Danahey on the Loose at the Funeral for Father Manny

Last Friday, Tom, his dad and I attended the funeral mass for Father Manny Gomez.

Gomez’s official title was parochial vicar at St. Monica Catholic Church in Carpentersville. I knew him as the guy who said 9:30 a.m. mass on Sundays.

He had only been at St. Monica’s for a few years, as the Rockford Diocese rotates priests across its parishes.

Me, I’ve only been heading back to church for less than 10 years. Believe it or not, I used to attempt to play basketball on Sunday mornings. 

I found that to be religious, too. There was a sense of camaraderie. It was nice to see friends you might not otherwise see, because well, that’s how life goes.

A health issue and old age ended that. So it was back to the pews of St. Monica, where I went to mass as a kid.

I don’t know why Tom initially asked me to go with Sundays. Maybe he was worried about my soul. Whatever the reason, going almost always involves getting breakfast afterward, which is motivation enough.

Tom brings his dad. His dad now lives in an assisted living community a half hour away from St. Monica’s, where he’s been attending mass for more than 40 years.

Tom picks me up, too. Once parked in a church handicapped spot, us two too big, bald burly guys help Tom’s dad out of the SUV as if he were a mafia don.

St. Monica’s these days is a ragtag parish, which I like. It’s not one of those overproduced megachurches, which scare me with their razzle dazzle.

There’s nothing slick about St. Monica’s. Sometimes there are burnt out ceiling lights, and the HVAC system has a mind of its own. The microphone the priest uses occasionally cuts out.

The choir tries its best to stay in tune. But for the piano player, the singers seem afraid to belt out a number, as if God will smite them if they do.

It’s all so unassuming. The world needs a lot more unassuming right now. 

I also like that St. Monica’s parish holds a mix of people, with some masses said in Spanish and others in English.  

Since I’ve been back, there has been an array of priests, too. One left suddenly after just a few weeks. Another seemed sour on life. His sermons frequently focused on sins and the sorrows of his own family’s saga. 

There was the visiting priest whose services I enjoyed. He had fabulous vestments worthy of a church, if not in Vegas, maybe in Reno. A jovial sort, he’d roam the aisles during his sermons, sometimes mentioning his gambling excursions, but almost always ending on a positive note.

See, he hit on what I get out of going to church. Try to be nice to each other. Have empathy. Try to find joy in life and in others. Obviously, that can be a tall order.

Which (finally) brings us to Father Manny. He was a big, baby-faced guy who had a light touch. The good padre approached his sermons with a sense of humor and thoughtfulness. I assume he led his life the same way.

Heck, he’d bring props sometimes. For the Feast of Christ the King, Father Manny handed out paper crowns to all the kids, then had them pose for a photo with him, as if they had all gone to Burger King.

At another mass he had three volunteers join him on the side of the altar. He handed each a piece of paper and scissors. Father Manny instructed the three women to fold the paper in half, then in half again, then in half once more, then to make a cut at a certain corner. 

Each woman’s artwork varied. Father Manny’s point had to with when God calls, each may hear things differently – and that it’s okay to ask questions. Or something like that.

He added humor to a walk the parish held to raise money for a foodbank. You could donate after mass by putting money in containers for another priest, a nun, or him.

“But if you don’t give to me, I might unfriend you on Facebook,” he joked.

Father Manny hailed from Suchil, Durango, Mexico.  He learned English well. 

A friend told me Father Manny even learned a bit of Polish when he was stationed at St. Mary’s in Huntley, so he could bless Easter baskets there.

Ordained in 2013, Father Manny was just 36 years old when he died. In fact, he was in the hospital around Thanksgiving time and shared news of having cancer on his birthday, Dec. 2.

He called his illness a gift from God that came in an ugly wrapping. The Daily Herald reported that Father Manny told a friend he saw the ordeal as a challenge and pondered how others could learn from it.

Father Manny passed away the day after Christmas, which, coincidentally is my late father’s birthday.

I thought about my father during the funeral for Father Manny. The last time I saw my dad, almost five years ago now, he drove off from the Reno airport in the passenger seat of my brother-in-law’s SUV. I waved goodbye and softly said I love you.

The last time I saw my mother, her pale blue eyes met mine. She couldn’t talk anymore, which was ironic if you knew my mom, but heartbreaking nonetheless. 

She passed less than four months before my dad.

The Elvis Costello song Veronica played in my head a bit before Father Manny’s funeral started. So did REM’s Sweetness Follows.

Tom, his dad and I arrived early that monotonously gray morning, as we knew the church would be packed with black-clad mourners. We sat in our usual pew, which is what Catholics seem to do.

I didn’t head up to view Father Manny’s body lying in state before the service. I didn’t want to remember him that way. 

I had never been to a priest’s funeral before. There was a large section of pews reserved for fellow priests. While dressed the same in cream-colored vestments, they came in all shapes and sizes.

Rockford Diocese Bishop David Malloy led the service, which he said mostly in Spanish. That in part explains how my mind could wander, as noted above.

The choir/band for the funeral was the church’s Hispanic one, replete with trumpet, piano, guitar, bass, drums and oboe. Yes, an oboe.

Their first number during the funeral, though, was a decidedly Anglo one – Amazing Grace, sans bagpipes. Or mariachi. Or Aretha Franklin.

I realize that grace has many meanings, including this one from Christianity.com which says, “Grace is getting what you don’t deserve, and not getting what you do deserve.” 

That makes my brain swirl. 

I prefer to think of grace as an indescribable quality you only know when you see or hear it. It’s like jazz that way. And like jazz, you pretty much have to seek out grace these days.

Grace has a lightness about it that shines on the joy life can hold.

It’s Gene Kelly dancing. It’s Simone Biles gymnastics. It’s Bradie Tennell skating. It’s Sam Cooke singing.

It was my sister helping me reorganize things this summer. It’s a kid wiping snot off her kid brother’s nose. Don’t tell Tom, but it was him playing Santa Claus.

Most of us just experience moments of grace. Because, while grace looks effortless, it isn’t.

Grace certainly was a trait I noticed in Father Manny. A boyish smile, an easygoing way, he made people feel welcome. I never asked him to join Tom, me and the gang for a beer or a glass of wine. I regret that.

At the conclusion of the funeral, the priests sang Salve Regina. On a day so close to Nollaig na mBan (Little Christmas), my Irish mind wandered to James Joyce’s The Dead.

The classic short story concludes: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

It wasn’t snowing in Carpentersville, though. A crowd of mourners packed the church hall for lunch. So we drove through the dreariness of the damp day to a nearby Mexican restaurant.

I thought about this a lot this week – the whole funeral thing, not the Huevos El Niagara I ate. It came to mind while I was filling out a job interview, too, for a custodial position at an elementary school.

The process began with a short quiz. The first question asked if a kid vomited and you didn’t feel like cleaning it up, what do you do?

You clean it up, I wrote, because that’s what you get paid to do. I write, I thought, because that’s what I like to do.

That’s the lesson I took with me past the funeral. Life is short, so do what you can. In a world of bombast, aim to be graceful. Short of that, trip on a banana peel. Or make a kid a crown.