Losing a Great One
Joseph Champlin, 1930-2008, RIP

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

Our faith community has lost a fine priest and dear friend. Last month, after a long battle with cancer, Joseph Champlin , died in Syracuse, New York.

It is no exaggeration to say that he was one of the great pastoral theologians of our time. His person and writings touched millions. He authored 50 books that sold more than twenty million copies. His book on marriage, Together for Life, has over nine million copies in circulation. He helped guide the souls of millions of people but especially he helped guide their pastors.

And it was as a guide of pastors that he was at his best. He exemplified what a good pastor should be: wise, practical, compassionate, balanced, witty, imaginative, hospitable, warm, attractive, humble, and full of faith and love for the church. He was that idealized pastor that movies like Going my Way fantasize about, except that he was for real, nothing fictional about him, the pastor you order from the catalogue.

I had him for a class in pastoral theology just after my ordination to the priesthood and the experience branded me for life. As a young, idealistic priest searching for mentors, I was immediately drawn to him. I left his class wanting to set the world on fire, but wanting also to not drive people out of the church with my own particular brand of fire. We kept up a connection for more than thirty years. Four weeks before he died we had a last supper together, talked evangelization and books, and I had the chance to tell him how deeply I admired him. I felt his visit as a rare blessing. He knew he was dying but was still excited about the work he was doing. He had that kind of faith and perspective.

What he modeled for us, among other things, was that tricky, hard-to-walk line between being too hard and being too soft inside of pastoral situations. Like Jesus, and all those who have big hearts, he had torn loyalties. He knew that truth, no matter how hard to swallow, is the only thing that ultimately sets us free but he knew too that the truth is not a sledge-hammer, that it must be adjudicated with compassion, understanding, and imagination. Like Jesus, dealing with the Syro-Phoenician woman, he was both a “Son of David” who because of his religious loyalties respected the boundaries of religion, even as he was also “Lord”, God’s universal instrument of salvation to all peoples beyond the particularized rules of religion. He was always loyal to the church, loyal to its teachings, and loyal to the promises he made at his ordination, but he knew too that love and loyalty do not make you an ecclesial robot and that God and your bishop expect you to act with ingenuity, compassion, and imagination. We can learn from that, liberals and conservatives alike.

He knew his sheep and he knew his shepherd and he was simply an intelligent, classy, and compassionate man. Had he not been a priest, he would have, I am sure, been wonderfully successful as a writer, a literary and movie critic, and a husband and father. His obituary describes him as one of the most beloved priests in the history of the diocese. Not an exaggeration. He helped a lot of people and he was loved by them. From his casket too blood and water flowed out. Those who knew him drew strength from him even in his death.

And, inside all off this, he had soft skin, he bruised easily. In a recent book he shares how, after giving a series of talks to some priests, he looked at the evaluations before driving home. Of the 118 priests present, 116 gave him a positive rating, but there were two negative comments. “Which evaluations,” he asked, “do you think I thought about, driving home?” Most of us, I suspect, can relate to that.

Pastoral theology today is too often a bitter battlefield, with liberals and conservatives each going to the wall for the truth as they see it. The instincts are noble, but too often the ensuing spirit is mean, petty, and thoroughly devoid of warmth, humor, and charity. Joseph Champlin is a model for both sides. As virtually everyone whom he ever dealt with will vouch that he modeled what a good pastor should look like.

He’s gone and the temptation is to say that we will never see his like again. But we will. Not because he wasn’t exceptional, but because God raises up great people and saints in every generation. Some young priest today will come along and be a pastoral model for the next generation. But, you can be sure, when he does, you will see in him those precise qualities - charity, warmth, imagination, and class - that made Joseph Champlin such an exceptional pastor.

Mircea Eliade once warned that no community should botch its deaths! We need to be aware that a great man has passed from our midst.