Gone. I am still trying to make sense of the idea. Not easy to accept, I must say. Is it true? It feels like a bad dream. He was not even 50. Perhaps I did not hear well. Yes, Alvaro is gone.
It is not the first time I hear about the death of a priest because of COVID-19. After more than a year of witnessing this virus wreak havoc throughout the world, killing people indiscriminately regardless of social or clerical status, it hit close to home, again.
Alvaro — I call him by his first name because this is how I first met him and how he asked me to address him — was a good priest. A friend for most of my adult existence. We met when we were in our late teens, during those formative years when young people dream about what to do with their lives. We knew that we wanted to serve in the church. Missionaries? Priests? Teachers?
Our life journeys unfolded in different directions. Distinct actualizations of the same baptismal vocation; particular ways of serving God’s people. Alvaro never left our native Colombia; I migrated very young to the United States. I am married, the father of two wonderful children, and a theologian. He was ordained a priest and, based on all counts, lived his priesthood with much dedication.
Throughout my life, I have been privileged to meet many Catholic priests whom I can call friends. As a professor of theology many of these good friends have been my students; others have become friends as they engage my work in their ministries.
The 21st century has not been an easy time to be a Catholic priest. Scandals associated with sexual abuse of minors, clericalism among many priests, anticlericalism among many who do not like priests, defections, loneliness, vilification in the mass media, unhelpful generalizations, demoralization, among other negative realities, are rampant.
A relative asked me not long ago, “How can you still have friends who are Catholic priests?” The question took me aback. I have had friends who are priests most of my life. Did the question imply that because some priests have failed, then friendship with others is not possible? Are we to cast doubt on the goodness and dignity of all priests because of the failures of some?
I am not going to deny feeling profoundly shaken when I hear about a Catholic priest being accused of some misconduct. When that happens, I intentionally remember the many priests who are not, and those with whom I share the gift of friendship. I remember priests like Alvaro.
Befriending a priest is an invitation to recognize and embrace the person, the “imago Dei” (image of God), behind the clerical garb. It is an opportunity to experience a human being who, like everyone else, longs for the opportunity to connect with others in healthy intimacy. A priest friend is a sojourner on the path of life whose ecclesial vocation helps me to appreciate more my own vocation.
I will not forget the many conversations Alvaro and I had. He listened to me and read my thoughts about life as a husband, a father and an academic. I listened to him and read his thoughts about his priestly ministry, his family and our friends in common.
We talked about existential questions. We discussed church matters and world affairs; we critiqued and praised; we lamented the bad and dreamt about the better.
I just lost a good priest friend. Farewell Alvaro Rincón and farewell to the many other good priests who died before their time during this pandemic.
Ospino is professor of theology and religious education at Boston College.
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