FUNERAL HOMILY: Eric Andrews
On behalf of the Paulist Fathers and the family of Fr. George Fitzgerald, I welcome you all to this celebration of life and ministry of Fr. George. It is great to see so many people from the different parts of his life. We are particularly grateful for all your expressions of kindness and care you extended to George over these past six weeks, especially the parishioners of Newman Hall. They meant so much to George and are a great consolation to us.
We are gathered here because of one man, a man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to even more. A man loved by many, scorned by others. A man known for great controversy, and for great compassion… That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth.
Gotcha! You thought I was talking about George, didn’t you? And George would appreciate that you thought of him in that way. But even he would have to agree that there was someone greater than he, and that first and foremost we need to give thanks to God, though His Son our Lord Jesus Christ, for all we have been given. As the Apostle Paul proclaims in the second reading: whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3:17)
We have much for which to be thankful. For it is through our faith in Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection that in our loss and sorrow we can remain filled with hope. This Christian hope enables us to commend our Brother to the love and mercy of our God. We are grateful for the many ways in which we comfort one another in our sorrow as members of the Body of Christ.
And today we are most grateful to God for those people like Fr. George who show us the face of Jesus—those people who love us, encourage us, and stand by us, no matter what. And along those lines, we need to be aware and be grateful for the mysterious ways God uses us to build the kingdom of God, even when we are unaware of it.
For Fr. George, the journey of faith began in Jaffrey, New Hampshire in baptism, grew through his First communion and confirmation, and fully flowered with his ordination to the priesthood. The call to ministry and priesthood in particular is unique to each person. As Jesus called Peter, the fisherman, to become a fisher of men and women, so Jesus called George, the young Air Force navigator, in a special way. 1958, the year George entered the Paulist Fathers novitiate, was a great year for technological advances. Transcontinental jet service was inaugurated, and the US put its first satellite in space. People with George’s background would be called upon to do great things. God would not be left out! And I wonder if George responded to that call listening to one of the popular songs of that year?
Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away! If you can use some exotic booze, there's a bar in far Bombay. Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away!
Come fly with me, let's float down to Peru. In llama land, there's a one-man band and he'll toot his flute for you. Come fly with me, let's take off in the blue!
However it happened, George answered the call to ministry and jumped on board. With the help of the Holy Spirit, the Dove, he earned his wings as a priest, and was on his way. And oh the places he traveled! Like St. Paul he was always on a journey, whether for work or play, George kept moving.
He joined the Paulists to be a missionary to North America, not just New Hampshire, going to those places where faith and culture intersected, like downtown parishes, college campuses, and ski slopes. This special mission required lots of frequent flier miles to accomplish! As many of you know, one of our community’s mottos is that there is always a Paulist in the air at any given time. George helped guarantee this was the case.
Everywhere he was assigned, like St. Paul, he formed communities of faith, fellowship, and service. His was a ministry of personal invitation. George had a gift of connecting with people. As one person remarked, in 5 minutes he would make a connection with a perfect strange, finding the commonality between them. This makes sense, as Fr. George who celebrated the Eucharist regularly, saw connections not just with God and the gathered congregation, but with everyone he encountered.
Also like St. Paul, he, like many Paulists, loved to preach! His homiletic mission was to give you a reason to believe, to be yourself, and to understand your higher calling from the Almighty. Many remarked at the vigil how eloquent, thoughtful, memorable and relevant his homilies were. What was the experience like? Well, something like this…
Once I get you up there where the air is rarified, We'll just glide, starry-eyed. Once I get you up there I'll be holding you so near, You may hear angels cheer 'cause we're together….
What was the message? Quite simply put, it is God’s unbelievable mercy and love; God’s choice for us in Jesus Christ; and the call of Christ calls to build up His reign on earth. Fr. George challenged us to think beyond the borders of our community to embrace the lost, the poor, the marginalized, the migrant, and those hungering for Justice. He was motivating and empowering in his words, yet personal. He embodied that uniquely Paulist style of finding God in the here and now, in our life, in our culture.
Now, while congregations were captivated by George’s rhetoric, Paulists in the rectory would nickname him “George of the Three Homilies”. Just when you thought he was coming in for a landing, he would take off again, and then a third time. He so enjoyed the experience of connecting with his people I guess he didn’t want it to end!
As I mentioned, God used George’s gifts from the Air Force. Most of his ministry was spent helping young adults navigate the choppy and turbulent years of college, as well as the Paulist Seminary. His attentiveness to those students lasted far beyond graduation or ordination. Matter of fact, George was still keeping in touch with many of those Tuft Students he served over 50 years ago, one of whom made a special trip on Tuesday to come and thank George for everything he did for him. As for Paulist seminarians, while they put George to the test as they worked out their authority issues, George was always fair to each seminarian, and sought to find the priest in each of them, even when evidence was thin.
