On August 14, 2015,
the Province of St. Paul of the Cross (PAUL) in the United States
has announced that
Fr. Paul Zilonka, C.P.
passed away at the age of 72.
Fr. Paul was born on October 18, 1943,
received his religious Passionist vows on August 15, 1964
and was ordained priest on May 28, 1971.
May the Lord count him among the community of the saints!
R. I. P.
Father Paul Zilonka, CP
Brethren and friends, we gather today to mourn the loss of Paul, our brother and friend, faithful Passionist and priest. We also come to celebrate –to celebrate Paul’s life and his deep faith, the faith that gives us hope in the midst of loss. Paul’s death leaves a hole in the hearts of all of us Passionists, family members and friends. But the life that he lived, and the faith that he proclaimed, also enlivens our hearts as we come together to celebrate the Eucharist.
I was blessed to have a final, in-person visit with Paul last month, when I passed through this house on my way to give a retreat. Though we often talked by phone, I knew this would be the last time I saw Paul in person, at least here on earth. I told Paul how grateful I was for his friendship and for the example of his life and vocation. He answered in a very simple, but heartfelt way; he said, “Well you know Robin, it’s been a wonderful life. I have been blessed with so many opportunities that I would never have dreamed of having. I am very thankful for my life and my Passionist vocation.” On first hearing, the words, “It’s been a wonderful life,” might sound like a stock phrase that a religious and priest is expected to say. It’s the title of everyone’s favorite movie, isn’t it?! Yet I realized that those words spoken by Paul were a genuine expression of his reflection on his life. Even in the wake of his four-year ordeal of fighting cancer, Paul was truly grateful to God for the gift of his life, for his vocation as a Passionist priest and scholar, and grateful to the community for all of the opportunities he had received.
Paul lived out his gratitude in his extraordinarily generous service throughout his life. Growing up in the shadow of Saint Joseph’s Monastery in Baltimore, raised by loving, faith-filled parents, Paul was surrounded by the Passionist community and spirit from his birth. And that spirit imbued his ministry, a rich and fruitful life of service to God’s people in a variety of settings: retreat ministry after his ordination, where he formed friendships that would last a lifetime; doctoral studies in Scripture at the Gregorian University in Rome; teaching Scripture at Saint John’s Seminary in Boston; ten years of teaching Bible to Catholic and Protestant students in Jamaica, West Indies, a time in which he also ministered at Mount Calvary Retreat House in Jamaica and served as Regional Vicar; further teaching at Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore; service as formation director at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where he also worked in hospital ministry; and, during the years of his battle with cancer, service on the Provincial Council. What a wealth of faithful service, which touched the lives of so many of God’s people in a variety of places in this country and abroad!
As we know, Paul turned to writing poetry in his final years as a way of expressing his thoughts and feelings. He was encouraged in this pursuit by the fine people at Sloan-Kettering hospital. One poem that struck me as especially disclosing of Paul’s personal experience during his illness is entitled “The Spinning Top.” It goes like this:
Like a spinning top I had when I was five,
Whirling around at top speed,
Then gradually slowing down,
Tilting as it lost its balance,
Like a Friday night drunk reaching for a lamppost
To break his earthward fall.
But not finding any support,
The slowing top tips to one side,
Crashing and sliding to a halt.
Funny how childhood games
Offer premonitions of some adult struggles.
My life after forty months of cancer treatment
Still spins, though always a bit more wobbly,
Periodically crashing to a halt,
As one treatment after another
Fails to forestall a gradual decline of strength.
At five I could easily spin the top again.
These days, I rely more on others
To keep it going,
And, mercifully, they do.
Paul spoke in that poem of relying on others who mercifully helped him keep the wobbling top of his life going. In a personal reflection on the book Being Mortal which he shared with me, Paul wrote: “I believe the prayer which has been coming my way from countless people throughout these [three] years has been a key factor in alleviating any fear of death.” He told me that in this homily he wanted me to express his gratitude to the many people who helped him throughout his illness. Though I won’t be able to name all of their names, I must name a few: he was thankful to Robert Joerger, our Provincial to and the other leaders of our province, for their unfailing support during his illness; to Dan Flynn, our province coordinator of health care, for his expert assistance; to his fellow Passionists here at Immaculate Conception Monastery for their support and example, especially to the rector Tom Brislin, to his classmate Jim Gillette, as well as to Nick Papallo; to Doctor Deangelis, his primary care physician; to the staff of Sloan-Kettering hospital, especially to Doctor DeAngelo and to Judith Kellman for her encouragement with his poetry; to the hospice personnel who walked with him in his final days and to the health care staff here at the monastery; in a very special way, to Peggy Kelleher, his long-time friend who was such a rock of support and friendship for Paul, especially during the past four years.
