A Priest Forever

He dreamed of being a priest, but cancer cut his life short. The story of how this beautiful young man was ordained just 3 hours before he died.

Introduction

Even to write his name as Father Eugene Hamilton awes me because of its improbability. This is a young man whose formal seminary training was minimal, whose struggle for life meant literally fighting for breath and whose hope for ordination to the priesthood seemed a mere fantasy. Yet he was ordained, never to “function” as a priest, but to be a priest forever, “after the Order of Melchisedek,” within moments of his death. How could this be? This is the question Father Benedict is really addressing in this work.

In my own judgement, the answer is twofold, both components ultimately enfolded, of course, in the mystery of Divine Providence itself. The first lies in the life, the vision, the commitment, and the perseverance of both Eugene Hamilton and his family. Father Benedict elucidates the respective roles of son and parents most movingly.
The second and critical component that made the ordination possible was the extraordinary generosity of our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, and the Pope’s personal love of the priesthood. As a philosopher, he believes thoroughly in the ontological nature of the priesthood, as Pastores Dabo Vobis makes clear. A man is not merely invited to put on a set of vestments or authorized to serve in a particular capacity, with the new title of “Father.” He becomes a priest. A spiritually ontological change takes place in his very being, so that while he looks and walks and talks as before, now he is a priest. Hence, our Holy Father did not seem concerned that Eugene would never function as a priest, except in his very being. It was enough, in other words, that he be a priest.

It was His Eminence, Pio Cardinal Laghi, Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education (of Seminaries and other Institutes of Studies), whose thoughtful approval of the request presented to him even preceded his seeking the concurrence of our Holy Father. The Church in New York will be long in his debt for this goodness.
I, personally, thank Father Benedict for a story of inspiration in an all-too-cynical world.

John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York

Preface

This book fulfills a promise made to an exceptionally fine young man who would be gone from this world in less than six hours. He himself had written part of a book about his own calling to the priesthood and his struggle to answer it in the face of terminal cancer. He hoped to be a priest long enough to preach to others, bearing witness to the graces that he had received,  I might add, with great generosity and humility. I vividly recall my last words to him, spoken during a phone call from California, a hurried conversation while he was gasping for breath and had to return to his oxygen mask — “Gene, you will preach your sermon . . . I will see to it.”

This book is a labor of love, a fulfillment of a promise made in the most solemn circumstances imaginable — the beginnings of the hour of death. In the following six hours on January 24, 1997, almost incredible things were to happen — much more for the benefit of others than for Gene himself. But these events were to fulfill the hopes of a short, and in many ways exceptional, life.

My first real conversation with Eugene Hamilton stands out in my mind very clearly. I had heard of this student who was so ill with cancer and who was so brave about it all. Hearing of Gene’s devotion to Terence Cardinal Cooke (archbishop of New York from 1965 until he died in 1983; made a cardinal in 1969), I had stopped by to pray with him at Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, New York. As postulator of the cause for sainthood of Cardinal Cooke, it seemed something of a responsibility for me to pray with this earnest young devotee.

Gene was worn out that day and very much feeling the effects of recent chemotherapy. Our conversation was brief, with most of the time spent praying with Gene and his mother. I recall leaving the hospital deeply impressed by the faith and trust of this tragically sick young seminarian.

Our first real conversation took place later, when I came to each a class at St. Joseph’s Seminary of the New York Archdiocese. He found me in the front corridor and wanted to talk and pray. Gene shared his catastrophic medical condition with me in the most matter-of-fact and understated way, but explained he had chosen to keep his terminal condition a secret from all except a select group. We spoke of Cardinal Cooke, for whom he had such great admiration, and also of his acceptance of God’s will — whatever that was to be. Gene mentioned that he was much inspired by Cardinal Cooke’s own patience and acceptance of God’s will over a period of nine years, also in the face of terminal cancer.

