A Jesuit's Last Assignment

by Fr. William McGarry, SJ

Leaf prints by Jason Dy, SJ

Fr. William McGarry, SJ, 86, is a USA Northeast Province Jesuit who has spent a lifetime serving in Micronesia and throughout the Pacific. When his local superior asked him to consider moving to St. Lucas Infirmary, the Jesuit infirmary in the Philippines, he was reluctant and asked for a day to think it through. As he put it, he knew that this would most likely be his last assignment. 

Fr. McGarry wrote a reflection, that was published by The Windhover, the magazine produced by the Philippine Jesuit scholastics. In the reflection, he shares some profound insights on the move and on how, despite diminishment for the aging and aged, Jesuit life is changed but never taken away.

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What am I doing at the St. Lucas Infirmary? To be succinct, Father Minister asked me if I had given any thought to moving into the infirmary and said that superiors were asking this question. I asked for a day to think about it because I was quite conscious of my reluctance which sprung from the realization that this would most likely be my last assignment. I knew that the room to which I would be assigned would be my last room. This would be my last assignment.

Yes, I see it as an assignment. People have sometimes recoiled at my speaking about my own death, but I think we should be realistic. I’m 86. Not something to recoil at, but to face. So, yes, when I told the Minister OK, I was saying that the time has come for me to get ready for death.

Why should death cause reluctance even to those with faith and hope? I love the beauty I’ve seen and heard, tremendous beauty, which I find it hard to say goodbye. That beauty is, for me, summed up in rose-lipped friends and lightfoot lads. Take death lightly? Not my faith. My faith is not facile. I have fears that I may cease to be.

Of course I feel something like fear and shame when I think of encountering the Lord. He can’t be ignorant of my infidelities. Yes, I hope he has forgiven them, but, in the gut, there remains this other aspect of death-reluctance. I believe that The Lord is “God and not a mortal,” but I haven’t really met him yet. I believe in his compassionate forgiveness, but this is belief, not knowledge, much less a knowledge that flows over into the gut. 

Mixed with all this is a certain excitement. Augustine speaks of God as “beauty, ever ancient, ever anew,” and leads me to look forward to gazing at and possessing unalloyed beauty, the one who really sums up all the beauty I see and hear and feel. For this reason, my attitude toward death has changed, and I now see it as the passage to a new sort of life.

What hinders a whole-hearted desire for death is the fact that the things we see are indeed beautiful and we don’t want to leave them. No wonder there’s reluctance to moving to Lucas if death is seen as the loss of the beauty we prize. Thank God there is the expectation, the longing, the excitement in the belief that there is no real farewell to beauty in death. It only seems that way.

During my philosophy studies at St. Louis University, they tried to teach us wisdom. I suppose most people “paint (their) outward walls so costly gay.” Some things take long to learn. What you are is more important than what you do. We are all more valuable than what we do. But this is hard to learn. Diminishment has its painful moments, but it is also a great gift, a great teacher. Diminishment leads us to look for this beauty not just in the flashes of what is produced, but in the producer. Then we learn not to paint the outward walls so much as the inner rooms.

Jesuit life is changed, not taken away.

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