In his ministry, he was always expansive and inclusive. He embraced the changes brought about by Vatican II, creating a new Paulist formation program, which is largely in place today. He was one of the first to incorporate women as part of the formation team. And when he came to Newman Hall, he did the same, bringing Mary Doyle and others onto the staff.
A special gift George had was appreciating the complexity of the human experience. Having lost his father so young, and being raised by a step-dad who cared for him so deeply, he understood early on how difficult and complex life can be. Along those lines, I was thinking of the Gospel George selected for today. Yes, George believed strongly that God saves those who feed, clothe and house the poor, welcome the stranger, the migrant and the immigrant, and visit the incarcerated, whether they are religious or not.
He was also keenly aware that as humans we like to assign labels to people without giving them a chance. He saw everyone he encountered as sheep or potential sheep. Back in the Bible times, sheep and goats were sometimes hard to distinguish… and George always left the final judgment to God. (With the special exception of politicians he disagreed with) … and even if George encountered someone in ministry who really was a Goat, I think George would defend them saying: “who doesn’t like feta cheese?” That’s God’s mercy and compassion at work in our lives.
Therefore, this is an important moment to add this old timey Catholic reminder: we are not here to canonize George for sainthood. We know George wasn’t perfect. Part of the reason we are here is to assist him on the way to heaven with our prayers. He knew his ego would get the best of him sometimes and he needed God’s mercy and allowed God to put him in his place, through all of you, who would always serve him humble pie, to George’s great delight. And if in fact George made it in, I know he will return our prayers with interest added!
So we give thanks to God, for George’s presence in our lives! His hopeful, exuberant, optimistic nature, his zeal for the Gospel, his ability to help others navigate a path to Jesus, are all signs of the Holy Spirit at work through Him. For those here who still don’t believe in God, at least believe in George!
I can’t thank enough Alice and Tom Murphy, Paulist Frs. Ivan, Steve, and Paul, his long time friends, especially Dave Stone, and all who walked this last part of George’s priesthood.
One final thought…We all know that George was a life long learner and educator. Many Paulists were concerned that George, so young at heart, would be afraid to approach his mortality. However with the wise counsel and support of his sister Alice and Fr. Ivan and his trust in the Lord, he made the ultimate decision to choose hospice care over extensive rehabilitation, which might not have been effective. He shared that he had learned from his brother Ed the peace that comes with death.
In turn, as had always been the pattern of his life and ministry, George had the opportunity to teach one final student, Manny, who just graduated from Cal. Manny was with him at his bedside to the very end, and learned a precious lesson about life, death, faith, hope and love. This ultimate act of letting go and letting God was a grace not only for Manny but for all of us and it exemplified in a powerful way the sacrifice of Christ which he celebrated in the Eucharist all his priestly life.
I am happy to report that at the end, George, as always, was ready to depart, excited about it too. And early on Wednesday morning, he heard and answered God’s call, yet again. I bet it went like this…
Weather-wise it's such a lovely day. You just say the words and we'll beat the birds Down to Acapulco Bay. It's perfect for a flying rendez-vous, they say. Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly. Pack up, let's fly away!!
Eulogy: Tom Hall
Good evening. I’m Tom Hall, a friend of George Fitzgerald for nearly fifty years.
In 1972, I was teaching junior high school math in Los Angeles. I had a heck of a time finding young Catholics my age (I was 22) in my home parish. Most everyone seemed to be a senior citizen OR married and raising a family. My pastor suggested that I attend mass at the Newman Center at UCLA. So, I did. And, I found hundreds of Catholics my age. I also found the Paulist Fathers. I’d never met priests like these guys. They did not hide behind a Roman Collar, and all were on a first name basis EVEN with the freshman students. I could ask these guys the dumbest question ever asked, and they would inevitably make me feel as if it were the most brilliant question they’d ever heard. And, they made me feel like it was the first time such a question was ever asked. I was hooked.
I had decided, after a year, that I wanted to become a priest. I’d boiled down my options to the Maryknoll Fathers (‘cause I always had a wanderlust) and the Paulists. During Spring break, I decided to make a pilgrimage of sorts. I decided to drive up the coast from LA to visit Maryknoll and Paulist houses along the way.
My first stop out of LA was Pismo Beach, about 200 miles down the coast from here. That first morning in Pismo Beach I located the only church in town. St. Paul the Apostle. Hmmm. Could this be a sign?
As I exited the church, after mass, I noticed a pamphlet rack next to the exit. And, prominently displayed in the pamphlet rack was a book…a book titled “Communes”, written by Father George Fitzgerald, a Paulist Father. Communes were au courant among young guys my age in those years. So, I lifted the book and took it to the beach. I read it in a single sitting. I loved it. And, I wondered if I might ever meet the author, Father George Fitzgerald, a Paulist Father.
