By Fr. George Welzbacher
December 16, 2012
Last week I referred on this page to the dismal showing of so many of the priests of my generation (the 1950's) and of the following two decades with respect to providing a reasoned defense of the Church's judgment on contraception, correctly perceived as a grave disorder in the use of the faculty that engenders human life. Too many of the priests in those age cohorts simply "jumped ship" when it came to offering support for the Church's teaching; many even went so far as to repudiate the teaching, whereas with rare exceptions those priests ordained in earlier decades stood courageously with Christ's Church on this as on all other tenets of the Catholic faith. I also noted last week that a distinct "climate change" began to show itself in the 1980's, in the early years of the reign of Pope John Paul the Great, a shift that intensified with each successive year. I am speaking about the incremental return to orthodoxy on the part of so many seminarians and younger priests. By and large the "John Paul" priests have shown little hesitation in teaching gently but firmly the full doctrine of the Catholic Church, without temporizing, while the typically aging rebel priests either have left the priesthood or are finding themselves today in a visibly eroding minority within the ranks of the archdiocesan clergy.
In illustration of the kind of across-the-board witness to the truth offered by the priests ordained in the era of World War II, not to mention those ordained in earlier generations, one need look no further than to the life of Monsignor James Lavin, who died this past September 17th at the age of 93. At Monsignor Lavin's funeral Mass Father James Stromberg, for many years Monsignor's colleague at the University of St. Thomas, offered a moving tribute to a priest's priest, whose response to Christ and to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through Christ's Church was a lifelong consistent "Yes!" - not "Yes to what I like but No to what I don't'' but a humble "Yes!", period, and a "Yes!" offered gladly - libenter.
May I share with you here Father Stromberg's recollections of a great priest of this archdiocese, a man whose example inspired incalculable thousands over the course of many decades.
* * * * *Monsignor James Lavin (1918-2012):
A Priest Who Said "Yes' to Christ and His Church
Father James Stromberg
"We know that when the earthly tent in which we dwell is destroyed, we have a dwelling provided for by God, a dwelling in the heavens, not made by human hands but to last forever." (II Cor. 5:1)
My dear friends in Christ:
In mid-August of 1945, Deacon James Martin Lavin and his classmates at the St. Paul Seminary were on a retreat, preparing themselves for their ordination to the priesthood. The sound of the bells of the city's churches broke the silence of the retreat. At last, victory! World War II was over. A few days later, on August 18, Archbishop John Gregory Murray ordained him a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul. He and all his classmates in the course of that ceremony were asked to promise obedience to the Archbishop and to his successors. Their Latin response was "libenter." What they said was "willingly, "freely." It could even have been translated as "gladly." James was assigned to the St. Paul Cathedral, where he would live out the first year of his priesthood.
In 1946 the Archbishop appointed him a member of the faculty of the then College of St. Thomas. That is what Archbishops did in those days. St. Thomas was clearly an archdiocesan institution. And there were no forebodings of any change in that state of affairs. Father Lavin was to be a teacher in the religion department, a department that would in later years bear another name. But in addition to his duties at St. Thomas, the Archbishop had some other things in mind. Father Lavin was to be chaplain at the Provincial House of the Sisters of St. Joseph. And one more thing. "Father Lavin," Archbishop Murray said to him, "Mother Antonia will ask you to teach a religion class at the College of St. Catherine. And you will say, 'Yes."' And of course, he did. "Yes" was the word that would mark his priesthood for all of sixty-seven-plus years.
His life began even as his priesthood did - when the guns of war fell silent. He was born in Aurora, Minnesota, just a day after the armistice that ended World War I. It was November 12, 1918. A long time ago. If his birth was an occasion of joy for the family, the time was nonetheless a tragic one. His twin sister died shortly after birth. Five days later, his mother died, an influenza victim. The flu epidemic brought with it the harsh rule that burial must take place within twenty-four hours. Another cause of sadness. Besides that, James and his twin sister were born prematurely. With a big smile, he remarked that that was the only time in his life that he was early for anything.
St. Thomas students - like students everywhere - had the habit of tagging staff with nicknames. The legendary Fr. Vashro was "crash Vash." James Shannon was "Fr. Sunshine." And with good reason, they called James Lavin "Scooter" - a name memorialized still in a campus eatery in the new Anderson Student Center. He was frequently late and often in a hurry. But there was more than that behind the name; there was affection in it. Students sensed that this man was very much the priest, a good priest on a mission with their good in mind. He was at their service.
His father married again - one Mary O'Brien, a woman who cared for him, and, as you would expect, whom he cherished and cared for in turn. His father's remarriage meant that he would one day have a half-brother and he would inherit a couple of aunts, his stepmother's sisters.
We would hear a lot about those aunts at the priests' table in Murray Hall. One of them, a good woman, was a bit on the ornery side, but James Lavin nonetheless dutifully and affectionately saw to her needs until her death.
