As the church year was coming to its end, so was the life of Father Vince O’Flaherty. A Jesuit priest in his seventies, he started his last morning by offering the Eucharist at Regis High School in Denver and preaching on the “rich young man.” As so often before, he would soar and inspire, speaking in a rough voice that, unexpectedly, was able to communicate a gentle vulnerability before the world and God.
Regis was his assigned community of Jesuit brothers; but in many ways his heart was with the community of his dreams, where he spent two or three nights a week—a little cluster of Regis University students living in the Denver barrio at a house called Romero. Spun out of the hopes of Father O’Flaherty and two younger Jesuits, Father Kevin Burke and the novice Mike McManus, Romero House brought together a handful of men and women in their early twenties who would not only study, but pray, live simply, and labor for justice together.
It was in that house that he died—after a day, no doubt, of visiting and being visited by friends, of talk small and profound with his little community, of faithful and warm counsel, of fond laughter and remembrance. He died of a heart attack in his sleep. No one, not even he, had anticipated the hour or the day.
Father O’Flaherty loved music, and the passion never left him. Even in recent years he would gravitate to a piano, pulled by the least request, and say, “Well, I’ll sing only four show tunes.”
He had been a soldier in the Second Great War and he regularly reknit the fabric of warm friendship by visits to old buddies and their wives.
As a Jesuit, he had been a novice master and tertian director, a superior of communities, a spiritual guide, and steadfast companion to hundreds. Through all the years, he seemed to relish each day, whether it brought anguish that would wake him at night during his middle years, or turbulent questions in the 1960s and 1970s, or imaginings of a “great American novel” when he faced an older age, or earth-shaking changes for church and the Society of Jesus, or toasts to triumph and jubilee.
So what does this have to do with the word of God on the second last Sunday of the year, the week before we celebrate Christ the King?
Well, Vince O’Flaherty’s life was an interpretation of the text.
Our summer over, the harvest upon us, God is near now, at the door. We envisage Mark’s portrayal of the end times to be about the end of the world, the trials, the omens, the shaking of the heavens, the Son of Man coming in clouds with power and glory upon the winds.
And yet, if we take it all so literally, the text has lost its meaning. Jesus said, “I assure you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” How many generations have now passed?
The trick is not reducing the word to a historical period. We must let it speak to every historical generation, including our own. After all, the end times happen to us all, not only to each of us in facing our own sundering death, but to all of us together as a generation that will pass into the mist of disappearing ages.
Conceivably, the text is not so much a warning about the end of the world as it is a commentary on living in it. This day, this moment, this life, is the time to bear the fruit. Another year hurtles by. Seize the day.
As our projects and pretenses mount, as our labors and tasks surround us, as our entertainment and doodling while away the time, we may forget the upshot of our lives. It is to love and evoke love, no matter where we may be, from nursing home to classroom. It is to receive with full heart the gift of Christ’s once-and-for-all redemptive act. It is to sing, with the psalmist: “For you are my God, you alone are my joy. Defend me, O Lord.” It is to welcome the opportunity of each moment, each breath.
Since we do not know the hour or the day, let this be the hour, let this be the day, let this be the time that we live and die.
Vince O’Flaherty somehow embodied all this for me. He made this Gospel passage from Mark come alive, as he did for so many texts, for so many people. Cherishing the past, envisioning the future, he was always in the present. Here we celebrate the mystery. This moment we accept the grace of God. Today we laugh and mourn. This place of sorrow we entrust. This instant of laughter we bestow.
In the end, he was a wise man, offering truths not only to others, but entering them himself, as one diving into the depths. Thus, somehow, even in his sorrows he seemed to have a joy that glistened. Even in victories, he seemed to let it all go for something larger to embrace.
As the prophet Daniel chanted:
The wise shall shine brightly
like the splendor of the firmament,
and those who lead the many to justice
shall be like the stars forever.