Several days later, I made my way to Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco and here to Newman Hall at Cal Berkeley. When I got here to this chapel…this sealed the deal. I know a lot of you people probably can’t stand the looks of this chapel. But, when I saw that corpus of Jesus Christ attached to that poured concrete wall, my mind recalled photos of those millions of concentration camp inmates during World War II. And, in an instant, I was drawn into the mystery of Christ’s crucifixion, death, and resurrection as never before.
The following October, I was a Paulist novice in Oak Ridge, New Jersey.
During the novitiate year, we received quite a few guests. And, one guy showed up looking like an aging college gymnast. He was a mountain of energy. His name: Father George Fitzgerald! I could not control my enthusiasm. “Are you THE Father George Fitzgerald…the one who wrote that book on communes?!?” That he was.
George was born the same year as my brother. My brother died as a young man. If ever I could confect a brother, I would want a brother like George. He was everything I would want my brother to be. He was an Ivy Leaguer. A gymnast at Dartmouth. He was a military officer. (During my priesthood, I have served 35 years with the US Military). George was an author, a scholar, a lecturer. And, he had that patrician New Hampshire accent. I loved the guy.
During my years of studies at Catholic University, I was privileged to have studied preaching with George. He taught two homiletic (preaching) courses at the university. And, I took them both.
The first year, George team-taught with the head of the Theater Department at the university. George had us students jumping and stretching all over the sanctuary. He taught us to feel comfortable with our bodies as an expression of the Spirit within. He taught us that people would know that Spirit as much by the words we spoke as by the way we expressed the Spirit in our movements.
The second year George team-taught with a nun who was a scripture scholar at Trinity College. For practice, we students had to preach to the nuns on the faculty at their 7:00 am convent chapel mass. After mass, we had breakfast with the nuns, as they critiqued us. GAWD! It was like Roller Ball! These nuns were ruthless. I'll never forget; one of the nuns told me that my preaching was “all form and no content.” Afterwards, George took me aside and told me “she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
George wrote a book on Preaching. It’s the only one of his three books that I did not read. No need. I think I learned the best of what George had to teach. During his last session with us preaching students, George gave some memorable advice. He said, “Don’t worry about answering peoples' questions in your preaching. It’s actually better it you leave your audience with questions. Even with questions that have no answers.
Because when people have questions they begin to wonder. And, the more they wonder, the more they ponder. And, what they ponder is Mystery. And, only when they ponder Mystery, can they encounter God.
Two weeks ago, I drove up to Berkeley from the military base where I work in Monterey. I came to see George. When I walked into his hospital room, he smiled and said: “Tom, I’m so glad you’re here. I want to tell you that I just made a decision.” “What decision is that, George,” I asked. “I’ve decided to forego any more treatments. I’m going to go back to Newman Hall, and I’ll be dead in six days.” I looked him deeply in the eyes, and I started to cry. George cried too. “I love you, George,” I said. He countered, “Yep. A lot of people are telling me that these days.”
“But I REALLY LOVE you, George,” I protested.
After a few minutes of dead silence, I asked George a question that I’ve been asking people on their death beds for the past 40 years. “Do you have any regrets in life, George?” He closed his eyes. Then he opened them and looked off into the unseen distance. Then, he looked me square in the eyes. “Yes. Yes, I have a regret,” he said. “Well, what is it?”
“I cannot say.”
“What do you mean, you cannot say?”
“I cannot say.”
In that instant, I realized that George and I had found ourselves with the unanswerable question.
And, I will always wonder.
And, my wonder will lead me to ponder. I will ponder a mystery.
And, in that mystery, I WILL encounter God.
Well done, George. Mission accomplished.
Eulogy: Dave Stone, M.D.
It is, indeed an Honor, and a very humbling task to be asked by George to address all of you! —his family, his Paulist Brothers, parishioners and dear friends of George. Many of you are personal friends of mine and if some of us don’t know each other we certainly should! As we have the common bond of friendship and love for this remarkable man, and we must now face the rest of our days with this profound void-- a world without George! A loss we must all endure!!
It is my hope to be relatively brief --and in doing so assuage my grief! –and accomplish the task at hand! I am going to relate some personal experiences...And... Oh, yeah, he married my wife and me and baptized my kids,... as he did most or yours!!... And yes, I also traveled the world with George, including Mexico, Spain, Portugal, Holy Land, Italy, multiple US national Parks, including biannual “religious” retreats to Vail twice a year to commune (ski!) with God on the snowy Rockies... Over, the last several years both George and John Glass joined me and Francine along with our children-- Maddy, Claire and Alec, as we traveled thru Italy, Spain, England, Ireland and just last spring Paris and Northwest France... As you can see, my story of George is simply a variance on a recurring theme experienced by many of you...
