Thursday, September 4, 2008

Ad majorem Dei gloriam: Herbert Kuhlke Conner, S.J. 1930-2008

Left: Father Conner, who did not suffer fools gladly.


It is a testament to the great strength of Catholicism, that I have just attended the funeral of a very cantankerous, opinionated, grumpy Jesuit, who infuriated many people. I heard a lot of trash-talk about him, lo, these many years.

And the place was packed.

Catholics don't usually do cult-of-personality stuff with our pastors; a parish priest is assigned by the Diocese. He can't go wherever he chooses, or decide to start his own outfit whenever he gets pissed off. Ironically, the popular, personable priests are quickly promoted to Monsignor and Bishop and are often not around very long. The everyday, journeyman priest who doggedly says Mass day in and day out, is not a star, and usually not very entertaining. He is a given, like a local politician on the city counsel; like the local dentist who has always had the same office in the same building. He is the bringer of sacraments, the dispenser of blessings. Such was Father Conner.

The adjective Jesuitical perfectly described him, as there was nothing you could say, no argument you could give, that he didn't have an answer for. He handled the annulment of my first marriage, and although I have heard (and read online, multiple times) that one is expected to pay for Canon lawyers and such to facilitate the process, he never charged me a red cent. I realize now, this was his politics talking, the Social Gospel in action.

At the time, I argued with him that this bureaucratic Canon Law gobbledygook was even necessary. He narrowed his eyes, as I imagined St Francis Xavier did, in suitably Jesuitical fashion. (At St Mary Magdalene, his parish in Simpsonville, there is a very large, strikingly severe icon of St Francis Xavier. Father Conner once presented a first-class relic[1] of the saint after a quiet evening Mass, which we all venerated. Thus, I now always associate the Society of Jesus [2] co-founder with Father Conner's stubborn, taciturn personality.)

"What do you mean, not necessary? The laws of the world have divorced you, the laws of the Church have not." St Francis Xavier, I thought, couldn't have pronounced any better.

"But he was JEWISH!" I protested. "This is ridiculous! How can the Church say the marriage was valid?"

Eyes narrowed again.

"Are you saying all of the marriages in the world, outside of the Church, are not valid? Of course they are."

Yes, a snappy answer to everything. Damn those Jesuits anyway.


Left: The Glory of St Francis Xavier, by Peter Paul Rubens (1617)

The funeral was impressive, a beautiful procession featuring a gaggle of Diocesan deacons and priests, all bedecked in white and gold, flanking the altar. A Jesuit who knew Father Conner in their days together in Augusta, dedicated his chalice to the parish. Father Conner was a Jesuit for 60 years, entering the Society while still in high school. So young! I wondered, did he ever wish he had chosen differently? (What did he think of modern-day kids who couldn't make up their minds about their vocations, well into their 20s and 30s?) I remembered that he seemed happiest when he was with his little dog, who waited patiently in the vestibule for him during daily Mass. (She would then flop on her back, tail wagging, as we all took turns afterwards rubbing her little tummy.)

At the conclusion, the Diocesan priests gathered in a phalanx around the coffin, all taking turns sprinkling it with holy water. Outside the Church, they parted on the left and right, singing the Dies Irae:

And unexpectedly, I sobbed my heart out.

May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs come to welcome you and take you to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem.


[1] Catholic Relics are divided into 1st, 2nd and 3rd classes. A first-class relic is the bone or hair of the saint; second-class is clothing or an item they used (missal or crucifix, etc); third class is item (usually a medal) touched to the tomb of the saint, or touched to a first-class relic and blessed.

[2] Society of Jesus is the name of the religious order, individual priests in the order are called Jesuits. Full ordination as a Jesuit priest usually takes 12 years, the longest of any order.

[3] The post title, Ad majorem Dei gloriam, is the motto of the Society of Jesus: "For the greater glory of God."


Anonymous said...

That version is like a lullaby, but the lyrics are still so intense. Just beautiful. Totally different than Verdi's, which can scare the living fuck out of you.

And that guy should make a CD.

white rabbit said...

The Dies Irae is a spine tingler - also the Pangae Lingua...

Those guys were good - damn good