Obituary for James Joseph Lonergan
Part 1: Jim’s life
James J. Lonergan, a resident of Larchmont, N.Y., passed away on August 3rd at the age of 79. He was born on July 11th, 1938 in Morristown, N.J. to James and Anna Marie Lonergan, they were third generation Irish. His father was a master mason-brick-layer. The family bought a house and had crates for chairs at the start because of the Depression. He wasn’t drafted during the war because he had a family but he had to go to the Mid-West to build grain elevators. His mother was a skilled visiting nurse who had to often travel dirt roads to get to patients. He had brother Joseph who died at birth. His family had planned to move to Florida in 1948. His father, who had a heart problem which was cholesterol but they didn’t know it, walked from the train to the hotel and died of a heart attack, so the plans to move were cancelled.
Jim was born with slightly cross-eyes, and he had the operation to straighten them when he was ten. It was only at age 40 while watching a show on the eyes that he learned that if this operation is not done before the age of two, the person does not regain binocular vision. Jim could only see out of one eye at a time.
As a youth Jim served as an altar boy at St. Virgil's Parish in Morristown. He was taught by the Dominican sisters through High School. They built the first highway in the area at that time and he would race his car on it with his friends. He attended and graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island. Providence was an all-male at the time, with a priest on every hallway. It was very strict because for every boy there were five who wanted his seat. As every student, he took four years of theology, which was a study of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa since St. Thomas was a Dominican. Jim was close friends with several of the priests. He decided to enter the Dominicans and was professed a brother and ordained a (transitional) deacon for the St. Joseph Province of the Dominicans. (But Jim had three sets of people who didn’t know each other at all – the Dominicans he knew; the people at Iona, and the people in Texas.)
Apparently after Jim was ordained a deacon the Dominican community decided that they did not want him in the community. It was the early to mid-sixties, during the Vatican Council. The important movement in the Church was away from a stress on dogma and toward a stress on pastoral work and ecumenism. Jim they found too conservative, and they might not have found his personality acceptable. So they forced him to leave. Jim reacted with strong anger to injustice, and here he would have reacted with anger since this was an injustice against him: one can’t dismiss a religious brother because he is not liked. And Jim, lacking skills in the secular world, in addition to the injustice, had to take a rest cure to let his anger subside. He could have appealed to canon law, but he probably didn’t have the people behind him, and why sue in canon law to remain in a community where the leaders do not approve of you?
Jim began work at Iona College in New Rochelle in 1968, arriving the weekend that New Rochelle High School burned down. In 2017 he completed his 49th year. More specifically, he began on June 10th, 1968, and his last day at work was June 9th, 2017, he finished 49 years to the day. From 1968 to 1981 he worked as the administrator of the well-known pastoral counseling program under Dr. Al Joyce. In 1984 he earned his graduate library science degree from St. John's University and worked in Ryan Library as an academic librarian. He also worked part-time in other public and academic libraries.
Apparently he had a romance at this time. He fell in love with a woman, who was in love with him. But her family did not approve of him, and she married someone else. He remained friends with her for a short time but then gave it up.
For several years as a volunteer he drove Fr. Benedict Groeschel on his many tasks. Fr. Benedict, who taught full-time in the Pastoral Counseling program, had been chaplain at Children’s Village – a home for children from completely inadequate homes, who had been taken away from these homes. At 18 they would have to leave and they would get small rooms in the city. On Thursday nights Fr. Benedict would go into the city to visit them and see how they were (eventually he opened a small home for them that is still there in Greenpoint, Brooklyn). Jim was often the person who drove Fr. Benedict to visit these young men. Jim helped Fr. Benedict open Trinity Retreat in Larchmont in 1974, and was a frequent guest for dinner. He would often drive visiting priests to the local train stations. Jim helped many of the people he met through Trinity, and other friends. He vacationed with two families in Texas. He met them in New Jersey but they both moved to Texas.
Although not functioning as a deacon or a brother, as with many others who left the religious life after the 1960s, he brought his Catholicism to others in the secular world. Like a diaspora, perhaps this is what God intended.
Part 2: Jim’s death
We rightly always meditate on the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. And we are called to be other Christs, which means that our suffering and death also contributes to the salvation of the world. At Fatima, Mary showed the three children hell. Then she asked them ‘Are you willing to accept all the suffering that God sends you for the conversion of poor sinners?’ And they said yes. Two of the children died in a few years of tuberculosis. We have the same calling – our suffering is used for the conversion of poor sinners.
Jim developed prostate cancer about seven years ago. He had 45 weeks of radiation, and things were back to normal. But this past December, instead of a PSA score of 1 or 2, it was 18, and he was diagnosed with prostate cancer which had spread to his bones. The treatment was a once a month radiation shot, and a once a month hormone shot, for six months. He felt weaker, but he finished four months of treatment.
Jim worked on June 9th, but went home early because he was too weak, and that was his last day at work. He started at Iona on June 10th, 1968, so he completed 49 years of work to the day. He hoped to make 50 years, and they told him that if he was too sick to work he would get the 50 year award.