Finally, Gene spoke very gently of his belief that he was going to be a priest, adding that this was very problematic unless he was cured. We prayed to Our Lord and Our Lady, asking the intercession of Cardinal Cooke, at the end of our meeting. It struck me then that these prayers were offered without any human expectation of fulfillment, only complete reliance on God and His mysterious providence. The motto of Cardinal Cooke — “Thy Will Be Done” — was in the minds of both of us.

Eugene probably did not realize how deeply moved I was by this half-hour spent together. The color of death was upon him. His hair was short and very thin because of chemotherapy. His eyes had lost the sparkle that one sees in his college photographs. Instead, there was a deep and arresting intensity in those dark eyes, an intensity that one sometimes observes in those who are facing the mystery of terminal illness squarely, and unlike most of the rest of humanity, have looked beyond what human sight can see.

After our conversation, I paused at the threshold of the majestic seminary chapel. I recall saying to myself, perhaps half-audibly, “Different . . . this young man is very different.” I need to mention here that there are many aspects of life about which I know little or nothing. Current styles, cars, TV, computers, even athletics are blanks to me. But I have studied people for almost four decades, and thus I feel some justification in saying that this dying young man was different. He had a center of gravity, a simplicity of direction, a certitude of purpose, a faith that was not intimidated by the clear approach of death. The vast majority of people — even religious people — could not display a certitude like this, or at least to this degree.

As I walked away from the chapel I came quietly to two conclusions: namely, that God would be with Eugene, and that all would be well. Perhaps there would be a miraculous cure. More than one had been reported, and even announced, by medical doctors in the cause of Cardinal Cooke.

Perhaps. . . . He was sure he was going to be a priest, but he was only taking his first theology class and missing most of his other classes now because of illness. He was so young and so far from completing the required four years of theology that there was no hope of ordination without some kind of intervention of God’s providence.
In the midst of these thoughts, the word kept running through my mind — different, different, different. It came to me, then, that the word “different” is the root meaning of the word “holy.” Sanctus in Latin, Hagios in Greek, Kodesh in Hebrew — they all mean that God is different — transcendently beyond our thoughts and expectations, mysteriously the plenitude of being: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).

In the coming months many people would come to see that this young man was “different.” I don’t mean simply an excellent student, an engaging personality, an extraordinarily kind and caring person, a deeply devout Christian, and a dedicated candidate for the priesthood in these shabby and unbelieving times. He was in fact all of these things. But these qualities were not enough to explain my sense of his being different that day outside St. Joseph’s Chapel. He was different because the “hand of the Lord was upon him” and he was responding from the very depths of his being.

This little book is about the different, the mysterious, the sacred, about the presence and action of God as He accomplishes His unsearchable will in the ordinary events of life. It is about the sacramental and the sacred, the eternal priesthood of Christ, and how these transcendent realities unfold before human eyes in a world of the familiar, of high school, basketball, proms, exams, and biopsies. When the eternal and the temporal come together, the spirit and the flesh, the human and divine, one finds the sacramental. That’s what sacraments are, divine gifts operating in the web of time and matter. This is a story of the sacraments — all seven — but it is especially a glimpse at the priesthood.

If you have limited your view of life to what can be weighed and measured in some way, don’t read another word of this book. If you are skeptical about God’s presence and operation in the lives of ordinary people, if you are a victim of the purely rationalistic view of life (blind as that is), and can only accept what the limited human mind can comprehend, get rid of this book. It will only bore or annoy you. If baptism is for you just a rite of initiation, the Eucharist a shared sacred meal, and the priesthood only a function, don’t read any further, because this is an account of a young man who believed he was called to be a priest forever. If you are skeptical about the sacramental, you will see his ordination as a mistake, and estimate that he was a useless clergyman for less than three hours. But if you are willing to bow your neck before the mystery of God, if you see all of life as a sacramental encounter between Divinity and humanity, between Creator and creature, between Christ and the members of His Mystical Body, then you will be enriched by the message of this book, and you will be deeply moved by the fact that Eugene Hamilton in the hour of death became a priest forever.

 

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