Father Roach’s moving funeral served as his final gift

If there was one thing that anyone who ever attended St. John Vianney Catholic Church in the past 10 years knew, it was that our parish priest, the Rev. Richard Roach, was a man of many words.

If there was one thing that anyone who ever attended St. John Vianney Catholic Church in the past 10 years knew, it was that our parish priest, the Rev. Richard Roach, was a man of many words.

Father was a Jesuit scholar and an intellectual, and for him, words were an endlessly renewable resource.

His most famous literary form was something he called the “printed homily.”

This was a two-page, double-sided, single-spaced expanded version of the sermon he delivered each Sunday. It was stapled to the back of every church bulletin, and he never failed to urge us to take it home and study it.

He loved the Psalms, the parables of Jesus, the apocalyptic ravings of the prophets, the admonitions of St. Paul and the dense texts of theologians.

He was also very fond of the theater, all things British and the New York Times.

Given all this, it wasn’t surprising that when he spoke, he sometimes went over the top. More than once, at the end of the Mass, he promised parishioners that “a glorious coffee hour” awaited them, when in fact the refreshments consisted only of a modest spread of day-old pastries.

Given Father’s love of words and his occasional tendency toward hyperbole, I found myself wondering this week what he would have said about his own funeral Mass, which took place the evening of Nov. 13 at St. John Vianney.

I think he would have been speechless.

More than 300 people came, filling every available seat.

When the procession began, Father’s Jesuit brothers and other Archdiocesan priests filed in two by two, and they just kept coming. At the end of the procession, 25 priests, including Archbishop Alexander J. Brunett and Bishops Joseph Tyson and Eusebio Elizondo, crowded around the altar.

During the two-hour Mass that followed, even the toddlers in the sanctuary were quiet and seemed to understand that they should pay attention to the timeless liturgy, the wafting incense, the sprinkling of holy water and the soaring sacred music.

And then came an achingly heartfelt eulogy by his friend of 46 years, the Reverend John Topel, S.J.

Just as Father would have wanted it, his eulogist sugarcoated nothing. He spoke movingly about our priest’s shortcomings as well as his successes and the complexity and contradictions of his character.

Not everyone liked Father Roach.

He could be prickly and impatient at times. His high-minded homilies were sometimes misunderstood, leading liberals to complain one week that he was too conservative, and conservatives to grouse the next week that he was too liberal. And then there were those throughout the community who simply got angry at Father because he refused to rally behind their favorite causes.

No wonder that I sometimes saw him hurrying through Thriftway, a short bespectacled man carefully dressed in black, but with a hat on and his head down, trying to complete his errand without being cornered by some demanding Islander.

He couldn’t win, but that wasn’t the point for Father. He never thought it was his responsibility to make us all feel good.

He was there to challenge us, to make us think, to lay down the law and to teach us, by example, to be brutally honest.

I was lucky to have also known a softer side of the man.

For some reason, he took a shine to my husband Tom and me. Perhaps our background in the arts, and Tom’s expertise with computers, was irresistible to him.

And so, on a few memorable Sundays, he invited us to the rectory after Mass, on the pretext of having Tom take a look at some computer issue that he claimed was plaguing him.

The computer problems were always small. But no sooner than they were fixed, Father had uncorked a bottle of champagne and brought out a plate of cheese and crackers. The visit, and the conversation about theater, dance, politics, God and everything else under the sun had just begun.

I treasure the memory of those long afternoons.

To see how Father doted on his beloved poodle Malcolm was to get a glimpse of how much he had sacrificed for his vocation — the companionship and security of a spouse, the joy of raising children.

And yet, Father embraced his life, even in his last days.

He was devastated by the diagnosis of terminal cancer at the age of 73. He did not want to die. And yet he followed the road that was set before him, experiencing its terrible darkness, while never giving up the search for the higher meaning to be found in it.

Along the way, I hope he came to realize how much he was loved by so many in our parish.

And I hope that from somewhere in Paradise, escorted by angels, he looked down and saw us all weeping tears not only of grief, but also of joy and awe, at the majesty of his funeral.

It was his final gift to us — a ritual so mysterious and powerful that it transcended words to touch the deepest places in our hearts.

— Elizabeth Shepherd is The Beachcomber’s arts editor.