It is an honor to say a few words about Fr. Dan, my friend, coworker and mentor. He and I worked together as part of an S.M.A. team in Maryland for 26 years. We also lived in community together all that time. I was a lay employee and Dan was one of many SMA Fathers, such as Fr. Darcy, along with Lay Missionaries such as Theresa Hicks and Amanda Mijangos who are here today. We all had responsibility for formation and for the Lay Missionary program.
I remember first meeting Fr. Dan thirty years ago, about this time near Christmas, in the SMA house in Dedham, Massachusetts. He was so very welcoming, as well as so funny, that I felt comfortable right away. That is the response a great many people, from all different cultures, had to him over the years. At the main SMA house in Maryland, Dan was the soul of hospitality. He made people feel at home. His impulse was always to include people, never to exclude. He had friends who were theologians, surgeons, mail carriers and cooks. It didn’t matter to him what you did.
One of Dan’s strongest gifts was humor. Theresa said he should do standup comedy to earn money for the Lay Missionary Program, but he never agreed to that. He had a talent for mimicking: He imitated what people said and their accents—it didn’t matter if you were from Liberia, India, Argentina, Ireland, or Boston, he could imitate you very well. Sometimes it got him in trouble if someone took it the wrong way.
His humor was not just accents, but also stories of what he had observed someone do. Especially things that were dumb or embarrassing. These stories were added to his collection to be told to others. I learned some humility from this. Like the time I made pumpkin pie for dessert for the guests, and forgot to put the sugar in. It was like eating a vegetable in a crust. Dan liked to tell people about this.
But he also poked fun at his own quirks. He told the story of the time he was holding a class on meditation. They prayed in silence in a darkened room, with only a candle. He himself fell asleep, softly snoring. The students snickered. Dan woke up and asked, “Are there any questions?”
Another thing he did was quote things he felt were well-said: For example, “No man is a hero to his butler.” This was about the reality of community life where we can’t hide from one another. It was also about the honesty that is necessary on the spiritual path. Deep down, we all have both good and bad inside us. Many of us would like to deny that there is any bad. Yet no one can pretend to be more than they really are. That was the honesty and humility that Dan lived daily, just being himself.
Dan could defend himself or others if he felt someone was judged or under attack. One of the sayings he quoted was, “In a fight, never go down without a fistful of hair.” Yet I found he did not hold a grudge. Very soon he would be back on good terms with you after a dispute. If he said something harsh, he would be sure to say, “We are still friends, aren’t we?” He gave a beautiful example of reconciliation with those he had once opposed.
There is a mystery in other people, even those we live with for decades. To me, Dan was especially mysterious. I learned he always had a reason for what he did, although it could take me years to get some inkling of what it was.
One of Dan’s quirks was that he always looked extremely good, with a beautiful ironed shirt and shined shoes. Eventually I learned that early in life he had been teased for showing up at school without fancy clothes. He said in high school he told his mom he wanted to wear ironed shirts to school, and she said: “If you think I am going to press your shirt every day, you’re nuts!” So, he learned to do it, and to enjoy it. It was kind of a meditative activity for him, which he continued through life.
He was sure to wear his clerical clothes when it was needed, such as for going to a parish or doing a wedding or funeral. Otherwise, he did not. In time I came to understand his reason: He valued the laity, who he said were 99% of the Church, and did not want to separate himself too much from them. He didn’t want people to relate to him in a more distant way. He really believed we were all the same before God. For him this was a key spiritual teaching. There were different vocations in the Church, but all were for the same purpose. This belief was part of the reason he spent much of his life supporting and promoting Lay Mission.
At the same time, he was completely serious about his own priestly vocation. He valued the chance to do ministry in all kinds of settings. Most often it was through informal conversation where he could encourage people to be honest with themselves, others, and God. Most people had a strong sense with Dan, that they could tell him anything. He would not be shocked, and he would not judge them. At the same time, he would encourage them to move toward becoming their real, truer selves.
For him, ministry was also the chance to promote prayer life–especially through the rich history of the church in contemplation. But also, in whatever other form of prayer someone was comfortable with, even if it was not his own first choice. He quoted the saying, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”
He felt the attraction of the contemplative life. Thomas Merton was a major inspiration to him of someone leaving behind the distractions of the world and entering a life of prayer and silence. Once, he spent several months at a Trappist monastery in Oregon. Yet he came back, telling us that a mix of contemplation and action was what he felt called to.
Dan loved to sit at the head of the table and hold forth in a very entertaining way. But by 9:30 he would politely excuse himself and go downstairs to his room. It was time for silence, reading, and prayer. By 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. he was awake again, having coffee under the covers (sometimes spilling it!), and then praying alone in silent meditation until it was time for Mass.
Dan was human. He was tuned to the senses, appreciating Italian food, nature, beautiful women, music, fragrances. Truly Dan was fully alive, and enthusiastic about life.
Dan often signed his letters and cards, “All my love and prayers.”
Surely that would be his message to all of us here today: “All my love and prayers to you.”
We too can say to him: “Our love and prayers go with you, Dan.”
December 28, 2019, Tenafly, NJ