God’s Marine, and a Gallant Fool
I remember distinctly one particular Christmas evening from late childhood. Supper was done and the chairs pushed back and maybe a glass or two of wine had been drunk, and my Old Time Catholic family that had devoted five generations of service to the Jesuit parish of Saint Ann’s on Old Time Catholic Buffalo’s East Side was arguing around the dinner table about why no one went to church anymore. After several back-and-forths my Uncle Paul slammed his open hand, probably harder than he meant to, and put the issue to bed:
“It’s not like when we were kids. Back then, in the old neighborhood, there were so many priests, they were everywhere. They’d walk the streets and come visit and play basketball and you saw them all the time. They were young back then. Now you never see a priest anymore, not unless somebody died. It’s not like it was.”
The last young fun Jesuit priest died on Sunday. Father John Naus, SJ was 89.
The cover photo of this blog is dated 1995, the year I started at Marquette University and met Fr. Naus, and thus it perfectly captures my memory of him in one image. He was over 70 by then, but thick and vibrant, a heavy falling into his chair behind the altar (and a quick nap if he could get away with it) the only accommodation to age at that point. He was kind and open and ready with a laugh and made you feel like the most important person he was going to talk to all day (a tip for life he was quick to share).
It may be no surprise, then, that he was also immensely popular with students of all persuasions and religious (or non-) backgrounds, an almost anachronistic sentiment in an ironic and secularized and post-sex-scandal society. Marquette was and is no insulated bible-thumping gated community, and so it was not deference or religious fervor that drove devotion but rather his geniality and service. There has never been a more earnest clown.
Yes, he was a clown, an incongruity that will provide a clever tag for memorial headlines. Fortunately the local Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel demurred. Writing an obituary is its own kind of art, proven again by Jan Uebelherr. There you will find a better summary than I can ever provide, but consider this: he contracted polio when he was 20, in 1944, and while his classmates were landing on Iwo Jima, he instead joined God’s Marines, as the dogged Jesuits are sometimes known.
I knew Fr. Naus best from mass at the Joan of Arc Chapel, held every Tuesday night at ten o’clock. As a grown man I can imagine better things to do at that hour on that day, and I’m sure Fr. Naus imagined at least a few as well, but there he was, reliably, for my four years. I didn’t want mass, exactly. I wanted a break from the week by Tuesday evening, some solace and peace, and the Joan of Arc chapel – a 15th century relic transported to Marquette and painstakingly rebuilt in the 1960′s – provided refuge. Before slow food this was slow everything; I was unplugged before I had a phone to turn off. The acoustic music gave me pause and Fr. Naus’ sermons were the furthest thing from. If all religion were those Tuesday nights….
In the years since I came to know Fr. Naus as everyone else did, as one of the recipients of his thousands of Christmas cards. He sent them all year long, as far as I could tell, and I was never sure for what year I received them. I got one this July too, and since my wife baked him an apple pie eighteen years ago, when she was a new student too, he wrote a note thanking her for it, as he has every year since.
He was a humble showman ultimately fleeing any spotlight that found him. He was a complicated man with a deceptively simple message and smile. He labored in the fields until the day he died. Rest now.