Goodbye, Father Tim Kernan
In conventional terms, Father Tim Kernan's life was complicated by problems and suffering. But many of us are richer people because of this extraordinary man.
by Jerome F. Winzig
A week ago we said goodbye to Father Tim Kernan at an emotional, tear-filled celebratory funeral in a church packed with hundreds of his past and present parishioners, friends, fellow priests and religious, and several bishops. The presence of so many was a powerful testimony that Father Tim's importance in our lives went far beyond the mere facts of his life. He died too young, just 61 years old. He had serious heart trouble and a host of other medical problems. He was bi-polar, had undergone shock treatments, and was a recovering alcoholic.
None of that mattered when the Vietnamese choir raised their voices in song during the offering as the assembled congregation pondered the names of the Trinity written high on the walls behind the altar in Polish -- BOG OJCIEC, SYN BOZY, DUCH SWIETY. What a magnificent witness to the universality of the Gospel as the Vietnamese parishioners whom Father Tim had welcomed to St. Adalbert's filled the sanctuary of this old Polish Catholic church in St. Paul.
We first met Tim 28 years ago, before we were married. He was the first president of the fledgling South Minneapolis Coalition, a coalition of churches and neighborhood groups that my wife-to-be served as treasurer and for whom I worked part-time. Along with my wife's Lutheran pastor, he married us in a wedding centered around a joint, concelebrated Lutheran-Catholic communion service. And my uncle, ostracized almost three decades earlier by his Catholic family for marrying a Lutheran, came to communion with the rest of the family. It wasn't quite by the book, but then Tim was given to breaking the rules to preach the Gospel.
Father Tim's funeral spoke eloquently of God's power in human existence and of Tim's compassion and love, tempered as they were by suffering and trial. In his homily, Father Gregory Welch talked of the woman from the archdiocese who stopped by one day for a progress report on the parish's deaconate program. She knocked on the back door of the rectory and there was no answer. She knocked again, and heard Tim shout, "Come on in, the door's open." Tim brought her in to the kitchen, where -- Father Welch explained -- Tim did much of the parish business, including counseling, confession, and absolution. He then went on to use Tim's shouted welcome as a metaphor for his attitude toward the church: "Come on in, the door's open."
In his eulogy, Tim's brother spoke of how important Tim was in his life as his guide and moral compass. Tim's niece echoed those feelings, and his nephew recounted the joys and challenges of vacationing with his uncle in Alaska and Ireland. The church council president pledged that St. Adalbert's would continue to be the welcoming place Tim had helped it to be, and then told of how Tim had sponsored him and his family as refugees from Vietnam eight years before. Archbishop Harry Flynn shared the feelings of the secretaries at the chancery office; whenever Tim called there, he would always ask the secretary who answered the phone how she was doing. Then the archbishop said, simply, "We loved him; we loved this great man."
At the end of the service, dozens of Father Tim's fellow priests stood on either side of the center aisle as Tim's casket moved between them for half the length of the sanctuary, while the congregation sang the refrain for the closing hymn, "And I will raise you up, and I will raise you up, and I will raise you up on the last day."
The last page of the bulletin for the service contained the words of an Irish blessing that I'm sure Tim used when we had dinner with him last year: "May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face, may the rains fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand."
Many of us are richer people because of Father Tim. Goodbye, until we meet again.