Fr Charlie RIP

Early Friday morning, Fr Charlie Flaherty, SSC passed away. Fr Charlie had served at the parish that I attend (St John Chrysostom) for many years, and then in his retirement, continued to come and offer one of the Masses each Sunday–often, the Children’s Mass. Fr Charlie is a saint. I don’t mean to say that he is a perfect person, but rather that he lived out his potential as a human being in a way that he was fully himself. He lived in a way where one could sense the presence of the Lord in his words and actions. If Jesus is fully human and fully divine, Fr Charlie was fully human and Christ worked in and through him.

At Fr Charlie’s Masses, the congregation joined hands at the Our Father. It didn’t matter if you knew the person or not, if it was a family member or a stranger you had never seen before in the parish for the first time–we were holding hands and sensing in a palpable way that we are all brothers and sisters in the Lord. At the family Mass, the children were invited up to the altar at the consecration so that they could be close to the Lord, and see everything. Fr Charlie was kind but never talked down to children, or to anyone else. After Mass, he always asked who had a birthday or anniversary in the parish before everyone left, so we sang happy birthday, or happy anniversary, or often one half of the congregation doing each—he knew the importance of building community in the parish and celebrating each and every individual. (He also knew only to ask the children who had birthdays, “How old?” and they were only too eager to tell.)

Fr Charlie’s homilies were nearly always about the humanity of Jesus. Of course, Fr Charlie believed in Jesus’ divinity. But he knew that Jesus came not only to save us , but also to teach us how to live.. He helped us to see the humanity of Jesus (and he is probably the only Catholic priest I have met who quoted the Protestant philosopher Marcus Borg). I recall a theme he preached on a few times in reference to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and the lilies of the field: he reminded us that we can trust deeply enough in God to pay attention to just the single day that we were living right then. Not to worry about the past, for which we are forgiven any mistakes, or to have anxiety about the future, but like the birds of the air and flowers of the field, to live in the Lord in this moment. That we can always get through just one day’s worth of troubles, and that Jesus lived in that way himself: attentive to the day, reliant on the Lord each day. He preached on Jesus’ rejection in his hometown, and how we have to be careful not to assume that we know others’ lives and miss God’s presence among us. He preached on the resurrection. He deeply believed in the Resurrection. After death, we must be with God, not only because Scripture testifies to it, but also because God loves us too much to leave us behind when we die. Once we know the depth of God’s love firsthand, we cannot doubt that this love will be with us even through death and bring us into the joy of God’s unending love. I know Fr Charlie is enjoying that love now.

Fr Charlie knew how to love. He spent many decades as a Columban missionary, ministering to people all over the world. But his capacity to love was evident not only in the accomplishments that he had undertaken, but in the most ordinary actions with every member of the St John’s parish. He treated each person, one at a time (and there were many who waited to shake his hand or to speak to him each week) as though she or he were the only person in the world that moment. He loved everyone and he loved each person as though they were the only one–which is how I know that God loves us, and how I think we are all (whether priest or religious or layperson) called to love one another. Every woman in the congregation received a kiss on the cheek (Fr Charlie could do that since he was in his 90s), and every man a handshake. One year it was my birthday, but I felt too shy to tell the congregation and to have them sing, so he placed his hands on my shoulders and prayed a blessing for me. He’d pray over people if they were sick. Every Sunday, people would stop for that handshake, or quick greeting, or longer report of what was happening in their lives (some sickness in the family, some diagnosis, the birth of a nephew or niece), or a prayer, and Fr Charlie always gave each person his full attention. He looked at you and spoke with you as though he had been waiting to see you all day, and then the same was true for the next person, and the next….and he was back again the next week to do it all over again. God’s love: treating everyone as though they were the only one.

One time before all of us Eucharistic Ministers and lector headed into Mass, he had been suffering from his neuralgic pain that made it difficult for him to speak. So I offered to pray over him. I laid my hands on his shoulders and prayed for his healing. He happily received the prayer. Afterwards he thanked me and said that he was glad that I felt confident enough to do that, and how important it is that we all know that we can pray for one another—not just priests, but all of us. Too many priests are comfortable in their ministries of giving care, but put on a false face of invulnerability to others or even to themselves. Fr Charlie was humble enough to know that we can all give love, and we all need to receive it, too. He took the vacation time that he needed, heading off to his family in England yearly. He stayed real. He knew how to be human and how to encourage us to be human, too.

I will miss his homilies, his kindness, his blessings, his prayers. I will miss his leading us in saying the Our Father and singing Happy Birthday. What I will miss most, though, is his annual rendition of “Danny Boy” after the Mass nearest to St Patrick’s Day. It was a yearly tradition, and while his voice aged, it was always beautiful, because Fr Charlie was a beautiful person. Fr. Charlie, “we love you so.”

6 thoughts on “Fr Charlie RIP

  1. A loving tribute and farewell. You were blessed to know him. Thank you for sharing his journey with Christ and his example. Blessings and peace,

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  2. This is the first that I’ve heard of Father Charlie and your loving tribute to him makes me wish I too had known him. Your inspired words about his life and the way he expressed Christ’s love give me an example to apply to my own life and the way I relate to others. Thank you for giving us this glimpse into a living example of putting love into action. Very sweet and touching.

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  3. Thank you so.much for this portrait of Fr Charlie Rip.

    It’s always hopeful and helpful to.have the lives of “saints” placed on record. Thank you from an Australian reader. Helen

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  4. Marina,
    What a lovely piece of remembrance! As my son said when he learned of Father Charlie’s passing ” He will have a really high place in heaven”. No doubt he will.

    God Bless and Thank you.
    Mary Martell

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