Friday, June 2, 2006

Good Night, Sweet Prince

[The following will run in next week’s The Wanderer, the oldest national Catholic weekly in the United States.]

By Thomas F. Roeser

CHICAGO—Two Georges met here several times in the past days. Both were born in this town, both of German extraction and from the north side neighborhoods.

One was a frail priest on life-support, felled by Parkinson’s and a recent tragic accident: a quadriplegic, riddled with tubes and wires rendering him unable to speak; with breathing tube hooked up to a machine pumping oxygen and a feeding hose dispensing nutrition. He was Fr. George J. Helfrich, 78, once Mundelein seminary’s brightest and one of Quigley prep’s top athletes, a priest for 52 years, a canon lawyer and child of St. Gregory the Great parish.

The second George was the archbishop of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George, 69, who was reportedly blocked from priesthood studies in an earlier super-strict Quigley which downgraded him because of a polio-related infirmity; considered by all odds the brightest, most articulate and most intellectually profound hierarchical leader of the Church in America, possessor of two doctorates; a child of St. Pascal’s parish walked into the hospital room with a determined stride and decided limp—the souvenir of polio which had laid him low as a young boy and from which he recovered with steely determination.

The hospital room was filled with elderly priests, one in a wheel chair, colleagues of Fr. Helfrich, his family and loved ones: priests who had not spent much time in the presence of a bishop. They made way for the Cardinal to approach the bedside. Lowering his head and speaking distinctly so as to be heard by Fr. Helfrich, the prelate spoke in calm, measured and powerfully edifying tones.

George, the Lord Jesus Christ loves you, he said in a voice that gave a kind of thrilling affirmation of the fact; morever, all the suffering you are enduring now and have endured is being put up for you as a treasure for your eternal reward. And let there be no mistake: all of us must, one day, face the same trial you do today—and God grant that we will do so with the courage you are exhibiting today which is such an inspiration to us all. You are indeed a champion and we are proud of you and love you.

It was not just the exquisite words but the tender solicitude of a loving father that Cardinal George displayed; the gentle stroking of the dying priest’s brow, the brushing back of his unkempt, disheveled hair (incredibly for this always preoccupied elderly priest who never primped and had to be reminded to go to a barber, not a grey strand among it), the prelate’s soft patting of the patient’s sagging, stubble-filled cheeks with the skill of a medical nurse—all done with such care that the medical personnel, standing around, waiting to react in case of emergency, was stunned: this was a cardinal who knew how to soothe, who could easily become, with the delicacy and grace he showed, an expert care-giver himself. The soft words, barely audible, reflected the Cardinal’s praise for the life of Fr. Helfrich that was so humble; Cardinal George stirred Fr. Helfrich, himself an intellectual, that the nature of the priest was to repudiate the egotistic pleasure employed since Adam to find fulfillment beyond and above himself. It was the Cardinal’s greatest sermon, delivered to an audience of one.

The agonized eyes of the patient softened and expressed an unspoken understanding, with parched lips forming the words “thank-you.” It seemed that it was at that point the two Georges bonded; one, a priest who, though topping his academic class (straight A’s which he shared with his classmate and friend Andrew Greeley) had been a rebel of a sort, a critic of the hierarchical establishment…and the other a Cardinal, no rebel but a renowned graduate of the system. The Filipino nurses and attendants were powerfully impressed. This was the second visit of the Cardinal, far from a perfunctory performance but one which lasted and continued while the clock droned on. Then there was the singing, by those around the bedside, of the Latinate “Regina Coeli” which all had sung from the earliest Quigley days, with the Cardinal’s eyes fixed irremovably on the patient’s.

At the conclusion of the tender visit, Cardinal George’s eyes raised from the patient to the person seated at the end of the bed: me. For a split-second, the prelate pondered why I was there: probably the most frequent and acerbic critic of archdiocesan management in articles I write for The Wanderer which the Cardinal has read. I answered his unspoken question: “I am a cousin to Father George.” I have never been the Cardinal’s favorite—but following his tenderness devoted to my closest relative—I can say his service as a pastor, the shepherd of us all (as reflected in his compassion) cannot be exceeded. Ah, you say: he was kind to your cousin. Yes, I reply. Yes, yes.


To George J. Helfrich I was his cousin; but to me, an only child, he was the only brother I would ever have. His World War I veteran father called him—as so many other ex-doughboys did their sons—Buddy, the name they picked up from best friends in the trenches. Then Bud. There were many Buds in my time: Bud Pearson who lived across the street from me; Bud Ramsey; Bud Didier, Bud Bromberger. With us, he was always Bud. And from the earliest days, he—an athlete and top scholar—seemed never lonely.

But being an “only” was lonely for me. Where’s the fun of playing with all the toys at Christmas without a brother, red-faced and squawking, trying to pry one from your tightly-gripped fingers and your mother shouting, “give it to him, will you?” Where’s the consolation of having the full-time attention of your parents, fixed on everything you do wrong when you have no brother to distract them? But beginning at age four, when I deduced that I indeed had a soul-mate, not a brother but a first cousin in Bud, it was thrilling. I then ditched the wish for a brother. A super-smarter brother makes you shrink from the comparison; a super-smarter first cousin as Bud was, came with no need for competition at all but the exhilaration of having a model to emulate.

