May 2013

Dear Friends of Saint Albert’s,

When I last wrote, the community had just come from Fr. John Flannery’s funeral, and I was packing to join members of the Order of Malta for their annual pilgrimage to Lourdes. I arrived in Lourdes a couple of days early, as I usually do, to help the advance team arrange things, and on Wednesday, May 1, I had helped greet some of the three hundred or so Malta members, maladies, companions, caregivers, and volunteers who were making the pilgrimage. 

We had finished dinner and I had gone to my room, read, turned out the lights and fallen asleep. An hour or so later I was awakened by one of the downstairs receptionists, who told me Fr. Augustine had called with news about Fr. Janko.  Fr. Janko was almost ninety-two years old, and his health had, for some time, been somewhat fragile. A transatlantic phone call could only mean bad news, and Fr. Augustine confirmed my fears. Our brother had fallen, injured his head, and died after a two-day stay in the hospital.

When I was assistant to two of our Provincials, I had occasion to make a number of phone calls to Europe, but this was the first time I had ever called the U.S. from Europe. I don’t know why I thought the experience would be different, but I was astounded at how easily I was able to return Fr. Augustine’s call, contact the travel agent to re-arrange my return flight, call St. Albert’s to give instructions for a larger than usual number for dinner on the night of Fr. Janko’s Vigil, and otherwise organize my life and the lives of others – all from afar. And within thirty minutes or so I was back in bed, and once again asleep.

At this time of year Lourdes is fairly deserted. The Order of Malta changes all that for a week, however, as members bring their sick from all over the world. But for two days I had the place pretty much to myself. Before I left home I put together a list of all the individuals I wanted to pray for. On Tuesday morning, I took the list and made my way to the baths. 

In 1858, when the Blessed Virgin appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, her message was one of penance, although she also told the young woman to “wash” in the nearby spring she directed her to. I am not altogether certain when full immersion in the icy water became one of the attractions of Lourdes, but it is certainly part of the present experience, so I read over my list of special names and offered a prayer just before taking my brief plunge. Fr. Janko’s name was on the list, of course, and although I have not compared the times, I like to think God relieved our brother of his pain and called him home about the time I made my prayer and stepped into the water.

The Order of Malta has three Associations in the United States, and we gathered together for Mass each day. I am no fan of “big” liturgy, so I always look forward to the Mass in the grotto where Mary appeared to Bernadette, a relatively small space. This year the Mass was celebrated by Timothy Dolan, the Cardinal-Archbishop of New York. He spoke of Marian apparitions, including one he was privileged to witness, when he and a companion visited the convent in Paris that had been home to St. Catherine Laboure.

When Mary appeared to St. Catherine, she sat in the sisters’ spiritual director’s chair, and the sisters have since put the chair on display in their chapel. Cardinal Dolan said he and his traveling companion were among those leaving the chapel when a mother asked one of the sisters whether her young daughter, who had Down’s syndrome, might sit in the chair.

The sister said no, but when she left the chapel, the mother told her daughter to run over and take her seat – quickly.  To her surprise, the young girl knelt down instead and placed her head on the chair’s seat. When she came back, her mother asked why she hadn’t sat on the chair. The girl replied, “Because the lady told me to put my head in her lap.”

I’m afraid my own experiences at Lourdes have been far less exalted, but I never fail to find evidence of God’s goodness and creativity in a flavor of ice cream I’ve encountered nowhere else. The world knows my fondness for ice cream, but my taste is fairly narrow. Strawberry is probably my favorite flavor, although I think Ben & Jerry’s “Cherry Garcia” is terrific, and Haagen-Dazs’ rum raisin is hard to beat. The vendors in Lourdes, however, offer a unique flavor: violet.  This year, for some reason, almost everyone in our group walked past me as I was savoring my treat. They say the look on my face was only slightly less than ecstatic, and they were all quite surprised to learn the cause. Many, I believe, followed my example, although I have no idea how many converts I made to the cause of violet ice cream.

I am always on the lookout for something that will make travel easier, so I recently invested a number of accumulated gift cards in one of those electronic devices that download books. I had quite a pile of gift cards, so the salesperson persuaded me to upgrade my choice until I came away with something that probably has the capacity to launch rockets.  Ironically, one book I purchased was too new, and not yet available for download, so I wasn’t able to read it on the endless flights, but the device-maker gave me a number of books for free, so I was able to read a couple of Jack Reacher thrillers. And lest all the physical violence prove too much, the maker also included a free copy of Little Women and Pride and Prejudice.

