A good friend and brother priest, Fr. Peter J. Scagnelli, died this past Wednesday. This is a picture of him when I was ordained to the priesthood in 1983. The ceremony called for a priest to present the one to be ordained to the bishop, and he did that for me.
It was just a year ago that God gave me the overwhelming feeling that I should go to Massachusetts and visit him. Although we kept in constant touch by telephone and text, we hadn't actually seen one another in several years. It was a wonderful visit. We had three days together, and although conversation was difficult because of his illness, we knew exactly what we were wanting to say. We shared old times, and we talked about God and about how good He has been to both of us. We prayed together, and I offered Mass in his little chapel.
As I looked at him sitting in his chair, with his precious companion Rex (a Siamese cat) by his side, he looked physically frail but I knew him to be a spiritual giant whom God had used to change my life. When it was time for me to leave he stood on the porch and made the sign of the cross in my direction. We both knew it was the last time we would see one another in this life.
I'm not exactly certain about the finer details of how the cleansing of purgatory works, but I'm thinking that he won't need much more than a quick brush-up, and he'll be good to go. It was a brain tumor that took him, and the suffering he endured was unimaginable to me. I don't mean the physical suffering so much, but the distress of having a brilliant mind and being unable to put into words what he wanted to say. It must have been terrible for him.
I have often recounted the story of how we first met:
I was a young Episcopal cleric just returned to Rhode Island from a stint of serving in the Anglican Diocese of Bristol, England. The parish I had come to was middle-to-high: vestments, occasional incense, a few statues strategically placed.
There was a parishioner who wanted us to have a new statue of St. Joseph. The old statue was small and not in terribly good shape. I was deputized to find a new one, but there were a couple of requirements. It had to be two feet tall and it had to be cheap. The only solution was to go to a local religious goods store and look for something that might look half-way acceptable if the lights were dim.
I found one. It wasn’t beautiful, but it was acceptable. “Wrap it up and I’ll take it,” I told the clerk. “Sorry, sir, but this is the last one and we don’t have a box for it,” was the reply. A dilemma. I was driving a Volkswagen, and the back seat was already fairly full with a child’s car seat and other assorted items. The only option I could see was to stand it up in the passenger’s seat and strap the seat belt around it, which I did.
I was just closing the passenger door. St. Joseph was safely strapped in, facing ram-rod straight ahead. I heard a voice behind me. “You might want to let him drive.” I turned around to see a young priest about my age, with a grin on his face. We exchanged quips about the statue with the seat belt, and then began to chat about other things. We quickly discovered that my Episcopal parish and his Catholic parish were located fairly close to one another. We seemed to click, we made lunch plans, and one of the most important friendships of my life began.
We got together regularly to talk. It didn’t take long for our discussions to turn into question and answer sessions – me asking the questions, and him giving the answers. I wanted to know about the Catholic faith. And he told me. He was always gentle in his answers, but he never watered down the truth. Even if the issue was a difficult one, he always told me what the Church teaches. I was grateful for that. I would have resented it if I had discovered that he was tailoring what he said to make it fit what he might have thought I wanted to hear. I learned Catholic truth, and when it was presented to me in its fullness and in its beauty, I knew I had to embrace it. I believed it completely.
How grateful I am to St. Joseph. Without saying a word, he helped bring me into the Catholic Church by introducing me to a faithful Catholic priest. The statue may not have been very beautiful, but everything else in the story is.
As I said, he died last Wednesday. That's the day of the week traditionally dedicated to St. Joseph, patron of a holy death. We always remembered that it was St. Joseph who had brought us together as friends and eventually as brother priests.
So it was a good day for him to die, and it was a good day for him to be born into eternal life.