(This homily was given at the Diocesan Priest Convocation last week, obviously it was written for priests, but if you knew Fr. Tifft or would like to be less judgmental and more accepting you may learn from him as well).
Only, we were to be mindful of the poor,
which is the very thing I was eager to do.
Last evening we began by hearing about some of the legends in our Church. Well, I can think of no man that taught me about the historic Characters of our diocese better than Fr. Tom Tifft.
He had this ability to have you belly laughing over the personality trait of some historical figure, cringing at some scandal that they caused, and at the same time admiring what was redemptive about their character. Of course he would often end an outrageous story by saying “if it isn’t true it should be.”
When describing Bill Jurgens, which was the book that was placed with him in his casket, he said “Jurgens was always going on a diet. he gave the kitchen his diet plan, the tray would come up, he would eat it, and then he would eat the regular meal.” He was fiercely competitive of other historians of the diocese saying once of Callahan’s book that it wasn’t “worth the paper it was written on.” He left us a great legacy in the History of the Diocese Volume I.
Fr. Tifft taught us of the Great Amadeus Rappe who was a magnificent missionary... He was invited by Percell to come to Ohio, only he was disappointed because he thought he was coming to America to minister to the Native Americans. He was a builder, above all, and put our diocese on very solid institutional basis. When he resigns there are 117 priests (from 21), 160 churches (from 43) and 100,000 Catholics from about 10,000. however, many found him to be authoritative, vindictive, and even abusive to his priests... Tifft said the only rights they really could count on were the five bales of hay a month for their hoarse and the right to Christian Burial! In the end Jurgens would describe Rappe as a saint, done in by the Irish priests. E.M. O’Callahan would say “Rappe is a tyrant may he rot in hell!” On his deathbed Rappe would say “I have prayed for my friends, I have prayed for my enemies may God Bless them all.”
Bishop Gilmore, who was a parish priest, begins serving at a number of parishes and becomes the spokesman for catholic schools. He produces a bible history and a series of readers and has a national reputation as a great preacher. When he was installed as a bishop he professed that he was “doubtful about his ability but forced by a sense of duty to accept it with much fear and trembling.” Tifft then quipped “this is standard language, all bishops say this.” Tifft described Gilmoure as having a fiery temperement. Tom would imitate him explaining that he loved a good fight. “I came from fighting stock... I was always a fighter.” At times Gilmore could be blunt, direct, and had a great deal fo confidence in his own ability. He was not a lightweight. Once, he suspended one of his priests who was abusing his parishioners from the pulpit. Apparently this preaching method was very strong at the time, you know it was the: “tell them about the sin and then accuse them of it.” (Tifft then quoted Jack Carlin, who denies it and blames it on Joe Labak, saying “You got to give people hell once a month or they won't feel good about themselves.) There was a great deal of resentment from the priests, one described him saying “Bishop Gilmore is a plague to be endured.” He forbade priestly fraternities, he would probably roll over in his grave if he saw us all gathered here at Sawmill Creek, and expected his priests to be the fiercely independent loner that he was. As I was going through my notes I saw a star that said “Tifft’s favorite letter”. One of the priests, Francis Goetz, was a hypochondriac and felt duty bound in conscience to write to Gilmore every time he had a headache, or flu, or anything. Once he had fallen off his horse, felt stiff, and was convinced he was suffering from the initial stages of paralysis! Gilmore was not a patient man, but surprisingly patient with Goetz, until he finally gets a letter from Goetz that says “I think I’m dying.” Gilmore replies: “My two years of sickness taught me a good deal not found in books... when the time comes strike or brush aside... your statement that you are going to die this year is of this kind. Then my friend for heaven sake die! Die and be done with it!” In the end, Tifft found that he was sensitive to his priests and loved the line that Gilmore once said: “You see what a strange thing religion is and what very strange characters are in the sanctuary at times, yet the good redeems the bad and the work goes on.”