I arrived home (just) in time for Fr. Janko’s Rosary and Vigil service on Tuesday evening, May 7. Fr. Dominic Briese delivered a masterful eulogy, and Bishop Cummins, who attended the service, related how important Fr. Janko had been in the early days of the Graduate Theological Union. After the service we gathered in the community’s recreation room, where I suffered one of those mishaps that can only beset individuals who spend their lives wearing white. I had just come from a week in Lourdes, where I’d worn my habit in pouring rain, pushing invalids in bulky, wheeled carts, and eating a variety of delicious, but often dangerously-colored, food three times a day. My Dominican habit suffered no more than a small water mark on the back hem – until Tuesday evening, when someone jostled my arm as I poured a glass of port. My Readers can imagine the result! Fortunately, I woke about four-thirty Wednesday morning, so I was able to hop into the laundry room and tidy up before the funeral Mass.

Fr. Michael Dodds preached the homily, recalling an experience many of us remembered from our student days – Fr. Janko’s gentle, smiling presence, always accompanied by his pipe. One or another of his pipes was something of a trademark. My father, himself a former pipe-smoker once observed that pipe-smokers have to devote a great deal of time to their pastime, and we students used to observe this when Fr. Janko smoked as he taught us his enlightening classes in moral philosophy. One quarter, a classmate and I and one other were the only students in Fr. Janko’s class in the virtue of Prudence. The first class lasted the requisite two hours, but then Fr. Janko’s doctor forbade him to smoke his pipe. The second class lasted an hour and a half. Our companion dropped the class after the fourth or fifth meeting – by now the class was down to fifty or so minutes – and the day my classmate couldn’t attend, I believe it lasted no more than half an hour.

Fr. Janko arrived in California by a somewhat circuitous route. He fled Croatia, his homeland, in the aftermath of the Second World War. He went first to Czechoslovakia, and then to England, where he earned a Master’s degree in Philosophy, at Oxford. He then joined the French Dominicans and earned a Doctorate at the University of Paris.

In his homily Fr. Michael asked, "How can a person find a home – or be at home – in so many places? Perhaps only if he’s first found his true home in God. For Janko, I think, finding his home in God meant finding his home in the truth, in Christ, who tells us, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life.' For Janko, this was the truth of the moral order he taught for some many years…."

Those who attend Mass at St. Albert’s will miss seeing Fr. Janko, who always sat in the sanctuary. We who lived with him will miss setting our clocks by his departure from the evening’s recreation. When he got up to leave, we knew we have five minutes to complete our conversations and prepare for the walk to the refectory. And we will miss what we used to call “Janko Days,” the times when the students were away from St. Albert’s, and elder members of the community could turn their hand to preparing the community’s pre-prandial snack for the smaller number of congregants.

After Fr. Janko’s funeral I turned to the melancholy task of emptying his room. On his bookshelves I found a number of photo albums, and in one I discovered a charming picture of Fr. Janko bending over to feed one of the many squirrels that inhabit our yard. I confess to more than a little envy when I saw the squirrel actually taking something from Fr. Janko’s hand.

Readers have begun sending me jokes – or what I, with my literal mind, assume are jokes – about squirrels. One tells the story of a small American town in which a Protestant church, a Catholic parish, and a synagogue found themselves overrun by squirrels. After a year or so, the leaders of the congregations met to learn what each had done to deal with the visitation. 

The Protestant pastor said he and his Council had prayed over their visitors, and they’d become very well-behaved guests, although they were rapidly increasing in number. The priest said he had baptized the furry guests, and they now only showed up at Christmas and Easter. The rabbi said he had circumcised a couple of the squirrels, and they’d all run off, never to return. And if you’d like a recipe for squirrel stew, I can share with you the one a neighbor sent to me.

In my last reflection I described the organ we have commissioned for our chapel. It will arrive tomorrow night – in a hundred thousand pieces – and on Tuesday Paul Fritts, the builder, and his associates will begin the assembly. That will take until Friday, and then Mr. Fritts will begin “voicing” the instrument. If all goes well, our organ will have its voice for the feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate the Church’s receiving its voice, and the commission to proclaim the Good News.

May is a very important month for us, as we witness our students savor the milestone events that mark their passage toward full participation in that preaching ministry. Last Saturday Brs. Justin, Gabriel, and Michael James professed their solemn vows, a step that unites them for life to the Order of Preachers. On May 31, Brs. Justin and Peter will be ordained to the diaconate, and Brs. Ambrose and Dominic David will be ordained to the priesthood.

These are important days for us, but they are equally a tribute to you, our friends. Our Dominican formation is a long, arduous, and costly undertaking. God’s grace and your prayers and support enable us to do what we could not otherwise imagine. 

At the close of his homily for Fr. Janko’s funeral, Fr. Michael asked, "Only if we find Christ, who is the way, will we find our way to the dwelling place he promises. But how can we find Christ unless we become Christ?"

Thank you for believing in us, and for your willingness to help us become Christ for the future. We cannot know what that future will hold, nor how many lives our brothers will touch, but we are deeply grateful for your faith in us, and your willingness to be a part of Western Dominican Province’s ministry to the 21st Century.

Sincerely in Christ,
--Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.

 5890 Birch Court   ~   Oakland, CA   ~   94618-1627  ~   510.596.1800   ~   Western Dominican Province
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