Sunday, May 17


The Last Homily of Msgr. William Kerr, 1940-2009

I had very sad news from home unroll across all of last week. The priest who baptized me way back in 1983, Monsignor Bill Kerr, had been felled by a stroke while at the pulpit during Sunday mass, and died several days later, on Wednesday of last week, in hospital. I only met the monsignor a few times as an adult (and now I can only wish there had been more time), but he was still in the midst of a very eventful and busy life even in his old age. He had served as president of La Roche College from 1992-2006, and also had a hand at various points in the running of the John Paul II Cultural Center in D.C. (where he seems to have turned it into something that actually worked), and Catholic U in D.C. where he held a vice-presidential post. He had the uncanny knack of a handful of people I know of being quietly ubiquitous--having hobnobbed with Jordanian royals and receiving a visit on his deathbed from the Rwandan ambassador (and also an 120-pound German shepherd, but that's another story). More astonishing is the peripheral role he played in the Ted Bundy case in his younger days, which Dom Bettinelli recounts over at his site. It is worth quoting nearly in full:
Among other things, he was famous for having administered the last rites to one of serial killer Ted Bundy’s victims and then became a spiritual counselor for Bundy on death row.

I met Monsignor Kerr in 1994, I believe, when he was president of La Roche College, outside Pittsburgh. I was a student at Franciscan University of Steubenville and I’d been preparing for the Total Consecration to Mary according to St. Louis de Montfort with some of my friends. One of them was my roommate, Kevin Gillen, now Fr. Gabriel Gillen, OP, who knew the monsignor. Kevin arranged for Msgr. Kerr to lead us in the final consecration following Mass at La Roche. I don’t remember too much about the day, but I do remember Msgr. Kerr was kind and gracious to us.

Kevin told us the story Msgr. Kerr told him about that awful night in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1978. He said Kerr got the call from the police in the middle of the night to rush out to the sorority house. When he arrived he was told that all but one of the girls in the house were dead or near death, killed by a serial killer who was later to be known to the world as Ted Bundy. After giving those last rites to the dying college girl, then-Fr. Kerr was asked by the police on the scene to talk to the girl who survived unscathed. They wanted to know how she survived the brutal attacks, because Bundy had stopped right inside the door to her room, dropped his weapon, and left without touching her. But the girl would talk to no one but a priest.

When Fr. Kerr approached the near-catatonic girl, she told him that her mother had made her promise before going off to college for the first time that she would pray the Rosary every night before bed for protection; even if she fell asleep praying the Rosary, which she had that night so that when Bundy came into her room with murder on his mind, the beads were still clutched in her hands.

Later, Bundy would tell Monsignor that when he entered the girl’s room, he just couldn’t go on, he dropped his weapon, and he fled. Such is the power of our Mother’s protective mantle.
I also recently received a transcription of his last homily (almost his last words, given his state after the stroke) from my mother, who was there when the monsignor had a stroke, and who helped bring grace and order to an otherwise traumatic moment by starting up a rosary (the priestly Luminous Mysteries) while the paramedics attended to the stricken Kerr.

The text is especially poignant in retrospect. It is an astonishing, powerful and peculiar tale from an even earlier point in his life. The text is preceded by an introduction from the mass attendees who compiled it:
Those of us who were blessed to be present when Msgr. William Kerr gave his last homily have attempted from memory to capture in writing his last pastoral thoughts. While this is not a word-for-word transcription, it conveys the essence of what he shared with us on May 3, 2009, moments before he was stricken with the stroke that ultimately took his life on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, May 13, 2009, in Tallahassee, Florida.

I begin with an apology. [Big grin] I apologize if I doused you and I apologize if I missed you. [Comment about holy water followed.]

Today, I want to share with you an anniversary that is important to me. I speak of the anniversary of my ordination as a deacon and of my first assignment. On my way to receiving that first assignment, I stopped by the chapel to go over my resume with God. This was in St. Louis and ten parishes and a hospital were to be assigned to deacons. I told God, "I would do well in a parish. You know I'm not good with hospitals."

After that, I stepped over to the bishop's office. I met with the bishop and received my assignment – it was the hospital.

When I arrived at the hospital, I was immediately directed to the burn unit. This particular hospital was famous for its burn unit and very gravely injured burn patients were brought here. I learned that the chaplain was out for the day and I was faced with this daunting task without any instructions. It was the doctor and me. He advised me to look in the patients' eyes and not at their disfiguring injuries.

My first patient was a young man who had been burned by an explosion. He was in critical condition. This young man, who came to have a tremendous influence on my life, worked in a factory. He had been tasked with picking up rags and spent containers. He disposed of them in an incinerator. This was a chemical factory and unfortunately the containers held chemicals that exploded, seriously burning him in the process.

His name was Michael, Michael Anderson, and he said, "'Father,'" (he called me 'Father,') I always wanted to be a priest, and now I won't get to – so I am offering my suffering to strengthen you in your ministry.

Amazed and almost at a loss for words, I said to him, "Now, Michael, we will get through this, together." But Michael, who probably had a better sense of his situation than I did, responded by insisting he would offer his suffering for me and my ministry.

Next to Michael was another patient who was well known in the area. He heard Michael's conversation with me and told him to put in a good word for him in heaven.

The doctor told me it was important for the patients to scream, to help them relieve their agonizing pain. But Michael never screamed. He held his suffering to himself until he died.

During the next few hours, I got to know Michael. The singular circumstances of our meeting led to friendship, and a special bond between us. And, over the course of my life, I have repeatedly felt that bond and that friendship. Many times I have asked Michael to pray for me to strengthen me in my ministry.

I often think about the priceless blessings I received from being assigned to that hospital and from meeting Michael. God knows us and he knows where we belong, even if we do not know ourselves. We must pray… we must pray…Michael…
And there it ends. The homily, I mean. We Christians know well that death is no end, but that does not make it any harsher. Death cannot be walpapered over with eulogies and white vestments; this is why we pray for our faithful departed to ease the pains of Purgatory. Our sufferings here, too, are not without meaning, as Michael showed, and not without spiritual profit for ourselves and others. "Offer it up" is more than a churchlady cliche.

And death is, while the door to the new life of the Resurrection, still a painful cosmic reminder of original sin. Body and soul are meant to be together, and that sundering is what made even Christ weep before the tomb of Lazarus. But there is always the hope of heaven--and why, while we pray for our dead, we may also in time pray to and for them, just as Monsignor Kerr did with the saint he met at the start of his own ministry.

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