All through grade school at St. Gregory’s, Bud’s marks were stuck in high gear: AAAAAAAAAAA. Mine at St. Juliana’s were wondrously diverse: A [in history] but C [in geography], B in religion, A in reading, F [in arithmetic] C [in deportment with the notation from Sister Bonita: “Mrs. Roeser, see me—Bonita+.”]. And through Quigley his were: AAAAAAAAAAA. Mine in William Howard Taft public high school were: A [poly sci], A [English], D [math] and an F in behavior with the note: “Just asking. Do you know that Thomas started his own school newspaper in competition with our paper that distributed gossip and other malicious spurious news about his classmates for which he was reprimanded?—L. Teuscher, asst. principal.”

But the best times were the games Bud and I played in his basement on holidays while the grown-ups talked upstairs. I contrived all the scripts, casting him as the Prince or hero; and me and any other kid relatives we could commandeer as villains, determined to overthrow the Prince. He went along willingly as the Prince with a script that always contained insuperable obstacles the Prince would overcome to victory. It brought me joy to see the good triumph and my evil plans foiled.

But sports were another thing. Bud, with blond hair and a super physique, had an easy, loose-limbed grace on the field. In my neighborhood, however, I was the source of contention with my myopic eyes and thick, coke-bottle glasses. The kids would argue about me: “Aw, we had to take him yesterday! You take him today!” That could easily make grow up an insurrectionist, to want to overthrow the establishment: but inexplicably, it made me a conservative Republican, determined to stand out from them and their insensate softball.

But going to Bud’s neighborhood where he was the sports exemplar and I on display as a family athletic dolt was quite different. For several years whenever I visited him, he gave up playing sandlot ball to play our special Hero-Villain games with me, but I knew he was unhappy. And one day, which became the happiest in my life—so happy that even now many decades later I remain exultant—he invited me to go to Pierce playground to watch him play softball. I went but I had a foreboding.

Bud was a marvel. I enjoyed him as pitcher of the 16-inch ball, terrific batter, tremendous outfielder who would leap up in the air to catch a fly. But then one of the kids had to go home and the others motioned for me to replace him as batter. I knew this would happen! I looked around horrifying at Bud who knew how bad I was. He nodded encouragingly which meant I was to go to the batting cage! As I walked disconsolately over there and picked up the bat, pushing the heavy spectacles up on my nose, I felt any rapport I had with Bud might now end when I struck out. I would disgrace him before his friends.

But let me tell you, the 16 –inch came toward me, low and outside; I waited and swung with my eyes closed: but they opened wide when I felt a resounding thud, the ball flying over the third baseman’s head out to the field as I raced, thick spectacles flopping down over my nose, to second. And then even more exhilarating! Precisely as I leaned forward on second base, waiting for the next batter, through the providence of God, my mother appeared and said it was time to go home! What better time to leave than then! I would be leaving on a high! I pretended to groan. There was a murmur of discontent from the team when I left—and a warm applause, from Bud, out in the field. He was evermore my Prince.

The seminary for him: AAAAAAAAA. Then Rome. Then canon law. Then back here. Then in his youth, fate handed him more illnesses than a man would ever be expected to handle. A brilliant career was interrupted as frailty prevented him from becoming what I and many others had imagined him being: a learned bishop and scholar of the Church. Mine career went along with a businesslike routine but of the two of us, he was still the Prince, the exemplar. It was then he became truly Catholic to my mind, with a simplicity, untainted by ritualistic routine, unstrained by formal or hieratic rigidities of any sort. He pursued the modest work of a curate, a friend to unsophisticated, poor people, a patron to the dispossessed with the brilliant unorthodoxy and friendship of his favorite rebel classmate Andy Greeley as consolation. Heaven knows I have been a critic of Andy—but when he came to Bud’s bedside, he was overcome. And hearing of it, I felt at one with him for the first time.

Throughout Bud’s life there was terrible ill-health. But the last obstacle, the frightening bicycle accident, the quadriplegic tragedy, the ever-weakening muscles, the torn ligaments, the shattered spine, the crushed vertebrae, the inability to cough to clear his lungs which spelled the potential for strangulation, was super-human to overcome. After the Cardinal left and the hospital chaplain placed on his lips a droplet of the Blood of Christ (warning him not to swallow as if he did, he would choke to death), he savored it. Finally, he spelled out laboriously on a letter-chart the instruction to us all: Go home and celebrate! We hung around, not able to get enough of him—knowing this was the last time we would see him. But he was tiring. He signaled for the chart again and spelled out Go home and pray! Still we could not. So he wrote, with a brotherly eye on me, Go home!

And so we did. Thus to the last day of his life, he left us with the same graceful gesture he showed on the playing field. He has won the battle; he has won his war. All that is left for me to do now is to give him a salute in this the oldest national Catholic newspaper in America.

And who in the English-speaking world is better to impart the salute than the most eloquent poet in our language and his glorification of another prince?

In the last Act, Fortinbras says: Let four captains/ Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage/ For he was likely, had he been put on/ to have proved most royal; and for his passage/ The soldiers’ music and the rites of war/ Speak loudly for him/ Take up the body/ Such a sight as this becomes the field.

And before this, Horatio—his best friend, who idolized the young prince as I did Bud—had said as I do now:

Good night, sweet Prince/ May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!


Francis Cardinal George will offer the requiem Mass for Father Helfrich at the last parish where he served, St. Eugene’s, Canfield and Foster avenues, Chicago at 10 a.m. with visitation at the church shortly preceding. Graveside services will be St. Joseph’s cemetery.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece Tom - I am sure he would have been proud and grateful for your kind words.