Here are some entertaining tidbits that honor our dear friend, George Fitzgerald.
I have to start by the love affair of my parents for George and him for them! I believe as he noted at my mother’s funeral sermon, he first met my father when George became the pastor at Newman in 1979... he noted a man, on his hands and knees, fixing the toilet in the Newman public bathroom and my dad, the “Heathen” was said to have commented—”I fix things around here but it is Olga who runs the place...!” And yes, my mother Olga, referred by some as “the Nun
of Newman-- with 4 boys”, was soon introduced and that was the beginning of a long and deep friendship. Many an evening was spent feasting at the dining room table on 1447 Summit Road! One of George’s favorite stories is on one such occasion he brought a little red book listing all Paulist Priests-living, dead and “ex-Paulists”, and we counted about 85 different Paulists who over the years had come to our house for dinner--at least once (many came MULTIPLE times!)!! (remember these invites started in 1940!). George then followed up by questioning “but which Paulist was your favorite??!?”. My mother, (never known for her subtlety) --in this case would not tell... OKAY George!... you can now know -->YOU, George, YOU were her favorite!! (all due respect to the Paulists present here today).
Another brief tale George loved to relate was when George was Pastor at Newman and there was a Paulist visitation—for those of you not in the know... a “bitch” session where the clergy take their licks from the parishioners and it can get heated.... George and company were getting a beating on that particular occasion... Up pops Olga and says in her loud voice “Well , I think all the Paulists are wonderful... and so on and on...”. At which point, another particular lady of note also pops up and states – “Well, she does the priest’s laundry!” At which point, Olga (CAL, class of 1937!) replies, “I certainly do NOT do the priests laundry but I would be proud to do it!!! (she, in fact, did the altar cloths for many, many years...)
My own relationship with George was solidified in the spring of 1980 when I was a medical student and we met in Puerto Vallarta during my spring break and the friendship grew from there...
As already mentioned, he married me to Francine, baptized my kids… –the usual!!
However, one seminal life event which I can never forget was the following. I began my medical school in Mexico City, due to my sketchy college performance... I did, however, finally mend my ways and after 3 years of toil in Mexico-- my dream (obsession!) of returning to a US med school was finally within my grasp—in the fall of 1982, I secured an interview at Northwestern in Chicago for advanced placement into the 3rd year medical school class. To say I was nervous is a vast understatement! George just happened to be in Chicago doing a wedding for one of you...!! (he did a few of those over the years...). Anyway, George said “RELAX, I’ll interview you, as a kind of dry run”. The questions were exactly the same as in the actual interview, and, as we say, the rest is history...
As I reflect, on the many gifts George has given me—it is a challenge, as there are many, but one stands out as, and is quite relevant to me today, and to many of you—as it is YOU! The you I’m referring to, are the many friendships that I have developed over the years through and because of the extrovert—George! Many of you are here today or may read this at some later point and I am profoundly grateful for the many friendships that were initiated by and thru George.
And, indeed, many of my friends, who in turn, met George thru me—their lives have been equally enriched. We will all need each other as we soldier on!
I would be remiss if I did not relate the title bestowed on George by yours truly, and that, of course, is His Holiness George the First! Where did that come from? Both George and I enjoyed making fun of the things we love—I recommend it –it keeps us all healthy! Anyway, The Church like everyone’s family needs a bit of critique and one anachronism is referring to ANYONE as “your holiness”. (I am going to get in trouble if I continue down this path... and besides Pope Francis may well be truly deserving of such accolades ...). In any case, the austere title stuck and family and my friends routinely refer to George as His (your) Holiness.
It also did reflect a knowing respect for what he had given me—and all of us --a dedicated priest, confidant and dear friend.
One example of the fun had by his acquisition of said title is on his retirement—George served-- the poor and downtrodden Catholic community in Vail Colorado--and he received correspondence from yours truly addressed to His Holiness George I.... He then, subsequently received a hard time from the small post office in Minturn, Co. where he got his mail.... This, of course, encouraged more similar behavior on my part(!)—elaborating further addresses: -->His Holiness George I, gloriously reigning in the year of our Lord...Blah, Blah-->and then I added a final stroke of merriment →” retired”. And as we all know, it certainly must have planted the seed with Pope Benedict... when he followed suit in 2013 and retired himself! (the singular great accomplishment of his pontificate -- appreciated particularly by George and myself!).
No doubt; Rev. George Roland Fitzgerald, C.S.P., Your Holiness, you are now, indeed, - HOLY! and Wholly with God!! Rest in Peace—George! -- priest, Paulist, brother, dear and beloved friend!”