Thursday, December 3, 2015

Father the baseball player, Father the priest

It's funny how in life there are times where a person or an event from your past comes back into your mind seemingly out of nowhere. Just this past weekend I found myself telling my son how Fr. Willoughby, a former pastor of our church (St. Dominic in Detroit, MI) used to drink cola warm. He believed that you tasted the flavors more fully with warm pop. For whatever reason, the story had simply 'popped' into my mind.

Then yesterday, an old friend from the parish called my mother to say that Father Willoughby had passed away on November 19.

I'm not intending to be maudlin nor am I trying for an 'aw, that's too bad' moment either. But I'm interested in why I would be thinking of him recently to then hear the news of his death. I wonder if we are being told something, or reminded of something when such things happen.

In Father's case, it is with fondness that I remember his faithfulness to the Church, his straightforward yet friendly instruction, and his friendship itself which I recall well. What really struck me was his obvious humility, his willingness to accept that he wasn't the center of human history. He could see that it wasn't him or his opinions which mattered, but rather what was right. A little story he told on himself one day might illustrate that trait.

Before joining the Dominican Order in 1942, Fr. Willoughby among other things had played semi-professional baseball. He was a first baseman, I believe he said. One day, his team was involved in a game where Walter Johnson, whom baseball fans know was a quiet, flamethrowing pitcher for the old Washington Senators, indeed that he was part of the first class selected for enshrinement in Cooperstown, would be the home plate umpire. Needless to say, Father and his teammates were excited about that.

As it was, Father came up in the bottom of the first with the bases loaded and two out. He worked the pitcher into a full count, then let the next pitch go by. Johnson promptly called him out on strikes, ending what turned out to be his last chance at baseball semi-immortality. "I was sure it was a ball, but I guess it was a strike", he said, and in truth matter of factly, at the end of the story. Indeed, it was profoundly self effacing.

My wife teased him, "That first part was the ballplayer talking, but the second was the priest talking!" Father just smiled, and kind of nodded his head. He could take teasing too.

Requiem æternam dona ei, Domine. Godspeed, Father Willoughby.

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