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Deepening our commitments

Fr. Lou DelFra | Thursday, September 16, 2010

This Tuesday, Fr. Dick Warner, CSC, Director of Campus Ministry for the past 21 years, departed for Rome to become the newly-elected Superior General of the Congregation of Holy Cross worldwide. The Notre Dame community — both the people who live here, and the institutions that thrive here — have been blessed by his wisdom and holiness.

Holiness — being a human vessel of God’s grace and goodness — is always most powerfully experienced personally, so I will begin with the personal.

When I first came to Notre Dame 15 years ago, as a single, male employee of Notre Dame, working as Pastoral Director for the Alliance for Catholic Education, I had to spend no insignificant part of my day’s energies convincing the Holy Cross priests with whom I worked that I myself did NOT want to become a priest! After a couple years of determined resistance, I found myself in a circle of Holy Cross priests being introduced to a bishop by Fr. Dick Warner. “Your eminence,” Fr. Warner began, “this is Fr. Dan Groody, CSC, Fr. Bob Dowd, CSC, and Fr. Joe Carey, CSC. And this is Lou DelFra, ILC.” Everyone looked up at Fr. Warner quizzically. What in the world was an ILC? “An Intimate Lay Collaborator,” he said with just the feint of a smile. A wave of relief washed across my face. Finally, I had convinced Fr. Warner of my non-vocation to the priesthood. Then, he nudged the bishop with his elbow and mumbled, “But not for long.” I entered the seminary later that year.

As I wrestled with my vocational decision over the next few months, Fr. Warner spoke to me from the depth of his personal relationship with God. He told me of the unconditional love of God for each of us. That God invited each of us into a deeper commitment to Him, not as a test to earn his love, but as a way of entering more deeply into that love, which was already ours. That each of us has a vocation to place our lives at the service of others, especially those in need, which, he assured me, is where our truest joy lies. These insights provided me with a great deal of interior freedom and courage, even in the midst of a seemingly restrictive and fearful calling from God. It was a freedom I saw verified in the brimming, joyful freedom with which Fr. Warner lived his vocation. His life witnesses the reality that love — whether in marriage, friendship, or religious commitment — invites an always deepening commitment to the other. Invitation to go deeper — “Come and see,” “Come, follow me” — is perhaps Jesus’ most frequent act in the Gospels. It is certainly a favorite pastime of Fr. Warner’s, as countless Notre Dame students, alums, and staff have experienced personally. Everyone who encounters him is invited to delve deeper in their commitments, especially in their service to the Gospel.

Our Holy Cross community fondly tells and re-tells a story from Fr. Warner’s days as our community Provincial, the “assignment dispenser” in our community. A difficult assignment needed to be filled, and Fr. Warner called a young priest into his office to persuade him. He described the position, and the young priest’s face paled. The priest launched into a 15-minute litany of reasons why he couldn’t — and wouldn’t — do the job. Fr. Warner listened serenely, furrowed his brow, and with his trademark half-consoling, half-mischievous twinkle he gets in his eyes, said, “I think I heard a Yes in there.” The young priest stared back disbelievingly, recounting his tirade and wondering where a Yes could possibly have been gleaned. Two hours later, the young priest left the office with his new assignment. He filled it with great grace and revived a struggling school.

From the day I entered the seminary in 1998 through these first six years of my priesthood, Fr. Warner has been personally present for every significant moment of my religious life. From my first vows in Colorado Springs, to my ordination at Notre Dame, from the night in Dillon Hall when I learned of my father’s death to my grandmother’s funeral in Philadelphia. Fr. Warner knows well the secret that commitments are more readily deepened when done in the companionship of friends.

Forgive these personal stories. I tell them because it is in the personal that another’s holiness is most authentically experienced. The truly amazing reality is — how many others tell the same stories about Fr. Warner. Holy Cross religious worldwide. Members of the Notre Dame family. Fisher Hall residents, where Fr. Warner has lived the past 22 years. Fr. Warner’s own family and friends.

As our Provincial, Fr. Warner guided our Holy Cross community in Chile through the travails of the Pinochet dictatorship as we were stripped of our apostolates. He walked with our Uganda community as they worked in opposition to the cruelties of Idi Amin. He stood in Bangladesh in the midst of civil war when some of our brothers and sisters lost their lives. He has made countless visits to counsel and encourage our communities in India, Kenya, Peru, Ghana, Mexico and Brazil. As the pioneering Chair of Holy Cross’ Solidarity Fund, he has supported myriad projects on behalf of human promotion among the poorest of the world. Most recently, he has committed himself to rebuilding our community in Haiti, especially our 15 Holy Cross schools, destroyed by recent catastrophe, and to creating a new National Teacher-Training Institute there. The people in each of these places could have written a column just like this one.

Thank you, Fr. Warner. You have changed our lives, and invited us to deepen our commitment to the Gospel. We are now walking with you, as you have been called to deepen your own commitment in this extraordinary way.

This week’s article is written by Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, Director of Bible Studies and ACE chaplain. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.