Apart from his devoted sister, Pat, his close friends, his brother priests in the Norwich Diocese, his former parishioners and his surviving seminary classmates, not many who read this column will have heard of him.
But I knew Frank O’Keefe for more than 50 years, having attended the same seminary in Boston, just two years behind him. We became close friends during his pastorate at St. Matthew’s in Tolland, and remained close friends until the day he died.
As we approach another Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, I am mindful of the blessings bestowed by this relatively obscure diocesan priest, and of the need to give thanks for his life and ministry. It is only through the services of lay and ordained ministers like him that the church is able to carry on its mission of preaching the Word of God, celebrating the sacraments, witnessing to the Gospel and applying its resources to the needs of others.
I had the honor of delivering the homily at Frank O’Keefe’s funeral last month. A few excerpts follow, with the hope that they might have broader interest and application:
The death of a loved one, a close friend or someone we simply admired and respected from afar is always the occasion for sorrow and a feeling of loss. Each of us mourns in different ways and to different degrees, depending on the relationship that we enjoyed with (the deceased). ...
But such a death is also the occasion for thanksgiving, not for their death surely, but for their lives among us. And there is no better way for us to express our thanksgiving than in this central act of thanksgiving, which the Eucharist literally is.
We give thanks in this eucharistic celebration for Father O’Keefe’s whole life and priestly ministry, for his many acts of kindness and compassion toward others, for his caring outreach to everyone he met who was in need, for the way in which he bore up under the weight of sickness and, even more, the pain of misunderstanding, and, yes, for his wit and humor, too, in spite of it all.
We give thanks in this Eucharist for all the blessings he bestowed on others as an instrument of Christ himself, and for the many blessings that he surely received from the hands of many others, also as instruments of the Lord. For we are a sacramental people, and we believe that God is sacramentally present and active among us in and through others.
The second reading in today’s liturgy, from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, reminds us that “Every one of us will have to give an account of himself or herself before God.”
And thank God it is God and not our critics and adversaries who will render the judgment -- a God who is kind and merciful, as the antiphon to today’s responsorial psalm reminds us. ...
Finally, in the reading from the Fourth Gospel, which was one of Father O’Keefe’s favorite passages, Jesus asked his disciples, his own closest friends, to “live on” in his love after his own death. He left his disciples with one commandment, which had nothing at all to do with those minor, often trivial, human-made rules and regulations that too many Catholics and Christians even today place on a higher level than this one.
“This is my commandment,” the Lord said. “Love one another as I have loved you. There is no greater love than this: to lay down one's life for one’s friends. ...”
What more can be said about the heart and soul of the Christian message and the demands of the Christian life? Frank O’Keefe heard that message, preached it in season and out of season, and lived by it as well as, and probably better than any of us. We, like him, are frail, weak and sinful human beings, but who have been given new life and renewed hope by being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ himself. ...
Frank O’Keefe was a good man, a committed Christian and a great priest. There is no doubt whatever about that. ...
We give thanks for his life and ministry in this season of thanksgiving, and recommit ourselves to “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.