eulogies ends, for when a body is buried and the days move on, it is allowed and even ordered to recall how the life that died was lived, and in what way that life helped others live better.

Monsignor Eugene Vincent Clark was ordained a priest by Cardinal Spellman whom he later served in many offices, as he also served in the household of Cardinal Cooke. He respected his place, never breaking a confidence, and would not mention how much of what those archbishops said and did were in some measure his words and work. His services were as a priest who followed other priests and would be followed by more.

Everyone here today who knew him can tell how by that very knowing they were helped by him. Rare was the charity or philanthropy in the archdiocese and in many instances beyond, even to the Holy See, that was not encouraged by him, and sometimes started by him. Those who were brought to the Faith by his guidance, or restored to the Faith by his prodding, make a large and powerful regiment. His hospitality was not confined to the hospitable, for our Lord asked what reward is there for that, Many who were derelict or discouraged or, worse, made cynical by the bruises a city may inflict, found in him a host of munificence and even of magnificence. Such habitual benevolence in a harsh culture attracts some who would importune, bur far more were those who would make it their own good habit. Of such a priestly soul should it be said what an old hymn said of Christ himself: “Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.”

Each of us has his own story, and mine is part of a large catalogue whose moments are beyond barter. When I wanted to be received into the Church, a friend suggested that I speak with Monsignor Clark. Later I realized that my friend was one of a chorus that said to countless inquirers, “Go speak with Monsignor Clark.” So I did, and he introduced me to Cardinal Cooke and things moved on from there. They moved on farther that I expected, and soon I found myself in Rome speaking no Italian, and a perplexity to those who did not know what I needed to learn. Years later I became curate to Monsignor Clark who was inventive in finding ways to prevent me from at least outwardly seeming useless. He never gave orders as such, but his invitations to do things were peremptory commands in quiet camouflage, and so he suggested that I preach on Good Friday, and he kept suggesting that for fifteen years. When I once remarked that he was the organ grinder and I the monkey, he did not deny it. After the old St. Agnes church went down in flames, he shamelessly auctioned off some of my amateur paintings, and many connoisseurs surrendered their judgment to his charm, and bought them. He arranged for Cardinal Cooke to welcome my parents as the last he received into the Church before dying. Today would have been my mother’s ninety-first birthday, and I pray that she and my father now rejoice with the priest who made them so happy.

If we said nothing about our priestly friend, these walls would speak, for he built them. They hold the echoes of many conversations around the rectory dining table. Ranks of guests came to hear what to me was better than any university education, usually moderated by Monsignor Florence Cohalan to whom Eugene Clark was as a devoted son. It is tempting to think of those around that table now as ghosts, but they are ghosts no more than is Our Risen Lord, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones. These were true men and true priests who served here. They may hear us now as we heard them then, and in reflection we wish we had listened to them better. We pray with the conviction that now they are more solid in eternity than we are in this broken world.

This joyful prospect of Heaven is the good news that priests are ordained to announce. That is their first duty and, by that preaching, the priest prepares the way to offer in immortal sacrifice the true Christ. It is Christ’s holiness and not our cleverness, his wisdom and not our sophistication, that perfects the sacrifice of the Mass. Christ chooses men who by the actual economy of their humanity with his divinity, become the engine uniting earth and heaven. The human character of the priest is his boast and burden which represents all of humanity before the hidden glory of God. The writer to the Hebrews said: “Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin. He is able to deal paiently with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness and so, for this reason, must make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people. (Hebrews 5: 1-3)”

Eugene Clark was an historian, taught especially by Florence Cohalan and later by the Englishman Philip Hughes. They formed him to revere John Henry Newman. In one meditation, Newman wrote, “…when a man, in whom dwells His grace, is lying on the bed of suffering, or when he has been stripped of his friends and is solitary, he has, in a peculiar way, tasted of the powers of the world to come, and exhorts and consoles with authority. He who has long been under the rod of God, becomes God’s possession. He bears in his body marks, and is sprinkled with drops, which nature could not provide for him.”

The securities of a comfortable Christian culture which nurtured the young Eugene Clark are gone, and before us now is the prospect of a moral atmosphere more like the first centuries with their threats. His intuition formed by a vivid acquaintance with the ups and downs of history sensed this, and he was frustrated often by the failure of others to sense the same. Sure, though, was his trust that if gossamer Springtimes quickly fade into hard Winters, those Winters will melt and the Beloved Christ will peer into our souls to announce the lengthening of light and the bright sounds of a new season. So Newman hoped to see once again in that some bright dawn ,angel faces “which I have loved long since and lost awhile.” Some have debated who those angel faces were, but no one who has loved with a Christian heart wonders who they were. They gave us birth, and they taught us, and they laughed with us, and they dined and drank with us, and they mourned with us, and then they left us one by one to go to the Lord who made them. Soon enough it will be our turn to join their long line. While we are still here, in those years left which are mere minutes in eternity’s timeless clock, we can give thanks for those angel faces that smile even when we do not. Among them we think of the one we remember today at Holy Mass, and pray, May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace, and light perpetual shine upon them.

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