Obedient Unto Death
In the summer of 1975, I met Paul Dent, S.J. I was passing through Chicago and stopped to visit a friend who was spending the summer at Loyola University. He invited me to stay for dinner, and we decided to go to a late afternoon Mass before we ate. The Mass was held in the basement of a Jesuit residence, where some rows of folding chairs had been set up under a low ceiling and asbestos-wrapped pipes. I was looking forward to the kind of informal celebration I had learned to expect from the Jesuits: relaxed but (I hate now to put quotes around it) "meaningful." So I was amazed and disappointed when in walked a skinny old man with a crew cut, wearing every sort of vestment permissable and carrying a chalice covered by an old-fashioned liturgical veil.
Before he began, he announced that he would say the Mass of the Sacred Heart, which was the Mass he always said to celebrate how Jesus loved us with the human heart that Mary gave him. By this time he had begun to remind me of the priests of my childhood. I found myself slipping into that gear and decided to enjoy the celebration on a nostalgic level, if nothing else. Nonetheless I found myself impatient when, after reading the Gospel, he asked us to sit for a homily. But then the experience began to change into something altogether different.
The priest told us his name and said this was to be his last Mass at Loyola, that he was leaving in the morning to return to India. He had joined the Jesuits because he had felt called to the missions in India; he had, in fact, studied theology and been ordained there. But not long after he arrived in Patna, a city in northeast India, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had been sent back to Chicago for surgery. "Get Well and Come Back Soon" had been written on a banner at his farewell dinner.
The success of the surgery was questionable, however, and the doctors suggested that he remain in Chicago for observation. After a year, his condition was unchanged, so he petitioned his provincial superior for permission to return to the missions. This was denied for reasons of health. He petitioned again the following year, and again the one after that. This continued until he heard that the provincial was himself dying. Father Dent managed to get in to see him, and again asked that he be allowed to return to his people in India. Again he was told to wait another year. And another year. Each new provincial responded the same way. As crazy as it sounds, this went on for what must have been over 30 years. And still he waited.
It is hard to say why this story was so powerful for me. I sat on that folding chair in the basement listening, and watched a man grow old so far away from the center of his life. He never told us what he had done for all those years in Chicago. I hope it had some value for others. But from what he said that afternoon, it seemed that for him, on some essential level, time had pretty much stood still. The life he had always planned had ended just months after it had begun.
As a product of the 1960’s, I knew what I would have done, and what I thought he should have done. These provincials had obviously been wrong. They were keeping him from responding to a genuine need and to his real calling. In India, his life of service, for however long, would have had meaning. Follow God, not the political structure of bureaucrats - even Jesuit bureaucrats.
And then I suddenly realized: This man has been obedient for longer than I had been alive. But what a stupid, old-fashioned, useless virtue. Hadn’t obedience slipped away somewhere around seventh grade or during the Second Vatican Council? Hadn’t we grown beyond it? God gave us reason, simple common sense, and we were crazy to surrender that. Yet blind obedience was just such a surrender.
The ultimate irony of his story was that his doctors had recently told him that he did in fact have inoperable brain cancer; and, in a totally irrational reaction, his province had agreed to send him to India to die. But even that was not simple. He could not get a visa, so he was flying to Turkey in hopes that he would somehow be allowed into India through Pakistan. Get well and come back soon.
He spoke simply, softly, without the slightest hint of drama. Yet, by the time he had finished, many of us sitting there had tears on our faces. What moved us was not the waste of a life or the impending death of an old man. What so caught us, I think, was a recognition that in that simple old man there was a force that was palpably real and totally beyond us.
As moved as I had been by his homily, the strongest part of my encounter with Father Dent was yet to come. As we all stood during the consecration of the Mass, this priest raised the host and said, This is my body which will be given up for you. And he held the elevated wafer there, looking at it.
Had anyone been keeping track of the time, it was probably 60, maybe 90 seconds that he stood there just looking at that host. A ridiculous length of time. But watching him look at it, I got just a glimpse of the implication of those words. This is my body which will be given. This is my life, which will be spent, used up, thrown awaynot in glory, but in useless, meaningless sacrifice. For that period of time, no one, nothing else, existed for him except that host, and in his face I saw the recognition of what that reality meant. He too had been obedient even unto death.
I thought then of the apostles, who had run away, who had been unwilling, not only to follow but to watch as Jesus paid the price. And standing there in that basement in Chicago, I found myself praying for the strength to be faithful to the insight of that moment, to be willing to witness, in a concentrated 90-second period, to the pain that living a life centered on something beyond reason would exact. Again in tears, I finally looked away.
I received Communion that day from the hands of Father Dent. In some way, I participated in his sacrifice.
After Mass, I saw him walking outside and went to meet him. I don’t remember at all what I said to him, but I remember that he talked again, in a very simple way, about the Sacred Heart and the great love God has for us. He urged me to say the prayer that he constantly prayed: Lord, Jesus, I love you with all my heart. And he asked my name and told me that he would pray for me.
That was 30 years ago this past summer. In daily life, especially in today’s world of religious fundamentalism, I have not at all changed my view that rules can at times function mainly as a guide, and that we cannot hand over our reasonour greatest giftto blind forces. Vows are taken and meant to be kept. But on some level, we are responsible for our lives, and even God does not want us to abandon our own good or that of others.
And yet, 30 years later, I still think of Father Paul Dent. I do not know if he ever made it to India or how long he lived. But I don’t think I have ever been near anyone who was closer to God than he was. And I know that somehow, in the total irrationality of his life, he touched a tremendous truth.
Editor’s note:Paul E. Dent was born on a farm in Salem, Mo. on Feb. 19, 1901. He entered the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus on Aug. 8, 1920 and was ordained at the Jesuit theologate in Kurseong, India, on Nov. 21, 1931. A few years later, epileptic seizures forced him to return to the United States, where he remained for more than 30 years until he was assigned to Nepal and to work in India. He died in Patna on March 25, 1980.