A man with a loving and broad reach

Mon, 10/01/2012 - 2:39pm

It is difficult to praise a man who preferred not to be praised. Yet he would forgive us for it, given who and what he was: a priest of divine and unshakable faith inextricably entwined with the man of deep humanity, one thread reinforcing the other.

It takes time to measure a man and we had 16 blessed years to measure and treasure him. He came to us at the start as punishment for sins of social action activism, both as proponent and practitioner. Accordingly he was banished to our island where, ironically, his activism was to flourish even more profusely. He was determined to do his utmost to help mend the world that greeted him at birth and that he worked to repair before departure.

He was on hand in support of the Council’s resolution repudiating the Patriot Act and its encroachment upon our rights and liberties. When absent from the altar, he invited Father Berrigan to pinch hit for him. He reached out to one and all: it mattered not to him that we were differently denominated — to extend loving kindness, there were no boundaries in heaven or on earth, and we were all human beings stemming from the same Father, brothers at heart, and children of one flock. Beloved by that flock, he reached out to one and all.

He was an ever gracious host to the island Jewish congregation and would unfailingly enter our sanctuary at the Parish Center at the start of the Jewish New Year to wish us “Le shana tova, shalom,” peace and a good year, and would often sit with us at the finish to break the fast.

He participated in the Bar Mitzvahs of Joan and Justin Abram’s three grandsons, a gift to them from Rita and Steve Draper. One was held at the main chapel; the Rhode Island diocese was so delighted at the ecumenical celebration that they sent a reporter from the Providence Visitor, the RI Catholic newspaper, to cover the event with pictures and a front page story.

Joan was a great admirer of Father Ray and they became good friends. She was so taken with his warmth and heartfelt eloquence that she made him promise to eulogize her if she died first. She did. The funeral took place at Temple Emanuel, the largest synagogue in RI, where he went to keep his promise. When in the robing room, the two rabbis protested his ascent to the “bima” (the Jewish altar) and his participation in the service. Undeterred and determined to keep his promise, he mounted the bima and spoke heartwarmingly and eloquently (as he was ever wont to do). Word has it that he was eulogistically unequaled on the bima and aroused a bit of jealously in his fellow clergymen.

He married Ted Kennedy, Jr. and his wife, Kiki, on island, and when they returned on their first anniversary, he babysat for Ted Kennedy III.

Whatever he did — on or off the pulpit — he made it look easy. But to the trained eye and ear, it was the product of protracted preparation. He shunned the limelight and gave the credit to others. For many years as a tenured professor of philosophy at Providence College, he was unwilling to disclose that he was voted by the students the most popular professor on campus.

The many sides to his soul and his broad reach, gave way to memorable anecdotes galore. When he first had occasion to come through the airport on arrival from Westerly, he checked in at the New England counter and was confronted by Vera Sprague, who looked him over and in her renowned blunt way asked, “Who are you?” Father Ray, in his renowned gracious way replied “The new priest.” She, in turn, retorted “What a waste!”

As we got to know him, it became evident that she was in part, mistaken. We were the blessed beneficiaries: as time went on by degree and by deed, he found an indelible place in our hearts.

When was he not available when need be with a word of good cheer or to hold our hand and comfort us, to help and heal us from life’s sorrows and help us to rejoice in life’s blessings?

Though uncanonized by Rome, we on the island knew him to be a saint. The life cycle events in our lives from birth to death were made memorable by his signature celebration thereof. To him we were like divine snowflakes, each different no matter the number, each to be comforted by him when inevitably buffeted by life’s twist and turns.

Dear Father Ray, though you were severely tested at the end of your days by trial and tribulation, you, as ever, remained steadfast and never faltered in your faith. You remained constant in outlook and your life’s work.

Although you were banished to us at the start, there were 87 priests and five bishops and God knows how many mourners and worshipers at your funeral.

We loved you, as you us, and will sorely miss you.