BY TONI CASHNELLI
This weekend, for perhaps the 30th time this year, Fr. Paul Walsman will preach at a parish that is not his own. Often flying, sometimes driving to his destination, he always delivers the same message: We need to feed the poor.
Like Francis of Assisi, he begs for basic necessities – and speaks for those who have no voice.
For 10 years Paul has been preaching for Food for the Poor, a Christian organization that provides food, medicine, shelter and more to the poor in Latin America and the Caribbean. According to supervisors, he is one of their best speakers – and one of their oldest. “Fr. Paul is a blessing to Food for the Poor and to so many others,” says Joan Vidal, Ecclesial Relations & Speakers Bureau Manager for the nonprofit agency based in Coconut Creek, Fla. “We just love him.”
Nearly 91, Paul is doing what he calls “the most life-giving thing I’ve ever done in all my ministries.”
As one of 40 Catholic priests and eight deacons who are part of the program, “I do at least two trips a month, more often three,” from his home base in Albuquerque, N.M. “One weekend I might be in Los Angeles, the next in the Bronx. I’ve been to the Dakotas and South Texas, practically every state in the union except Maine. They have me listed as ‘bilingual,’ which I’m not. I can read Spanish fairly well so I do Masses in Spanish.”
Above, Paul Walsman (in blue shirt) with other clergy at Little Children of Jesus Orphanage for Disabled Children, Port-au-Prince; left: “The habit makes my message more accepted.”At each parish, “I do the regular homily time at Mass.” He accepts donations if people are so inclined – and they are usually inclined to give thousands of dollars. “I think part of my so-called ‘success’ is that I am a Franciscan,” Paul says. “I wear my habit and for some reason it makes my message more accepted and realistic.”
Using the day’s readings, he explains the mission of Food for the Poor: “Ending hunger, alleviating suffering and giving hope to the hopeless. We feed hundreds of thousands of people every day. We build 4,500 houses a year to get people out of dumps. We provide jobs, training young people to get them out of the cycle of poverty they’re born into. We have doctors who give their time and do restorative surgery for people born with defects, hundreds of surgeries every year. We establish small businesses so people can earn a living and have the dignity of earning their way and supporting their family.”
He speaks both Saturday and Sunday. “Sometimes there are two Masses on a Saturday and five or six on a Sunday. I’ve had as many as seven. Some places I’m in church from 6:30 in the morning until 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” or until his artificial knees give out.
“Sometimes I allude to my age,” he admits. “I say to some, ‘I’m the oldest person here, and if I can do it, so can you.’ We focus on a Gospel message [such as]: ‘Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Now with the Year of Mercy, we are focusing on that.” In each talk, “I use the experiences I’ve had” in visits to Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Jamaica, El Salvador and Haiti. “Food for the Poor is very insistent that we speakers have hands-on experience to share.”
Gaining that experience has changed his life. “I have to say I was squeamish about getting into these poverty situations.” A former hospital chaplain, Paul saw his share of blood and pain. “But when you see such dire poverty it’s something else. We are so unexposed to it in our own lifestyles, in our own country, in our own province.”
In the past decade, “I’ve dished out rice in Kingston. I’ve been in villages where we walked through mud and rats to get to the people. I’ve danced with old people who were rescued from death and given new life. I’ve held starving children and consoled mothers sitting at the death beds of their children. At a garbage dump in Managua [Nicaragua], I talked to a man who comes there daily to find food for children.”
During a visit to Haiti in June, “Fr. Paul’s strong love Right, Paul with one of the children at the orphanage; below, Paul (in tan hat) with other clergy speakers visiting the Food for the Poor Distribution Center in Port-au-Prince.for the poor and personal spirituality was VERY influential with the other clergy speakers on the trip, including me,” says Deacon Dale Avery, Director of the Speakers Department for Food for the Poor. “During our evening reflections each day, he spoke about how he saw some of the day’s interactions with the poor and how he would present it to a parish. His moving comments gave us all new insights.”
As a Friar Minor, “It’s an inspiring thing for me to be at least somehow involved with real poverty, the poorest of the poor,” Paul says. “Jesus loved the poor, and Francis loved the poor. It’s bound to have an impact on me as a Franciscan.”
At this stage of his life, “This has been a real gift. It has given me a greater love of the poor and the poor Christ. When I think of the poverty of Jesus as a human being and the poverty with us on earth, it melts my heart.”
