REMEMBERING FATHER PETER
Well folks…looks like that super busy time of the year is upon us once again. Often the Christmas holiday brings to my mind a particular Christmas in 1979. We bundled up the kids including 2 month old Sara and rode through the chilly night into Ithaca, NY to attend the midnight Mass at the Immaculate Conception Church. Sitting in a back row in case Sara became fussy, we sang carols and listened to the liturgy. Recently a new priest, Peter Clifford, had joined our parish. A tall Irish-American with chestnut hair and blue eyes, he ascended the pulpit to deliver the homily.
He began talking about how most of us celebrate Christ’s birth…..sending Christmas cards, beautifully decorated trees, artfully wrapped presents, lights, glitter, parties, cantatas and plays. Then he began pointing out that in the midst of it all, Jesus, “the reason for the season” is all but lost. He then told a tale about a man who worked in a train trestle roundhouse. When he got a signal that a train was about to cross the river, he started up the mechanical gears that swiveled the train trestle to connect each side of the divide so the train would safely cross over. He had a young son who always wanted to follow him to work, but dad always said no. One day the son followed him anyway. He saw the roundhouse and peered into an open window and was fascinated by the mechanical gears; then, because a train was coming the gears started turning. To get a better look he leaned in further and further, and then fell into the gears. The dad heard his cries but would not stop the trestle, lest all on the train would perish. Father Peter drew particular attention to how those passengers had no idea of the sacrifice of the boy nor his father and continued in their chats, cigar smoking, naps, book reading and thinking about their happy return to home and hearth. He drew an analogy on how this is what happened when Jesus suffered and died on the cross for the sins of mankind. Many never knew/understood the great atoning sacrifice He made….still many today either don’t know or don’t care due to unbelief. The parishoners listened intently, allowing pictures of this grisly allegory to form in our collective minds. As the story grew in intensity we sensed what was coming; our blood pressures rose, stomachs knotted, and the pallor of sadness covered us all. I was shaken out of my snow boots. It was a shocking Christmas message….never heard one like that before. We were all stunned. I was unsettled, disturbed…but the more I thought about it I realized Father Peter was right to shake people out of their comfort zones.
For the next few years I was a Father Peter fan. I was always hoping he would deliver the homily instead of one of the other priests. He talked more about Jesus than any priest I had heard before. He often challenged the parishoners asking, “So you want to be like Jesus do you? Have you stopped gossiping, cheating on your spouse and your taxes, refusing to forgive others, etc?” (maybe not in those exact words, but you get the idea). It was like holding up a mirror for all of us to look into and see the truth about ourselves. Jesus did this too with the self-righteous Pharisees. Father Peter spoke with great passion and conviction which plucked the strings of my heart sending dust flying off in every direction. I was being spiritually reawakened.
One Sunday he announced he was being relocated to a church in the Rochester, NY area. I sat in stunned disbelief. “No! “I cried within myself….”Father Peter can’t be leaving.” Streams of hot tears flowed down my cheeks. Father Peter whom God brought into my life along with others (Jeff Gregory, Christine Palumbo), was a kind of stepping stone in my faith walk, drawing me closer and closer to a deeper commitment to Jesus. I realized later perhaps he came to us for a season and for me personally, to help me along in that process. Other good people of God would come along, and they did, to help me further through their teaching.
I recently tracked him down to the church in Rochester and sent him an email. I shared with him the great spiritual impact he had on my life. I saw on the church website they had links to YouTube videos of some Sunday services. I clicked on a few and fast forwarded to the homilies. In one he asked the folks “Is Jesus King of your life”? In another message he taught we should look at others as our brothers and sisters…look at them with the eyes of God, remembering Jesus loved everyone, women, children, the unlovely, the difficult and to follow His example. Also that our faith must be more than an hour spent in church…we are to be His disciples, communing with Him every waking minute; that we literally “breathe” Him to sustain ourselves. It blessed me immensely to know his deep love for the Lord in his messages has not dimmed one bit in the 39 years since I last heard him speak. Later, on the day I emailed him, he sent a return email with profuse thanks for remembering him, the homily and the effect of his ministry on my life. He was deeply touched and encouraged.
So I close now, remembering Father Peter with great fondness and thanksgiving.The memory of that homily of 1979 will be forever with me. Thank you and God bless you Father Peter.