Homily for Jerry O’Leary, 2 September 2002
Richard Woods, O.P.
“Where I am, there also shall my servant be.”
Such readings remind us that, as Christians, our lives are not wholly our own to orchestrate and conduct as we will. Our destiny lies in other Hands -- no matter how rough and callused they may seem to us at times, they are great caring hands.
The day before yesterday, many of us witnessed the culminating moment of Dominican dedication, the solemn profession of Brother Jordan Kelly. Today, as we celebrate the funeral liturgy of Jerome O’Leary, we are witnessing not its conclusion, but its transition, its transformation into the mystery of God. Into God’s hands we commend his spirit as we commit his body to the welcoming earth.
In our tradition, we do not eulogize our dead brethren during the liturgy. But I have noticed that our finest preachers have a way of inserting a few remarks of appreciation here and their in their homilies, so I may emulate them both in their custom and their brevity as we reflect on God’s word. For it would take more time than we have now to do justice to Jerry’s achievements and character.
And to his youngest and oldest friends, including his beloved brother Jim, who died in 1999, and his sister Eileen, he was “Jerry,” although he was given the name Patrick at his baptism on August 5th, 1928. in honor of his father, John Patrick, who died of multiple sclerosis when Jerry was only fourteen. To older Dominican confreres, he was Aq, for Aquinas -- the name he was given when he joined the Dominican Order in 1951. His first profession, by the way, was on September 1st, 1952 -- exactly fifty years ago yesterday. He professed his solemn vows three years later to the day, forty-seven years ago yesterday, in this very chapel. To many of us, he was simply “O’Leary,” or even “the O’Leary,” in the Irish fashion, for there was never any confusion about whom we were talking. Or to whom.
Family roots stretched back to Skibbereen, on the coast of Cork. His parents owned a dairy farm in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, which his mother, Margaret, continued to operate for many years after her husband’s death. After high school, Jerry worked for a year as a theater manager in Milwaukee, then went on to Loras College, in Dubuque, where he decided to become a Dominican.
After his novitiate in Winona, and initial studies in this building, Jerry was sent to St. Albert’s College in Oakland for theology in 1955, and was ordained there in the Cathedral of St. Francis in 1957. He had a number of assignments in the years that followed -- in Oklahoma, where he was briefly the chaplain in the State Reformatory for Boys, parish work in Los Angeles and Amarillo, and then he was assigned to be chaplain and head of the Religious Studies department at Trinity High School, just up Division Street, where he served for eight years. During the summers, he taught at the Dominican College in Racine and St. Teresa’s in Winona. In 1968, he went on to Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary for graduate studies in education, where he studied under Henry Nelson Wieman and Margaret Mead, who became a life-long friend.
Towards the end of his stay in New York, he was offered the position as director of the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University Chicago. He thought the telephone call was a joke, and he hung up in a huff. Eventually, he was persuaded to take the job, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. You can read it, by the way, in Nancy Kelly’s doctoral dissertation on Jerry’s career at Loyola, which she completed last year.
He had a number of other jobs after he left Loyola in 1982 -- as executive assistant to the President at St. Thomas University in St, Paul, Minnesota, for five years, and then executive assistant to the President of St. John’s University in Collegeville for three years. After some sabbatical time, he was chaplain to the Benedictine sisters at St. Scholastica’s here in Chicago, then joined the campus ministry team at Rosary College, now Dominican University, was next pastor at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Madison for a year, and then, in 1996, was assigned here to the Priory of St. Thomas.
By then, Jerry was suffering from diabetes and the onset of Parkinson’s Disease, which were accurately diagnosed only in 1999. Together with the high blood pressure which had plagued him from his youth, the diseases took a heavy toll in the next couple of years. But an interesting change came over Jerry during his last years -- a diminishment of his feistier ways and the gradual development of what I came to recognize more as acceptance than resignation. But he never really lost the old spark, which sometimes rose to the level of a conflagration. Once when his blood pressure soared out of control in the hectic days when he was fashioning the Institute of Pastoral Studies into the country’s foremost center for religious education, Jack Moran, Frank Woodruff, Mike Roith, Ray Flaschbart, and some other friends and I kidnapped O’Leary, and hustled him off to Fr. Jerry Egan’s cottage over near Michigan City just to cool him down. We actually threw him into Lake Michigan, but it worked. At least for a while.
