Father Patrick Rager always knew that he would be a priest. When he was 4, he would kneel and pretend to pray from an upside-down prayer book, his mother, Helene, said.
Decades later, when he was paralyzed from the neck down and could no longer speak, he prayed for people and blessed them with his eyes.
“Father Pat was a priest in the most authentic way possible,” Father Kris Stubna, his longtime friend and fellow seminarian, told Our Sunday Visitor. “He joined his sufferings to the cross of Christ in what was an opportunity for grace not only for himself but for others.”
Father Rager, of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, died July 20 from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 50.
Bishop David Zubik called him “a yet-to-be-canonized saint,” and former Pittsburgh bishop Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., said that his life was “an example of heroic virtue.”
Offering himself up
From his boyhood home, Father Rager lived out his vocation in a ministry that he conducted first from a wheelchair and then from a bed. Even when he could no longer speak, he received visitors who sought his blessings for their own healings.
“He gave witness to Christ’s love and compassion, and it wasn’t just with words,” Father Stubna said. “He really offered up his entire life.”
Father Rager was ordained to the priesthood on May 11, 1985. By then, he was using a cane, but was able to serve two years as an Air Force chaplain. When he became assistant pastor at St. Sylvester Parish in Brentwood, Pa., he was so unsteady that he needed handrails to keep him from falling during Mass. Yet doctors did not know why. It wasn’t until 15 years after the first symptoms that he was diagnosed with ALS.
In 1987, then-Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua created a Department for Persons With Disabilities and appointed Father Rager as pastoral counselor.
From home, he ministered to visitors and callers who sought his counsel and prayers. While he was still able, he held retreats twice a year for the disabled.
“We set up a little altar for him on a smaller table, and the most beautiful part of the Mass was the consecration,” said Grace Harding, retired department director. “He struggled, but he could lift up the host a bit, and the chalice a little. His reverence was so wonderful, and I was always moved to tears.”
Father Rager counseled others to accept God’s will.
Department director Lorie Uhlmann knew him as a man filled with care for others.
“He struggled with his own illness, yet he was always very interested in you, your presence and your needs,” she said. “He prayed for us, and he prayed for the Church, and he prayed for the needs of people with disabilities. He always promised that, and he continued to pray to the very end.”
“Father Pat wasn’t born a saint,” Father Stubna said. “But he chose to grow in holiness as he was asked to take on immense difficulties and suffering. He really taught us how to trust in God.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
Father Rager Quote (sidebar)
“In the New Testament, Jesus presents us with the Good News, including a reward in the hereafter. That is a treasure given to us. ... No one suffered more than Jesus. In Gethsemane, he confronted fear and sorrow. On Calvary, he endured torment, pain and death. Yet his faith in the Father’s love persevered. Clearly, Jesus suffered. Jesus, who was totally innocent, experienced rejection, misunderstanding and cruel treatment throughout his life. Yet at every moment, he exemplified total submission and service to his Father.”