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True Jesuit

The Spirit blows where He will
A remembrance of Fr. John Hardon

Thousands say goodbye to Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

by Jay McNally


DETROIT - They came by the thousands to say goodbye, to bid their final, usually tearful, farewell to Fr. John Hardon, the Jesuit priest, theologian, author and, for many, the closest thing they had known to a "living saint."

Young and old they came, for the last few months, from all over the United States, from Rome, from too many countries to count. Rich, poor, scholars and professors, as well as some barely educated, marginally employed and unemployed. Most were Catholics, many converts to the Faith. There were countless priests and nuns.

Those who knew the 86-year-old theologian best came first to his quarters at St. Joseph's Home in Detroit, where for nearly two years he fought a heroic battle against cancer, blindness, a failing heart and assorted other ailments to maintain his rigorous teaching and writing schedule.

Surrounded by friends, Fr. Hardon breathed his inevitable last breath Saturday. Dec. 30. Three days later, in Assumption Grotto Church in Detroit, crowds began lining up for two days to pass his coffin. Many placed religious articles – rosaries, holy cards, bibles and prayer books – briefly across his white-robed body, as if in an effort to have some of the revered priest's saintliness rub off on them. Some sobbed in mourning. In the back of (the large) church, others discussed the heroics of Fr. Hardon and their own experiences involving him.

"There was a steady strewn of people all day long, and the Masses (three on each of the two days) were usually crowded," explained parish assistant secretary Phyllis Bausano. "At night the crowds were quite large."

Then, on Jan 4, they jammed Gesu Church, across the street from the University of Detroit Mercy, to celebrate the Mass of Christian Burial, where Detroit Jesuit Provincial Fr. Paul Libens, S.J., presided over the liturgy. He was joined on the altar by Fr. Hardon's classmate, Fr. Walter Farrell, and three bishops. Forty-three priests concelebrated the Mass.

"I think pretty much all the (religious) orders are represented here," noted Fr. Libens in his homily. "The fact that so many of you are here speaks of your love for Fr. Hardon and of his for you," he told the congregation. He praised Fr. Hardon for his dedication as an evangelist, a catechist, an author and speaker, whose love for religious life and personal care touched many religious orders around the country.

Fr. Dudley Day, who drove over icy roads from Chicago to concelebrate the funeral Mass, worked with Fr. Hardon in the Institute on Religious Life. "When we gave retreats, Fr. Hardon would also hear all the confessions and say the Masses. He always kept himself open for everybody. We'd be up until 1:30 in the morning," he said.

Hundreds flew in for the funeral, including Brother Ryan Orlosky, formerly of Redford, who attributes to Fr. Hardon his call to the priesthood. Orlosky, 31, is a member of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy (the Mercedarians, founded in 1218) and a seminarian in Philadelphia. His testimony is typical of dozens of men and women religious at the funeral.

"He was a spiritual giant for me," Br. Orlosky explained. "It was the way he lived his life that was an example for me. It gave me the strength to follow my calling." Orlosky had recently graduated with a degree in computers when he first met Fr. Hardon in 1994 and helped him design Catholic Faith magazine, which is published by Ignatius Press.

Fr. Edward Fride, pastor of Ann Arbor's Christ the King Parish, joined mourners at Grotto the day before Fr. Hardon's funeral and concelebrated the funeral Mass. Although he met Fr. Hardon only several years ago in Ann Arbor, Fr. Fride was well acquainted with his writings, especially his most famous book that sold more than a million copies.

“Fr. Hardon really saved my life,” Fr. Fride said. “When I was in graduate school taking theology I had to deal with some of the confused post-conciliar theology and, in attempting to discern what the Church really taught about a host of fundamental issues, I was given a copy of The Catholic Catechism. Its lucid explanations were a godsend."

A priest for 53 years, Fr. Hardon served many years on special assignments for the Vatican. It was through the Vatican that he came to know Mother Teresa of Calcutta and for 27 years served as her spiritual advisor. He was the only concelebrant of her public funeral Mass who was not a cardinal, and he was both celebrant and homilist for her private funeral Mass with the Missionaries of Charity.

According to Daniel Burns, who accompanied Fr. Hardon on six trips abroad over the last eight years, including a five-week visit to Calcutta three years ago and Mother Teresa's funeral two years ago, Fr. Hardon never took vacations, having vowed decades ago that he would not waste time. "If there was something he did for pleasure, I would say it would be that he loved good conversation. He loved to discuss ideas, history and good books,” Burns said, “and he had a great sense of humor. Everyone has great stories about this.”

It was at Assumption Grotto, where Fr. Hardon maintained an office and conducted classes in theology for several years, that many from Detroit came to know him well. Before and after his Sunday afternoon lectures, which usually filled the classroom with more than 100 students, he was always besieged with queries by those seeking his counsel. He was confessor and spiritual advisor to untold numbers.

Assumption Grotto's pastor, Fr. Eduard Perrone, describes one of the remarkable things about Fr. Hardon: "I never knew that he said no to any request for his help, whether it was to give personal guidance or counsel or an opinion on some book or some project, or to hear a confession, even to say Mass for a particular petition. He always found time and would be ready to drop whatever he was working on to meet a personal need. What is extraordinary is the great volume of work that he produced with untold interruptions for personal needs. He was prodigious to the point that one would have thought there were two Fr. Hardons."

Fr. Hardon was not satisfied with his amazing accomplishments, Fr. Libens, head of the Detroit Jesuits, said. “I spoke with him Dec. 22 and he said, ‘There's so much work to be done.’”

Although concerned as his Jesuit superior that Fr. Hardon's heavy work schedule was exacting a toll on his health, Fr. Libens said, he "finally gave up" urging the dedicated priest to cut back. "Holy people are not the most docile people," he said. Fr. Hardon's prolific writing was part of his vast desire to evangelize, Fr. Libens said. "He preached wherever he could. In this dedication he imitated St. Ignatius; that was one of the injunctions he gave to his sons."

Local news editor Kate Ernsting contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2003 by Credo

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