On July 11th, having stayed home from weakness, he had his 79th birthday. On July 12th we went to the Bronx for the fifth treatment and his blood levels were too low to receive it. He went back to the doctor and the doctor put him in the hospital to receive blood and fluids to get the levels up, but it didn’t work. And the doctor said that the treatment wasn’t really working. The doctor suggested hospice at home, and the hospital wouldn’t let him come home until that was set up. He came home on July 20th.
Jim didn’t like the ATM, so he used to withdraw the money from his paycheck, take out what he needed, and deposit the rest. But the last six weeks or so he was too tired to deposit the money, so when we cleaned his room we found three paychecks in cash. I offered to deposit most of it in his account, but when I tried to deposit it the back refused, and I was too tired to deposit it in my bank and write a check against it. So I brought it home and put it in envelopes, and I used this money to pay the daily aides.
From December on he had gotten weaker month by month, but now things seemed to happen week to week. Counting out his vacation and sick days, his last day of full pay was August 2nd. He applied for short term disability, and the college made up a retirement plan for him to sign. But he was getting weaker, and had to use the bathroom very frequently. We hired two aides, David and Tanya, an African American man and a woman from Honduras, who were excellent, and they kept Jim company and he became good friends with them. One of the moms of the families he visited in Texas called and hearing that he was sick she said she would come up to help him for a week. She suggested August 7th, but I told her he was quite sick, so she came up right on July 22nd and planned to stay until July 29th. Between her and the two aids and the great hospice nurses, who treated Jim emotionally, physically, and psychologically, Jim had a lot of help. He could not be left alone. We had to call the ambulance one night to have his throat suctioned because he couldn’t breathe and they did a great job.
His friend from Texas, seeing how sick he was, arranged things so she could stay until August 3rd. But Jim was getting weaker and weaker. Before he was very sick, our other roommate suggested we clean Jim’s room and the living room, and doing so allowed him to get around a week later with the walker and the wheel chair. Hospice brought lots of equipment, and what we needed at the start we didn’t need now, and we kept moving to other equipment, like from the cane to the walker to the wheel chair. By August 1st he was too weak to get out of bed, and he couldn’t eat or drink. He used to watch TV as a diversion, but now watched no TV. The medicine controlled the severe pain quite well, and some days he had no pain.
His friend from Texas left at 2:00 on August 3rd and she set up a 24 hour nursing service to replace her. By now Jim didn’t have the energy to speak, he couldn’t form words that were understandable. Her flight was at 4:40. At 3:30, the hospice nurse and social worker having visited Jim, he started to labor to breathe. As the nurse said, he ‘was starting to do the work to die’. He breathed 50 times a minute, shallow breaths. Hospice gave him morphine to slow the breathing, but it only reduced it to 44 or so. He couldn’t do this for very long. At 7:37, having spoken to the priest, and having the nurse and us two roommates pray at his bedside, his breathing just stopped. The priest whom we called to give him Communion and anointing arrived, and we prayed over his body.
Some elements told us that God was very present at Jim’s death. Both aids were spiritual persons, and prayed with us. Jim died on August 3rd and will be buried on August 7th: my mother’s birthday was August 3rd, and my father’s birthday was August 7th. He died at 7:37, and he loved to fly. When Cardinal Cooke was dying of cancer he called it ‘a time of grace’, and this was certainly a time of grace. We prayed in thanksgiving for Jim and for a happy death. His friend from Texas was in the airplane when he died, she got our email when she landed and called us. His time of suffering was mercifully short, and I told him that he was winning grace for poor sinners. And so many people were praying for us that things seemed to go very smoothly in getting him the help he needed.
A series of Gregorian Masses will be said for Jim.
Part 3: A reflection
I suspected that Jim was a deacon, the he had progressed with the Dominicans, but I didn’t know that he was a professed brother until recently. This was one of the great benefits of being his friend: it was like having a priest as a friend who was always around. Someone asked Mother Teresa why she always travelled with a priest, she said that she ‘would not think of traveling without Jesus.’ Jim took four years of theology at Providence College, it was the theology of St. Thomas for four years. Although he was passionate about history, I could always go to him to find the answer to a theological question. It’s rare now that one finds someone who knows any theology. He helped me greatly in advancing in the spiritual life.
In this spirit, to say thanks to Jim, I would like to offer a short theological reflection on two questions: what is man?, and what is death? Here we have a dead man in front of us. What are we to make of this? This is the question Hamlet asks when he takes the skull from the grave.
Man is the result of 13.7 billion years of evolution. Oscar Wilde said that “In creating man, God had somewhat overestimated his abilities’. In a similar vein, we might ask, if God could create any creature, is this the best he could do? But we say this because, disfigured by sin and confusion, we don’t see man’s greatness. There is talk now a multiverse, the idea that there are other universes besides this one. A convenient property of this theory is that it is not testable in any way. But God did create a multiverse: each person sees the world from a unique perspective. So with one universe and many people, a multiverse results.
But man’s greatness is shown in Christ. It seems to me that God always intended to become man. In that case, God had created the whole of reality in order that the Son could take on a human nature, and creation could become a holy temple to the Father. When God created man, he did not have Adam and Eve primarily in mind, nor the rest of us, but Jesus and Mary. And each person is intended to be a universe in which God is worshipped and adored.
