When I learned that Fr. Philip Bebie was dying of cancer, the only way I could truly honor our friendship was to catch a plane to visit him. And what a visit! What lessons I learned as I accompanied this saint during his final journey, conversing with him, weeping with him, staying with him
I had hoped to offer him some comfort, but the real gift was for melessons about suffering, forgiveness, hope, lifeand ultimately about God himself.
The news hit me hardmy friend, pastor, confessor, and hero, Fr. Philip, had incurable cancer.
Why? Why this holy man? Of all people, surely he deserved better!
I prayed desperately for him, in every kind of way I could imagine. I bargained with God. But the news grew worse. I grew angry with God.
It was during one of those moments that I remembered Philip sharing with me about suffering and giving me books on the martyrs. He believed that somehow, sometimes, God allowed those He loved the most to suffer the most, and they actually participated in the redemptive work of Jesus. What a difficult concept to graspredemptive suffering?
I would have nothing of that!
Finally, the word came that Philip was at deaths door. I knew I had to see him. I knew that I could not let him go without sharing one more talk, one more laugh, one more prayer, one more hug.
My wife Laurine and I agreed on this as a priority. I purchased a ticket on credit, grabbed a rental car upon landing, and drove through the dreary cold outside, while I tried to contain the sorrow and fear within. I finally arrived at the huge Passionist monastery where Fr. Philip was staying in an infirmary.
This huge facilitywhich in the 1950s had housed over fifty men and even more seminariansnow housed seven old priests.
One of them was Philip.
I parked the car and approached the large glass doors. Before I could reach for the bell, I saw a note on the door. It read "Keith, I'm waiting for you on the inside, Fr. Philip." So I entered through an old foyer lined with classic works of religious art and turned into a long dark corridor. Little did I know that I would soon touch the mystery of wounded love.
Out of the tunnel-like darkness of that corridor, I saw a frail old man in a wheel chair coming toward me. "Hello, I'm Keith Fournier, I'm looking for Fr. Philip," I yelled. No response.
He was getting closer now, and in my arrogance I figured the "old fellow" was hard of hearing. So, in my insensitivity, I repeated myself more loudly. By then, I could see his steel-blue eyes, and I knew. Here before me was an old man with shriveled skin and a distended abdomen, but those piercing eyes were Philip's.
"Hello, Keith, it's wonderful to see you," he responded.
I followed him to the infirmary where, in his characteristically polite way, he offered me tea or coffee and the best seat. On the wall were two framed letters that immediately caught my eye.
The first was addressed to "His Holiness, Pope John Paul II." As I read the text, my heart sank. It was from Philip, offering his suffering to the Lord on behalf of all of his brother priests. The response was from Rome, signed by Vatican staff on behalf of the Holy Father, accepting the gift as a fragrant offering pleasing to God and extending an apostolic blessing from His Holiness.
Before I had even completed reading the letters, Philip wanted to hear all about Laurine, the children, and me, and our (then) lay ministry, my law practice
"Wait," I said. "What about you?"
"Jesus has been good to me," he said. "He has allowed me to share in His sufferings."
Suddenly I was confronted with mystery. I had never really understood what I had read about the saints, martyrs, and heroes of the faith. Now, in front of me was a frail old man whose abdomen was distended, filled with a cancerous growth, whose pain was so intense, that he could only sleep for thirty minutes at a time.
Here was a man whose days and nights were no longer separate because of the intense pain. A man who could only eat small amounts of rice, which he prepared on his own hot plateall alone in an infirmary, dying, and professing that Jesus had been good to him?
"But never mind about me," he added. "What about you, Keith? You look so good!"
For a moment, I was unable to speak. All I could do was to look into those deep-piercing eyes filled with the serenity of one who has gazed upon heaven. As the hours unfolded I was no longer sure whose eyes they were, Philips or Jesus.
It would not be the only time I would cry during our time together. Laughter and tears seemed to mingle and flow freely in a cathartic cleansing.
I stayed with my friend through the night, adjusting to his erratic sleeping pattern, and listening. He opened his heart and shared so much of what he had learned during this time of his own passion. The confusion and fear I had brought with me dissipated as I heard him laugh. Though not loud as it had been during the Pink Panther movies we saw together, it was still the contagious full-bellied laugh I remembered from my college days.
He prayed with me repeatedly. He spoke the truth to me and reminded me of the promises of Jesus. Before long, I realized who was really sick. I realized who was really filled with cancer and who was truly healthy and happywho was really ready to spend eternity with his Lord.
He spoke poignantly of the mystery of the cross in his own life and how he had discovered that this season of suffering had produced more in his life than all his years of study, ministry, and what he called "prideful pursuits." He was ready now to go home.
He asked me about a mutual friend who was also a priest. "How is he?" Philip asked. "Well, you know him; he'll never change," I replied. To my utter shock, Fr. Philip lurched forward and stared hard at me. "Don't ever say that," he said, "It's practically heresyhe must change. God will see to it. He wants us all to be like His Son!"
I will never forget the urgency so obviously present in Philips impassioned response. Wisdom almost wasted on the youngbut thank God it was planted deep.
All too soon, it was time to leave. He heard my confession and pronounced absolution over me, laying his large hands on my head and praying that God's tender fatherly love would continue to guide me. He then reached behind his wheel chair to a shelf and pulled out a small, golden, metal tree with bendable branches and gave it to me.
"Like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season
' may you be my friend," he said, referring to Psalm 1:3. "Please pull down a branch each day and pray for me as you do."
After I left that day, I was only able to pull down six branches. On the seventh day, Philip went home.
The tree still stands on my mantle as a sign of his love, his wisdom, and his heroic virtue.
I knew that my life would never be the same after that encounter with a saint. I knew so little of the mystery of crucified love, but one of his disciples had shown me something I dare never forget.
A year after I had visited Philip, I was at home on a cold fall Saturday. The colorful foliage drew me outside, and I decided to take afternoon walk in the brisk Steubenville air. It was getting rather cold, so I had gone to the attic to get my blue wool overcoat out of storage.
I walked through the woods, seemingly alone. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with a sense of the presence of God's peace. I thought about Philip and how much I missed him.
As I reviewed my life and responsibilities, I realized how much I still needed his counsel. To warm my hands, I reached into my pockets and felt a hole in the lining of one of them. This didn't surprise me. After all, this was an old coatmy favorite.
But my fingers went beyond the hole to the inner lining and discovered a folded-up piece of paper. I pulled it out, opened it, and read, "Keith, I'm waiting for you on the inside, Fr. Philip."
Fr. Philip responded to the God who is crucified love. In the words of his Master: "From John the Baptizers time until now, the kingdom of God has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force." (Matthew 11:12)
Philip took it "by force." He poured himself out in response to the One who had poured out His sacred blood for the whole of humanity. He lived the charism of the founder of his community, "Paul of the Cross." He lived the call to holiness as a consecrated celibate priest.
He challenged me in his life and death to live it as a married man, and years later, his example beckons me on in my own vocation as an ordained deacon.
He pursued holiness in life and embraced eternity in love.
I will never understand sufferingat least until I, like Thomas, embrace His wounded hands and feet. However, I have the privilege of having known a saint.
Like so many other mysteries of the Christian life, the Lord had to become flesh, because mere words were not enough. That is truly what He does through the saints. Since my experiences with Fr. Philip, I have been wounded by love many times
in loving my wife and children and seeking to serve. Now, however, I knowat a deeper levelthe wonderful plan behind the wounds of love.
Copyright © 2000 Deacon Keith A. Fournier