Unfortunately in America, “Power and prestige and profit and possessions still rule. I don’t know where we went wrong. We idealize the millionaires instead of the beautiful people who volunteer their skills and means to benefit others. There’s too much greed, not enough caring about our brothers and sisters.”
Click to learn moreWhen Paul speaks at parishes, “I emphasize the relationship, we’re all in this together, this human race. I emphasize the benefits of giving. I use myself as an example. I am able and healthy and strong to do this, not because I sit back and get, get, get from others, but because I go out and give, give, give. I tell them, ‘Take the selfish approach: Give because it’s good for you. There are endorphins in your brain that will be released and you will profit from it. You will be happier.’”
To further inspire donors, “I assure them this is their ticket to heaven. I’ll say, ‘When you get there, that’s all the Lord’s gonna ask you about: I was hungry and you fed me. Come on in.’”
At Joe Rigali’s visitation: Lawrence Renaud and
Stephanie Gartrell.PHOTO BY TONI CASHNELLIBY TONI CASHNELLI
The sitting room at Little Sisters overflowed with friends who were there for Joe. That’s because Joe was always there for them.
“He always had time to talk to people, always had that bright smile” was how one woman described the relationship retirees had with fellow resident FR. Joe Rigali at St. Paul’s Archbishop Leibold Home in Cincinnati. At the reception preceding Joe’s funeral on Dec. 5, it wasn’t his assignments they talked about. It was the connections he made along the way.
“Fr. Joe was good to everybody,” said Bonita Greene, a resident who met Joe 40 years ago when he came here to visit his mother, Anna. “All he had to do was hear you had a problem, and he would talk you through it.” Admittedly, his appeal was more than spiritual. “I always asked him why he became a priest, because he was too handsome to become a priest.”
If this was a cross, Joe never complained. “He never seemed to complain about anything,” said Lawrence Renaud, a student at Thomas More College when Joe was in campus ministry. “Even when he was dealt a bad hand” – like news of terminal cancer – “he knew how to say something positive. He made lemonade out of lemons.”
Fr. Tom Speier remembered Joe “sacrificing himself. He tried to retire four or five times. Every time he wanted to retire he would take another job nobody wanted,” like helping to rebuild St. Mary of the Angels Parish in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the death of beloved pastor Bart Pax.
It was Lawrence, a loyal visitor, who recently asked Joe, “You got any photo albums?”, then photographed 173 snapshots to create a slide show for the funeral. “I will miss his smile, his laughter, his friendship,” said Lawrence, one of many who struggled to keep their emotions in check.
Above, Joe Rigali revisiting the New Orleans school flooded after Hurricane Katrina; left, young Joe “Lucius” RigaliJoe Rigali, right, with friar Basil Westendick and Archbishop Joseph Bernardin.Eyes red from tears, Stephanie Gartrell described the past year as Joe’s caregiver. Until the end, “He was always active, ready for anything we had planned. He was just a good, humble man, no different than anybody else.”
Little Sisters like Mary Imelda, the supervisor on Joe’s floor, knew him better than most. “One thing you should write,” she said, “is that he was always grateful. He always said he was ‘peachy’.”
At the funeral it was homilist Fred Link’s job to tie this all together. His role, he said, was “not to extol the deceased, rather to extol the Lord Jesus, who has given our brother eternal life. When I came in church today and stood in front of the body, I saw another friar standing next to me and I said, ‘Luscious Lucius,’” the nickname fawning females gave Joe years ago. Fred then turned to see “the person next to me was not a friar; it was a Little Sister.” Ooops.
Fred wondered “as Joe went through his ministerial life, maybe that was a source of temptation for him. Most of us don’t have anyone to call us ‘luscious’. God certainly called Joe his beloved. We extol God today who chose Joe. If today’s celebration is to have any meaning or significance, it is in accepting once again our call to be bearers of the Good News.
“When I got the readings [Joe chose], I said, ‘Yes, yes, it’s Joe. He’s giving God all the glory.” What struck Fred was the passage from 2 Corinthians: “But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.”
“We’re weak and fragile,” Fred said. “Joe knew his limitations. I had in my last ministry [as Provincial Minister] a chance to see this side of Joe,” the side that revealed, “‘I don’t have it all together’, but he placed himself as an earthen vessel for God” to serve his people.