But what then is death? It seems to me that death was part of God’s original plan for creation. Death would look like what Jesus called it, a “falling asleep,” and one wakes from sleep. Man has to grow ‘in wisdom and grace,’ and in all the virtues. The most perfect way for man to learn that he depends on God for everything is for him to die, for a self-conscious being to undergo the watch himself decay and die, and then to live again through the action of God.
On first thought death is the punishment for sin. But when God approached the fallen Adam and Eve, his punishment of them doesn’t speak of death. It speaks of decay, which is suffering. And man and woman would suffer as they did their respective work. And when they died, they would suffer and die, and they would decay in the ground after death. Jesus also tells us that physical death is not to be feared, but the death of the soul.
So for man death is the way that man learns his complete dependence on God. He learns that he is a contingent and not a necessary being. And he praises God because he trusts God with his life. When Jesus tells Peter he will follow him in being crucified later, it is called “the way in which he will glorify God”.
So death is not to be feared, it is a falling asleep. When we say ‘rest in peace’, we don’t mean lie there like this, we’re not speaking of Jim’s body. We’re speaking of his soul, and to be at peace means to be in the presence of God, not without the presence of God.
Part 4: Notes on the funeral Mass
Jim did not regard a funeral as a celebration but a commendation of the soul to God, so the eulogy will not be at the funeral but the wake. And the priest will wear purple vestments to indicate sorrow, penance, and mourning. The readings at the Mass will be a little longer since there is no eulogy. And only an organ will be used.
Since Jim was not inclined to poetry nor to sentiment, the readings and hymns will stress the Majesty of God. The readings will also stress truth since the Dominicans, in distinction from the Franciscans who are devoted to poverty and the Carmelites who are devoted to contemplation, are devoted to preaching the truth. The Collect will mention that Jim was a deacon.
Jim loved the Mass of the angels, the recessional hymn will be the In Paradisum from that Mass.
Part 5: Jim’s sayings
Jim could be very funny, sometimes in the tradition of the Irish bull where what is said is literally impossible, but its meaning is understood. His favorite comedy show was I Love Lucy. Jim suffered from ongoing moderate depression, at Trinity Retreat they called him “laughs”. Here is a sample of some of his observations:
• When someone finally understood the instructions: “I see, said the blind man, as he picked up his hammer and saw.”
• On a distant trip: “He went so far away he was coming back.”
• On recommending punishment for a criminal: “I would make him wish his mother never met his father.”
• On being asked if he spent more money during his vacation than he expected: “Yes, a lot more. But I expected that.”
• In criticizing the Catholic Bishops for not doing more in response to a crisis in the Church: “While the Catholic Bishops were sitting on their hands eating high off the hog.”
• On the Dominicans: “I belong to the Torquemada wing of the Dominicans.”
• On the death by lighting of a man on the seashore: “Apparently God wanted him. And he wanted him well done.”
• On tests: “It doesn’t pass the mustard test.”
• On a new Sylvester Stallone movie:
o Ed: “It looks good.”
o Jim: “It would be better if he were not in it.”
• Of one of the sisters who taught him in school: “When you were hit by this sister, you were going down.”
• Often Jim would say “Speaking of that,” and then completely change the topic.
• On a clever politician: “He is very blunt, but he always couches it.”
• Of Hillary and Bill Clinton: “Hillary saw Bill, he was the last train leaving the station.”
• On America and Europe: “Maybe we won’t rescue them next time.”
• When the teacher who became a heroin addict was allowed to remain teaching because it didn’t mean he was a bad teacher: “Of course it doesn’t make him a bad teacher. But fire his butt anyway because we don’t want a heroin addict teaching our children.”
• On government: “One third of the government should be guillotined, the other third should be shot.”
• On expressing certainty and showing his criticism of Pope Francis: “Is the pope almost Catholic?”
• Jim said he had trouble seeing clearly so I held up three fingers and asked “How many fingers am I holding up?” To show he disapproved of this question he needed just one word: “Six.”
• A conversation:
o Jim: “Oh, God.”
o Other: “Yes?”
o Jim: “I said God, not clod.”
• Because of his eyes he had no depth perception so he couldn’t play sports and had an antagonism toward athletes who could.
o About the World Cup: “I gave up wearing short pants and playing with a ball in grammar school.” He said this on the way to buy shorts for the summer.
o About a talented basketball player and lamenting weak academic standards: “He can do everything with a basketball except write his name on it.”
• A sample conversation that shows that Jim was meant to be a religious and didn’t have too many skills in the secular world:
o Ed “In September, D.C. got 22 inches of snow.”
o Jim “I heard it was 22 feet.”
o Ed “I think it was 22 inches.”
o Jim: “I heard feet.”
o Ed: “Ok, feet.”
Speaking for myself, Jim was a great friend, always there: “He who finds a friend has found a treasure … a sturdy shelter.” (Sirach 6:14) He drove me everywhere I needed to go.
Jim died on August 3rd, my mother and my father’s mother were born on August 3rd; Jim was buried on August 7th, my father was born on August 7th.