The Final Conversations of a Dying Priest

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Father Arne Panula died quite publicly and for a very long time.

We kept hearing the end was near, but he kept on going and going. Besides in his coffin, the last time I saw him was when he took the podium at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast and offered a prayer. This movie-star-handsome man looked terrible: hair gone, skeletal, bruises covering his head from the treatment he was receiving. And yet he was there.

Much like Pope St. John Paul the Great, Father Arne showed us how to suffer and how to die.

For those who don’t know, Father Arne ran a bookstore in downtown Washington DC. Sure, the Catholic Information Center (CIC) is much more than a bookstore. Even more than the nearby Cathedral of St. Matthew, it is the pulsing heart of the Church in downtown Washington. The CIC chapel—which packs in youngsters for the noon Mass—houses the Eucharist less than half a mile from the Oval Office.

For those who want to know more, the indispensable Mary Eberstadt has produced The Last Homily: Conversations with Father Arne Panula (Emmaus Road Publishing), a book-length conversation with Father Arne that took place throughout his final weeks on this side of the thin vale.

Mary and Father Arne sat together in the lovely walled garden or the study of the Northwest Washington home he shared with his Opus Dei brothers and talked about all manner of things. These conversations reveal a profoundly holy man who lived his life for Christ alone, and welcomed any and all who peeked into his office on K Street. Reading these final thoughts of Father Arne, you may feel great sorrow you did not peek into that office, or you didn’t peek in more.

With great humor, he would object to my image of him as Christ waiting in the Tabernacle. But that was what he did. He waited for visitors in that small office just off busy K Street. You peeked around the corner, assuming he was working, and he would smile, rise from his desk, motion you toward the couch, sit opposite on the less comfortable chair, and begin to chat and always to listen. How many hundreds did that?

Father Arne waited there because more than anything else, he was a pastor. Mary asked him why he never wrote. He could have written great books, but he never did. He told Mary that people were his books, all those who peeked in.

Father Arne graduated from Harvard where he discovered Opus Dei, and took a doctorate in theology at the University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain. He wrote his thesis, hundreds of pages, on John Henry Newman and divine providence. And how providential was his life! I never knew until after he passed that he was close friends with Silicon Valley billionaire investor Peter Thiel. Father Arne befriended Thiel when Thiel was an undergraduate at Stanford and Father Arne ran the Opus Dei house. God knows the other notables who ducked into his office regularly.

One of the revealing stories Mary tells is about the image of Father Arne that graces the cover of the book. Commissioned by his friends, it was created by noted artist Igor Babailov, who also painted John Paul II. While he worked on it in his Tennessee studio, the artist’s wife said, “I always go to the studio, to look at what Igor’s up to. There’s one portrait he’s doing now that I can’t stop staring at. I’ve never known that DC priest he’s drawing. But I cannot shake the feeling I have every time I’m drawn to it. This must be a truly holy man.”

The thing about the image of Father Arne is that it was done in charcoal which meant the piercing blue of his eyes went missing. Father Arne insisted on charcoal because color would seem immodest.

Read the book to know his insights and his turn of mind. He says Tom Brokaw is wrong about the Greatest Generation, that those brave soldiers came home to be “model citizens.” Father Arne says they came home “as ruptured sons” and never learned to be fathers and that at least a part of the ’60s rage grew from boys and girls with fathers who may have been present but still failed. The Greatest Generation failed at their most important task. Who has the guts to say something like that?

He explains that one of the great fears of the mighty men and women in Washington DC is they would be uncovered as frauds and that they feel neither loved nor lovable.

He believed modern college education is a fraud and a waste and that young people leave college with a kind of anger that they’ve been had. So, he started the Leonine Forum, an elite program that teaches the great thinkers to young professionals in Washington DC.

Always practical, for these troubled D.C. souls, Father Arne offered the simplest kind of spiritual direction. Morning offering on your knees. Morning prayer, talking to God as father. The same in the afternoon. Pray to your guardian angel. Daily mass if you can. End the day with three Aves for purity, and an examination of conscience.

Toward the end, word went around that Father Arne was failing and that he was still seeing anyone who came to the door. And those who peeked in upon his deathbed came away profoundly moved by a man who never gave up his apostolic mission. He told Mary, “So, in my case, I’m at death’s door [laughs], and I’m having some of the best moments of my life. What can I say?”

I am one of those who are sorrowful for not availing myself nearly enough of his deep wells. Though I knew Father Arne for twenty years, after reading this book I feel as if I did not know him at all. He never made anything about himself. You would not know he had the mind of Aquinas because he had the manner of Bing Crosby. He wore everything, all of his gifts, so lightly you may have missed them.

One of the remarkable things about Father Arne is that for a few years he had a huge job. He was the Prelate of Opus Dei in America. And then they moved him to run a bookstore in Washington DC. He never skipped a beat, and he never showed any disgruntlement because he never felt any. A lesser man might have minded, might have revealed this disappointment to friends. But, divine providence called him to the bookstore so he happily went along and how many lives and souls hung in the balance we will only know at the General Judgement. Cannot wait.

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