I was riding my bicycle along Junipero Street a week ago Wednesday. To my right was Oak Park. To my left was the Mission Terrace Convalescent Hospital. I was headed to the pedestrian bridge over the freeway, the safest route to my home from downtown. But before I got there, an inner voice told me to make a U-turn, park my bike in front of the hospital, and go see Fr. Virgil.
Fr. Virgil-for many of us in Santa Barbara, his name was a succinct answer to the question: Why am I a Catholic? He taught us to be humble in our faith, to see the good in people who disagreed with us, to accept our human limitations. During a homily at a weekday Mass, he made a statement that stuck with me: “Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved.”
I thought he would make a great Pope. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI took a page right out of Fr. Virgil’s playbook during his recent visit to the United States. Instead of unleashing censure and reproach for our sins, he stressed compassion, love, and forgiveness.
Fr. Virgil and I talked about sports now and then, although it was a subject that in recent times had brought him considerable frustration-his favorite teams were the Dodgers and Notre Dame. He spoke highly of the DiMaggio brothers, who shared his Italian heritage and Northern California upbringing, but he did not single out sports stars as heroes. To live heroically, he said, was something that all of us were called to do.
I was a minor character among Fr. Virgil’s many colleagues, friends, and acquaintances. My wife, Kathleen, and I did have the honor of being married by him at the Old Mission 11 years ago. When we heard that he was stricken by cancer, we discussed visiting him sometime, but we did not want to contribute to an overload of well-wishers.
Much to my surprise, Fr. Virgil was alone in his room when I entered last week. He did not have the strength to carry on a conversation. I looked into his glistening eyes, held his hand, and-much to my further surprise-I did all the talking. I thanked him. I told him that his work was done, that the hundreds and thousands of us who were touched by his goodness would carry on in his spirit, that he could rest in peace, and that we loved him very much.
Surely others had expressed the same sentiments, but I was so glad I had taken the opportunity when, just a day later, Fr. Virgil took his last breath.
The next morning, Santa Barbara was darkened by a thick layer of clouds. Periodically during the day, a gentle mist fell to the ground. The heavens were weeping. I do not think that was any more a coincidence than the impulse that had led me to the padre’s deathbed.