His Life Dilemma

The many communities that Father Jim Healy served during 35 years as a Catholic priest came together recently at his memorial service. The atmosphere was celebratory—scripture, music, sermon, poetry, and personal recollections all testified to the firm belief that Jim had passed from mortality to eternal happiness.

The texts and speakers laid particular emphasis on a God who is mercy, and how loving care for the most needy of the brothers and sisters becomes the final judgment on our lives. These were themes that Father Healy had stressed and lived throughout his years in ministry.

Mention was made of Healy’s many accomplishments: his 12 years as the beloved and forceful pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Arlington, Virginia; his decision in the early 1980s to become a lawyer in order to help immigrants to the United States; his founding of the Washington Office on Haiti, as an advocacy center for that nation and its people.

The two-and-a-half-hour service fairly flew by as the various communities listened to one another and rejoiced in the tributes offered about this special friend, family member, pastor, brother priest, advocate, and, yes, prophet. The outpouring of affection and celebration reminded me of a much more grandiose funeral held recently in Chicago for Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. The passing of good and dedicated gospel ministers so often evokes such heartfelt tributes. It’s as if the communities they have served are echoing Christ’s words: "Well done, good and faithful servant...."

THIS TOUCHING memorial for Jim Healy should have surprised no one, therefore, except for the fact that he was gay and died with AIDS. Those dimensions of his life lent special poignancy to his funeral and left me, at least, with long thoughts about sexual orientation, mandatory celibacy, and God’s overriding parental love.

In an article for National Catholic Reporter just a month before his death, Father Healy expressed, far better than anyone I’ve read, the agony and ecstasy of the many facets of such a life as his. "I never seriously considered any other vocation," he wrote, "and when I was ordained in 1962, I felt a tremendous sense of fulfillment. But I can say quite candidly that I never personally embraced celibacy as a gift from me to God or a grace from God to me...."

Having stated that, Healy went on to describe his life’s dilemma. He could have left the ministry to find a deep personal relationship but, he says, "that was no answer, because of my sexual orientation." Then in one heartbreaking sentence Jim made his public confession: "In time I made decisions at odds with my vows—some very foolish, unfortunate decisions for which I now pay a terrible price."

So it was that the heavy cross that Father Healy carried, as well as the many remarkable accomplishments of his life, formed the backdrop for the funeral celebration described above. The various Christian communities gathered at that service showed their best side during the long and loving farewell. All were testifying to the remarkable tenet laid out one day by Jesus. Confronting a group of men, sitting in judgment on a woman of the street as she washed the Teacher’s feet with her tears of repentance, he said: "Her many sins have been forgiven because she has loved much."

Jim Healy undoubtedly loved much, and must now find himself in the eternal embrace of God who is mercy. We can all pray that our lives preach the same lesson.

JOE NANGLE, O.F.M., is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C.

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