James' father had a position with a company with connections to the construction business, and that meant that the family moved with some frequency. Aurora, Hibbing, Minnesota; Jefferson City, Missouri; Cincinnati, Ohio; a town in Wyoming; somewhere in Indiana. He attended some seven different grade schools. As a result he must have set some sort of record for the St. Paul Seminary: he needed a goodly number of dimissorial letters from the various bishops in whose dioceses he had lived.
He contracted polio while in grade school. That meant special shoes and special exercises throughout his life and had a great deal to do with his love of hiking, mountain climbing, and pitching tents in state and national parks. And polio meant, too, that he would spend some time at the Dowling School for Children in Minneapolis. This was the occasion of what may have been the most significant "purple patch" in his life. He wasn't quite ten years old. He was summoned to the principal's office. The charge was gambling while on the school bus. He had managed to squirrel away some twenty-five cents of his milk money. And with it he bet another student on the election results of 1928. Al Smith lost. James lost his quarter. Not an insignificant sum to a young boy in 1928. Back then a quarter bought a lot of things.
After graduating from De LaSalle in Minneapolis he began his long relationship with the College of St. Thomas. His freshman year was 1936 - a year of dust storms, heat waves, a country still in Depression. His major was English with minors in Latin and history. It was as an English major that he met the priest who was one day to become president of the College, Fr. Vincent J. Flynn. James Lavin had taken a course in paleography. And he brought the skills he acquired in that course to bear on some documents from Tudor times, documents that were to play a part in Vincent Flynn's doctoral dissertation on William Lily, a figure in sixteenth-century Tudor England. Fr. Flynn had seen the scholar in the undergraduate James, and so when he came to the college as a priest, there were plans to send him off at some point to get his doctorate in English literature and then to take a post in the college's English department. That, however, was not to be. Fr. Flynn died in the summer of 1956, and somehow, what had been planned never came to pass. He did do theological studies with the Dominicans in River Forest, and as well, did graduate work that led to a degree in counseling, something that would serve him well in his role as academic counselor.
Some of us at St. Thomas, especially during the early Shannon years, had, as junior clergy, the duty of serving as floor deans in the student dormitories. We were under the leadership of the Office of the Dean of Discipline, the much feared Father Vashro, One of the aims, under the Shannon regime, was to bring some order to the student boarder life, and especially, to see to it that bad drinking habits would not begin too early in their lives. We, the floor deans, were the disciplinarians, ready with the Board of Discipline to mete out punishment that would make plain that we meant business. But there was Fr. Lavin, always ready to plead the malefactor's case to us and to the Board of Discipline if matters got that far. And it is said that when Christmas and Easter vacations were over and students were returning from Chicago or wherever, James Lavin could be found at the train depot with lots of hot coffee to prepare them for their encounter with the disciplinarians. If we were justice, he was mercy. Good priests are always on that mission. He had the more important job.
In his classroom years he had the good fortune of teaching what he dearly loved - in theory and in practice: the Mass and the Sacraments. As a priest, of course, he could act in persona Christi, anointing the sick, absolving from sin, and bringing to students and all God's little ones the Mass, the sacrifice offered by Jesus Christ, the. supreme act of mercy from which all the works of mercy - spiritual and corporal - must flow. That, of course, was done in addition to all the other duties of a college chaplain in charge of all matters liturgical on campus.
There is scarcely anyone with a connection to St. Thomas and even beyond who has not heard of his willingness to live for decades among the students in Ireland Hall. Most of the priests of the house looked eagerly to the day when such living arrangements were no longer necessary - not out of contempt for students but because of fatigue. But Fr. Lavin remained - counselor, confessor, confidant. And, yes, with the now legendary peanut butter and jelly sandwiches served on Thursday and Sunday nights - Lavinburgers and prayer. The available priest always on the ready to give aid and comfort to undergraduate innards and undergraduate souls.
In the later years of his many years at St. Thomas, now a university, he was, as mentioned earlier, student academic counselor. Again, the source of sound academic counsel, and when the opportunity presented itself, source of the other kind as well. And always the priest.
And he was very much the priest not just to students but to everyone with whom he came in touch. The clergy, especially those his junior - there he was ready with the Sacrament of Penance, ready with good advice and encouragement, never too busy to talk, and always a model priest.
And then there was the man about to be released from a prison in Lafayette, Louisiana. A phone call set up the place where the freed prisoner was to pick up some cash. Then a trip to Snyder's Drug where the money order would be purchased and several hundred dollars would be sent on its way to a newly released prisoner. The freed man would have gotten Fr. Lavin's name from an earlier freed prisoner who left it with someone still behind bars. Fr. Lavin was about to inherit another prisoner in need. Mind you, he never met these men.
There are, I am sure, many stories yet untold about the good deeds done by this good man, this devoted priest. There is one that may be unknown to many of you here this morning, and it is typical of James Lavin. It especially showed great and Christian sensitivities. There was an elderly gentleman named Bill Farley who had worked for the college over the years. There came a day when retirement was in order. He was given a tiny room in Ireland hall in exchange for just a few simple chores. But there came the day when he needed the care that a nursing home could provide. He was without anyone. Pretty much alone in the world. James Lavin would check him out of his nursing home early on a Saturday afternoon and take him to a piano bar on University Avenue. There Bill would enjoy a beer or two while he watched a nice-looking lady play the piano. He could only watch because he was nearly stone deaf. Meanwhile, Fr. Lavin could be found in a quiet corner of the bar with just enough light to read his breviary. After returning Bill to the home he would be off to help with confessions in one of the local parishes.