Fr. Tifft, over his lifetime had filled his mind with all of these stories and had this very real sense of the good side by side with the bad, he accepted all of these characters as a church of Saints and Sinners. He also realized that each of us is a mixture of virtue and vice. He had a line that he would often say at lunch after a funny story about some legendary priest or bishop... “Michael, the characters aren’t all dead... take a look around the room!”
Fr. Tifft had this amazing ability to be totally accepting and present to you. After he died I realized the question I would miss the most from him was “Michael, how are you doing?” Because he actually wanted to know about you... he was mindful... he knew my family members by name, my nieces, he asked about my guitar lessons, how things were in the parish... he found out what you were interested in and became genuinely interested himself. Part of it I imagine, was that he was always looking for another story to tell, he was filling his mind with history in the making.
I can’t say I’ve ever heard of anyone that disliked him, even guys that have been asked to leave the seminary by him still greatly esteem and appreciate him... at the same time, I can’t think of anyone whom he ever despised... he seemed to accept people as they are, laugh a little and say with no blame or judgement: “Well, that’s so and so...” I noticed that priests that struggled would often come to him for direction. It was easy to share your difficulties with him because he was so accepting.
I realized over the years that he made everyone feel this acceptance. The way he knew the “Deep Wood” Staff at the seminary is a great example. He would talk to these guys as if they had no disability... for Kenny it was all about baseball, Deepwood Dave would talk about country music, Big Tom... well just how big he really was! He knew not only about them, but he knew and accepted them with all of their weakness and disability. There was always a sense of acceptance... he could have you laughing one moment at your weakness and the next moment affirming your goodness.
What was the quality about him that allowed him to take and receive the good and bad of everyone? I can’t help but think of him as I hear the first reading...
After 14 years away Paul returns to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus, and he reflects on that moment when Peter saw his giftedness and commissioned him to go out and preach the Gospel...and Paul shares what was stressed:
Only, we were to be mindful of the poor,
which is the very thing I was eager to do.
I think that quality that allowed him to be so accepting and genuinely concerned was “mindfulness.”
Paul was eager to be mindful of the poor... and I think Tom Tifft had this quality as well. So, what does it mean to be mindful?
The Dictionar describes it as: Bearing in mind, aware, inclined to be aware, <mindful of the needs of others>
I would sense mindfulness literally means: “to fill your mind with” the person in front of you.
I had lunch with Dr. Trew and his wife a few weeks after the funeral and we reminisced about this quality. At the end of the conversation Andrew said to me: “and now it’s time for you to do that for others.” Really, could I emulate this quality of mindfulness?
Could this really be something that I could do like he did? I suppose like anything virtuous, it can be practiced.
What if during these days of convocation we shared that same “eager mindfulness?” What if we genuinely asked each other “Father, how are you doing?”
We all know what it’s like to have someone talking to you that’s really not interested or maybe even looks past you to see if there’s someone else to talk to. I can’t imagine any of us like that feeling. On the other hand we all know what it is like to be with someone who is generally interested in you, eagerly mindful of you.
We can do this right now, but first our minds must be emptied. We do so in the Eucharistic Prayer “Deliver us Lord, we pray from all evil, graciously grant peace in our days... that we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress.” So we’ve got God’s permission. Place all of your concerns, preoccupations, anxieties on the altar and for the next few days, let God take care of it. Then with our minds at peace we can genuinely fill our minds, be mindful of each other.
The great Michael B. Smith once said to me on my first year live in: The most important thing you can do as a priest is “Be interesting.” Well Michael B. you have that nailed! But I think even more than that the most important thing we can do is “Be interested! ... Be mindful!” Eagerly filling our minds with the priest in front of us, sitting at table next to us, walking down the hall... Be eagerly mindful, find something out about them, it doesn’t even have to be significant, just something to fill your mind with, to give them a place in your mind and a moment of genuine presence. Take an interest in them and fill your mind with what makes their character.
So let us be mindful of each other, and realize as Tom Tifft would say, The characters aren’t all dead, take a look around because theres plenty right here in this room.