I was struck by one line in that familiar biblical reading from the Book of Isaiah. The prophet writes: “This is the Lord for whom we looked” – the Lord who will destroy death forever. Paul was a man who “looked for the Lord” throughout his life. He engaged in that search through his prayer, his study of the Scriptures, and through his relating to the people whom God brought into his life. Throughout his four-year battle with cancer he continued to look for the Lord, even at times when he did not have the strength to look for much of anything. He looked for the Lord in the poetry that he composed during his illness. Through a lifetime of deeply desiring God, he was graced to do what Saint Paul spoke of in his Letter to the Romans: to grow into union with Christ, with the Christ who was raised from the dead and dies no more.
Those of you who are familiar with Paul’s biblical studies may wonder if I read the wrong Gospel today. Because Paul wrote his doctoral dissertation on the cry of Jesus from the cross in Mark’s account of the passion: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Psalm 22:1). In the conclusion to that dissertation, Paul penned words that would speak to anyone struggling with cancer:
“The Markan image of Jesus crying out in lament with a loud voice invites Jesus’ followers today to cry out their lament in their deeply-felt anguish. But the lament-thanksgiving of Psalm 22 encourages the believer to be assured that God listens, despite the silence which predominates in the moment of trial. This type of prayer, especially in the midst of a believing community, enables the individual who is suffering in body and spirit to express the struggle which rages within the heart, and to be strengthened in persevering faith.”
Those are words filled with wisdom, written 31 years before Paul’s death, perhaps foreshadowing the deeply-felt anguish and the persevering faith that Paul expressed in his final journey home to God.
Paul, however, decided that instead of focusing on the cry of abandonment from the cross found in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, we should pray today with Luke’s passion and resurrection story. On his 70th birthday, he wrote these words to me: “… my doctoral study back in October, 1984 focused on Jesus’ word of abandonment in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. But these days, in my ‘little walk with cancer,’ I sense a deeper bond with the alternate final word of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. That gospel concludes with Jesus echoing Psalm 31, the confident evening prayer of pious Jews, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ As I concluded my 70th birthday reflection I felt at peace with this same trusting sentiment of Jesus. I pray that will continue to be my attitude whenever the time comes for me . . . to pass on to the ‘life we go to.’”
Paul spent a lifetime commending his spirit to the Father. And so he shows us something essential about how we are to live our lives. Friends, as we gather in prayer and remembrance today, may we express our gratitude to God for the witness of Paul’s life, and of his vocation as a Passionist and a priest. May we be strengthened in our faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, the God who is always present and on the move to bring new life out of death. May we learn to daily commend our spirits to God with trust in God’s faithful support.
In that same birthday letter, Paul concluded his reflections by quoting a well-known prayer written by the Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner. Paul said that he found Rahner’s reflection on Jesus’ passion and death to be very consoling. In his prayer, Rahner wrote these words about Jesus in his passion:
“And so you let yourself be taken from yourself. You give yourself over with confidence into those gentle, invisible hands. We who are weak in faith and fearful for our own selves experience those hands as the sudden, merciless, stifling grip of blind fate and death. But you know they are the hands of the Father.”
Paul, you have followed Christ in giving yourself over to the hands of the Father. Thank you for the witness of your life, which has enriched all of us here and many more unnamed people, near and far. May you find rest from your labors in the hands of God. May you see the face of God and live, held up by the gentle hands of a faithful God.
Robin Ryan, cp
August 19, 2015
Father Paul Zilonka, CP
Paul gave many directives as he meticulously planned this funeral celebration. He asked if I would give the homily. In the notes I could see his hesitation- he says, ‘though Bill is younger than I’, but he still asked me. In my favor he said ‘you are from ‘Baltimore and there will gather many of my friends and family’ – he seemed to be saying that I speak Baltimorese. Then he adds his hope: ‘Bill would inspire their prayer on my behalf in that church, which has been such a dwelling place of God’s grace for all.’ What a beautiful compliment to this parish, and this parish for many generations.