Yes, James Lavin's life was a series of good deeds and it was always as a priest, an emissary of God's mercy. A quick temper at times, peppery - but it never lasted long. And it was followed by quick apologies. And when the duties of the classroom and academic counseling were no more, he took on a new work of mercy. You do remember that one of those works is burying the dead - which includes a lot more than just being shovel-ready. Fr. Lavin was St. Thomas' presence at the wakes and funerals of countless alumni and alumnae and their families. There was not a mortician in the Twin Cities and its suburbs and in the near countryside unfamiliar with Fr. Lavin. He heard the hymns "How Great Thou Art" and "On Eagles Wings" many more times than any priest in the Archdiocese. His record will stand. And then, too, there was not a grieving widow or widower with connections to St. Thomas that went without his caring letters of condolence.
My dear friends, if in the greater part of the twentieth century and on into the present century St. Thomas had a Catholic face, it was largely that of James Martin Lavin. If he was generous with his things and himself - and he was - in some years that were very difficult for the Church, he was a model of loyalty and fidelity. One always knew where he stood: with the successors of Peter and the Twelve. He knew that the Church he loved could never be separated from the Lord he loved.
And now for the last time his body is present for the Mass, the sacrifice of Calvary within its sacramental veils. It took a bit of doing to get him to choose the readings for this Mass. He chose the first from the Acts of the Apostles. An upright Roman centurion, Cornelius, prompted by a vision, invites Peter to his home. Peter responds, and Cornelius acknowledges his kindness in doing so. We heard Peter's words to the household of Cornelius in the passage read this morning: "I begin to see how true it is that God shows no partiality. Rather, the man of any nation who fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to Him." (Acts 10: 34-35) The good news of peace of Jesus Christ of Nazareth is for all. "God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and power." He was busy going about doing good works. But He was slain by some of His own people by being hanged from a tree. But God has raised Him from the dead. Sin and death done in. With Peter, James Lavin witnessed to the demise of sin and death.
And then, my dear friends in Christ, those lovely lines from St. Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians. You might have expected a camper and mountain climber to have been drawn to the figure used by St. Paul: "We knew that when the earthly tent in which we dwell is destroyed we have a dwelling provided for as by God, a dwelling place in the heavens, not made by hands but to last forever." (II Cor. 5:1)
"Therefore," says St. Paul, "we continue to be confident." (II Cor. 5:6) We, like Msgr. James Lavin "...walk by faith." The Christian difference. But what is the Christian difference upon which our faith bears? Pope Benedict XVI recently put it this way: "Christians-we have a future." Our flesh will decay. Like the best tent that Gander Mountain can sell us it will ultimately decay. But God has raised His Son and we too will have-not a tent, but a building, not of our manufactured building that will last forever. That is what James Lavin preached, what every priest of God must preach, and to which all the Christian faithful must give witness. .
And the Gospel he chose for today makes plain that God has revealed this to "the merest children." His children. "Amen I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven." (Matt. 18:3) It is the humble that shall be exalted to the vision of God's face in the glories of the resurrection.
James Lavin preached and celebrated what is the Christian future. And among his many good works were his many prayers for the dead, that they may be helped on their way to the vision of God. It would be ungrateful on our part if we did not pray for him, if need there be-pray for him as he climbs the mountain of the Lord to the gate of that building that will last forever.
"Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord?
Who shall stand in His holy place?
Who desires not worthless things...
He shall receive blessings from the Lord...
Such are the men who seek Him,
Seek the face of the God of Jacob." (Ps. 24)-the God of our James.
Do show him Your face, O Lord, and let him hear the sound of Your voice. For Your voice is sweet and Your face is beautiful. Say "yes" to him who has said "yes" to You, "yes" to the good news, "yes" to Your church.
Father James Stromberg, PhD., was a colleague of Monsignor Lavin at the University of St. Thomas. Father Stromberg taught philosophy from 1956 to 2002 and for many years was Department Chairman. He is Professor of Philosophy emeritus and lives at the Leo C Byrne Residence for retired priests in St. Paul.
During the years when Father Leo Dolan was pastor here at St. John's Father Stromberg was the weekend assistant. For many years, continuing to the present day, he assists the pastor of Holy Family Parish in St. Louis Park, currently Father Joseph Johnson. For some 17 years Father Johnson's predecessor was Father Thomas Dufner, whose parents and whose aunt and uncle attend daily Mass here at St. John's. His aunt and uncle, Jim and Marie Humphrey are St. John's parishioners. Father Dufner is now the pastor at Epiphany Parish in Coon Rapids, the largest parish in the archdiocese.
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