In a message Joe wrote to be read at his funeral, he echoed the Gospel reading from Matthew that begins with praise for the Father and ends with, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” In this letter of gratitude, “Joe said, ‘God has been so good to me and blessed me in so many ways,’” according to Fred. “He celebrated even the fact that God was embracing him with Sister Death.”
A Provincial Chronicle from 1962 quotes Joe saying of the friars’ presence at Bishop Luers High School, “It is good for us to be here.” In his ministerial life, “Joe had perhaps 25 different ministerial assignments,” Fred said, adding, “There were those who would say he was not very dependable. But it doesn’t take longer than one or two years to affect people’s lives. I would think everywhere he was Joe would say, ‘It is good for me to be here.’”
The proof of that was in condolences Fred read from around the country, notes that revealed the impact of “this instrument of God, this earthen vessel who was anointed. He’s still with us in Jesus and he’s blessing us.”
Our prayer today, Fred said, “is that we catch Joe’s spirit and realize our awesome dignity and realize that wherever the Lord takes us, it is good for us to be here.”
Celebrant Frank Jasper shared that sentiment. “I lived with Fr. Joe for a short time at St. Leonard, and he was always incredibly gracious and hospitable. He was always generous in meeting the needs of others and placing them above his own, coming out of retirement to take on problematic situations. I’ve always seen him as a model myself, to emulate the virtues he projected.”
The sharing continued after Mass as residents, friars, and Little Sisters lingered at the slide show playing on the TV screen. They saw Joe proudly posing with his mom and dad; dancing with students; preaching in Jamaica; enjoying what would be his final birthday.
Two friends reminisced about their last visits with Joe. “He didn’t go around like a sick person,” said one man. And the other agreed, “He was such a good guy, wasn’t he?” No one could argue with that.
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Every morning we pray in the Canticle of Zechariah that because of the tender mercy and The logo forThe Year of Mercycompassion of God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, and that light will shine on all who dwell in darkness and that God will guide our feet into the way of peace. I recall the early mornings that I have experienced, and how the light gently grows. It is always a quiet and prayerful time; a good time to re-member and re-collect ourselves. I love the image of light dawning upon us, enlightening us and helping us to see and so walk the journey. Zechariah also invites us to recall God’s ancient yet ever new promise to show mercy and remember the covenant He made with us. Every evening in the Canticle of Mary we remember how God comes to the help of his servants, and remembers the promise of mercy. We begin and end our day with mercy.
These is good to remember every day, but especially during Advent and during the Year of Mercy that has begun. God’s mercy is the foundation of it all; it gives us light, direction, peace. When we have somehow experienced this gift of mercy, it helps us relate to others; it defines our stance in the world. It fits so well with how the Franciscan vocation is expressed in The Legend of Three Companions: This is our vocation: to heal wounds, to bind what is broken, to bring home those who are lost. In other words, to be merciful. It might be helpful to remember our privileged vocation now and again this Advent and throughout this jubilee year. Perhaps we can find creative ways to let this merciful light shine in the darkness so much around us.
— Fr. Jeff Scheeler, OFM
Four SJB novices were among the 12 men who received their habits Sunday evening during the Rite of Investiture in Burlington, Wis. Provincial Minister Jeff Scheeler joined Carlo Shivel, John Boissy, Jonathon Douglas and Tom Murphy at St. Francis Interprovincial Novitiate. “Beautiful evening filled with grace and rejoicing” was the description of the ceremony on their Facebook page. “Thank you everyone for the support and care of our novices. Be assured of our prayers for you!” More photos by Jeff Macnab are posted at: https://www.facebook.com/
Left, Jonathon, Tom, Carlo and John with Jeff; above, Tom Murphy and John Boissy; right, the newly invested 12 with the novitiate team.
Trimming the tree with Pastor Mike Chowning
Jeff with Monica Orozco of the St. Barbara Province archives.
“How much wrong we do to God and his grace when we speak of sins being punished by His judgment before we speak of their being forgiven by His mercy. We have to put mercy before judgment. ... Let us set aside all fear and dread, for these do not befit men and women who are loved.”
– Pope Francis launching the Jubilee Year of Mercy on Dec. 8 as he opened a Holy Door in the walls of St. Peter’s
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