In the Scripture readings that Paul chose for Mass I hope you hear very clearly what Paul, ever the teacher, is saying to you and to all of us here:
The Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces,
Let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!
If we have died with Christ we shall also live with him.
Why do you seek the living one among the dead?
He is not here, but he has been raised.
Paul was an excellent writer, a poet, a wonderful teacher, preacher and minister.
Two years ago he wrote his birthday reflection, ‘Surprise’ and then last year, ‘Come Walk With Me’. He was very involved with the writing program at Sloan Kettering Hospital; he shared with Judith Kelman the writer who founded the program, enjoyed her encouragement and had his poems published in the yearly collection – two of them each year, the limit per author. He was very proud of that. I think I heard a little disappoint in his voice when he told me they were not performed at the yearly theater production of the authors works – ‘they did mostly acting out pieces’.
His Book ‘Come Walk With Me’ really was a continuation of what he was doing during his sabbatical from St. Mary’s Seminary and University. He was going to write and illustrate the book with photos, but as he worked with Sr. Mary Ann Strain, CP and got into it, he realized the medium of communication was changing, he was looking to something computer generated, maybe something on line. So he was sort of caught in mid-stream. As he was exploring the developing technology while on sabbatical he was asked by the provincial to leave his teaching and ministry here in Balto and go to the Passionist residence in Chicago to oversee the formation of seminarians. That turned out to be a very difficult assignment, an abrupt change from an energizing and fruitful ministry. It is an example of Paul putting himself aside to serve the needs of the community of Passionists. It was a dark night in the spiritual sense for him.
But the book or on line production that his sabbatical was going to deal with seemed to have been put on hold. Chicago led to a term on the Provincial Council and that connected with the onset of Paul’s cancer. It is then it seems that the ideas of ‘Come Walk With Me’ is what he was destined to write. He wanted to use the image of walking, his book being an invitation to help those who would read it to walk confidently with God. It simply shows simply how Paul over these years and the approaching final events was acting out in his life and in his faith, what he would write about.
Pat Skarupa called attention to the last reflection, number 28. It begins ‘Rising Early before dawn, Jesus will go to pray.’ Paul Rose early on the 14th to go to God. He reflects on the Angelus, ‘The angel spoke to Mary, Mary replied ‘Be it done to me according to your word. And the Word became Flesh’. Paul ends; the Angelus is the promise of things to come, for Marys, for us, for all people’.
What is that dawn?
For Paul the poet, dawn is there to help us know God, to know God is at work. He says the birds are the first to sense the change, the new possibility for the future. The slow coming of the light seems to turn up the volume of their chatter. Paul thinks of the gifts he has received in his life and concludes that the dawn teaches us gratitude, the only fitting response to know that in life we are on the receiving end more the giving one.
Paul’s career as a Scripture scholar began with his work on Jesus words, ‘My God my God why have you abandoned me?’ but by the time he finished walking his journey he had arrived at what we have just heard in the gospel, ‘Into your Hand O Lord I commend my Spirit’. In the first saying from Mark Paul would approach the humanness of Jesus but in the second the intimacy that humanness invites.
Paul had many virtues, he was a good and holy man, he was his mother and father’s son, and indeed incorporated their love and goodness. But of all it would seem what crowns his gifts is gratitude and thanksgiving.
To many of you who are here you heard him say to you over the past years thank you for your friendship, for your love and care. Thank you, I am grateful. If you did not hear that only because of limitation of time or circumstances that is what he says in the words of the Scriptures to you now. Thank you for walking with me.
Fr Victor from our community in Jamaica went to Cape May NJ with Paul last year. And in the large house there was a crow’s nest where you could go and sit and look out over the Atlantic. Paul was there one morning and described it as a time of prayerfulness. Victor received the call on Friday that Paul died. And as soon as he hung up there was another call from the owner of the house, his cousin, who wanted to share with him how early that morning he had done what Fr. Paul did the year before. He welcomed the dawn and had a beautiful experience of prayer. And he ended by asking how is Father Paul?
Let us be grateful for the gifts that Paul has given us. We can be sad that Paul is not here. But let us rejoice and be glad because he walks now accompanied with his loved ones in the eternal city of God’s presence. As Paul asked your prayers on his behalf in this church, may we be sure that his goodness and prayers will continue to accompany us as we journey along.
Fr. Bill Murphy, CP
August 21, 2015