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!!