Homily given by Fr. Kermit Holl, osc, filial prior of the Crosier Community of Onamia
In a brief memoir that Fr. Phil Suehr, osc, left us, he described his personality and attitude in this way, “According to those who should know, I was always a stubborn child and can remember my father’s correction and my mother’s intercession as far back as I can recall anything. In the parochial grade school I attended, I was somewhat of a problem, [too, because] I was an independent person… During my seminary years, I excelled scholastically but found it difficult to bend my independent spirit to what I considered trivial [matters].”
It should be no surprise, therefore, to hear that the life of our confrere Fr. Phil was always one a bit concerning to Crosier leadership. Indeed, for many years some of you, and even in my time over the last decades—those responsible for oversight and support of our confreres and their ministries always had to have a ready reserve of particular concern regarding Fr. Phil’s life and service. Such is the nature of dealing with one who suffered the effects of depression and bipolar disorder, of one challenged by mental health issues. There were always those uncertain aspects of Fr. Phil’s personality that could at times be at peace but at other times would become front and center and need to be dealt with—by Fr. Phil and by us, as you heard even him admit to his “stubborn, independent and [un]bending” persona.
We knew him as that, of course, but we also knew him as a gentle, caring confrere who sought to be a minister of God’s grace and healing, as well. In this regard, I think that we were wonderfully blessed in these last five years to be witnesses and companions to Fr. Phil as his whole life energies and struggles and intentions came to a place of rest as he prepared to meet the Lord in the last stage of his life. Through the care of Lake Song and long-term care at Mille Lacs Health System, we were able to witness him tremendously freed of the physical pain that he carried in his body all of those years. And his spirit, too, was allowed to settle into a holistic sense of peace as his ministry became a simple shared life among other frail residents of these same care facilities. And he was even able to “come home again” to our Crosier vocation after years of “finding it difficult to bend his independent spirit” to our common life. I am grateful that we could be a real part of this final phase of Fr. Phil’s life. It was a blessing to share.
Additionally, aside from any “turbulent” times, as one of Fr. Phil’s classmates noted in my conversation with him, Fr. Phil’s fundamental driving spirit and hope and intent was to care for others in their own humanity and to share with them the gift of the Gospel good news as it enlivened his own heart. His philosophy regarding how one ought to be in the world was based upon engagement with people as he said, “My life…has meaning only in relation to other people…[and all] social institutions and life patterns such as government, education, business and recreation and our participation in them either increase or diminish our loving relationships.” As such, Fr. Phil had a draw toward people on the periphery of society, people in poverty, people who struggled to fit in, and he held numerous assignments over the years that had him attending to our neediest sisters and brothers through his work in Catholic social services and inner-city parishes. In such labors he invested in the hard work it is to “be there” for those who struggle to just “be,” but Fr. Phil could do it and did. In this, he was a voice for justice who knew also personally some of the same challenges. (This is not to say, however, that Fr. Phil couldn’t also be “too much” even in this. His same classmate who noted the “turbulent” years also mentioned that Fr. Phil would run into occasional battles when he would decide the exactitude of rubrics and such things and become quite intent upon correcting all others of different opinions. To no one’s surprise, that didn’t always go over so well!)
In the Gospel story of Lazarus that we heard, I see some parallel to Fr. Phil’s own life and faith and hopes. St. John notes that Jesus is asked to return to Bethany to attend to his friend who was ill—who would in fact die before Jesus made it back to him. But Jesus said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Thus, once he arrived four days later, though Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, Jesus declared to Lazarus’ sister Martha, “Your brother will rise.” And then he ordered them to “Take away the stone,” though everyone knew there would be a terrible stench of decay. Still Jesus insisted and told them to believe in the glory of God. So they rolled away the stone, and Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out tied with burial bands. And Jesus said, “Untie him, and let him go.”
In some ways, Fr. Phil’s evangelization technique paralleled Jesus’ own practice noted here in John. Fr. Phil was always quick and charismatic in proclaiming the glory of God and the grace of God and his belief in hope and healing and the raising up of whomever and wherever there was doubt or troubles or grief. His faith was strong and determined and confident in God, and he was never one to be hesitant in believing that any circumstance “Would not end in death but would be to the glory of God that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” This was the Word Fr. Phil preached in good times and bad, to ears eager to hear or hearts caught deeper in humanity’s shadows. He always pressed to help “take away the stones” that blocked people’s joy and called upon the goodness and grace of God to “Come out!” whenever it seemed to be entombed. (I had to admire Fr. Phil’s audacity in this even if I sometimes had to wince from his occasional insensitivities!)
In a similar fashion, I would say that this Gospel story of Lazarus’ rebirth also captures for me Jesus Christ’s own work in the life of Fr. Phil. As Jesus did for his ancient friend Lazarus, so he did in the life of Fr. Phil Suehr through all of its ups and downs, through its turbulence and its peace. In Fr. Phil, Christ has ensured that his illnesses and struggles would not end in death but that they would give glory to God. And so now Fr. Phil—son, brother, confrere and priest—has escaped the tomb and been wholly and entirely “untied” and freed. Fr. Phil is freed from the bonds of our common humanity and of his own particular journey—through which he kept the faith and without fail relied upon the Lord who was his rock and salvation all the day long.
I shall close with one more thing that Fr. Phil noted. He wrote, “Mortal life can never be fully or perfectly fulfilling and happy. It always lies between promise and fulfillment.” The Word we heard from Paul to the Corinthians summarizes so well this reality
We know that the One who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also…so that the grace bestowed in abundance…may cause thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God. Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison… For we know that [when] our earthly dwelling should be destroyed, we have a building from God…eternal in heaven.
Just so, may our confrere, Fr. John Philip Suehr, osc, now rest in peace. The strife is over, the battle won. The Lord whom he loved and who loves him has freed him now from all trials and ties and led him to the grace of life eternal. Thanks be to God.
[2 Corinthians 4:14 – 5:1 and John 11: 1-8, 11b-44]