I always thought Jerry would die of a stroke. But our lives are not our own, we do not get to choose the manner of our departure. Jerry did not die in the midst of brethren singing him to his rest with the Salve Regina, but in a nursing home, surrounded by medical equipment. Like Job, he suffered the assaults of illness and injury. With Paul, he saw his outer self wasting away, if the bright candle of his spirit continued to twinkle in his eye when friends popped in to see him.
Be at peace, O’Leary… we’ll get to the Salve yet. But you have a few things to teach us first.
He never finished the book on American religious education he worked at for almost a decade. His sister-in-law, Barbara, joked with me recently about his remarks that it was “in the computer.” Bits of it certainly were, but like Job in today’s reading, he really longed to have his words written down, but he lacked the peculiar talent for authorship. It frustrated him, but his gifts lay elsewhere.
They have been variously described, and I am amazed at how his friends and colleagues assessed his contributions to their lives and careers. He had a certain almost magical quality that opened windows and doors where there had only been walls. Having lived with Jerry for about ten years, I probably know too much to give a brief assessment. To me, he was the most successful administrator I ever knew - both in large ways and little ones. But his greatest gift lay in touching people’s hearts as well as their minds. He was a true mentor. Not surprisingly, he was the first to develop the degree of Master of Pastoral Studies and was a little snappish when certain Dominicans began offering the same degree at a certain institution in St. Louis which I will not mention. But he quickly got over that as the MPS degree spread across the country. His mark was lasting.
He also developed a course which he first taught back in the 70s called “Administration as Ministry,” which revealed the bond between the gift and the skill. He lived it. And he never became bitter about his inability to write the book. Like Job, he knew that his vindication lay elsewhere.
St. Paul and Jerry shared a similar faith -- I was particularly struck by the phrase in the second reading, “everything indeed is for you,” his beloved Corinthians, “so that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people may cause the thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God.”
Jerry was a rippler -- like the pebble tossed in a pond that causes bigger and bigger waves to radiate outwards long after the stone has disappeared into the dark depths of the water. Everything was for his beloved students and their students and their students’ students. He sacrificed a possible career as a college president by refusing to return to Columbia to finish his doctoral work, believing that his work at IPS took precedence. He received an award a few years ago for outstanding achievement in religious education, but while he was flattered by the attention, he never mentioned it afterwards.
Like Paul, he, too, was not discouraged, even when his outer self was wasting way. I never heard him complain about his illnesses -- although he was just a tad frustrated, and the telltale signs of incompetence could still spark the old flames of indignation, not because he was offended, but because things should have been done better. I think he knew that there was an eternal weight of glory awaiting him, beyond all comparison. What we see is truly transitory; real glory is unseen.
Be at peace, O’Leary; your work still bears abundant fruit.
Jesus was right, of course. Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth, into pretty good soil preferably, it remains unproductive. But in the earth, the outer shell dies, but the kernel within rises to abundant new life. Something has to die to bring forth new life. Jerry would have been thrilled to know that his great grand nephew, Rowan, was born --a bit prematurely -- on the morning after he died.
Jerry had a prodigious gift for friendship. He was an excellent pianist, he played the saxophone, he loved collies and cut flowers. He spent his life in service of others, following Jesus and Dominic. Clement of Alexandria called Jesus the Pedagogue, the teacher. And that is how Jerry followed him. He followed Dominic as a preacher, being a very good one himself, but also writing homilies for the presidents of three universities. But above all, he was an educator. Still, I ‘m sure he would agree with George Savile who wrote late in the seventeenth century, “Education is what remains when we have forgotten all that we have been taught.”
“Where I am, there also shall my servant be.”
Be at peace, O’Leary. Your life is now hidden with Christ in God.