Today’s Examiner topic is a rather abrupt change of pace for me. Unlike the usual content you find in my Chicago Catholic Examiner columns, there is nothing about unusual events happening in Chicago, obscure types of Catholic culture, unique and amazing parishes found around the city, controversial Catholic clergy, or internal fights in the church over hot-button social issues. Instead, today’s column just focuses on an ordinary Joe: Fr. Joe Seitz, to be exact. A Catholic priest in Chicagoland over 50 years, he passed away suddenly over the past week from cancer and was laid to rest on May 18, 2012. I knew Fr. Seitz personally and attended his wake and funeral Mass. Fr. Joseph Seitz was beloved by many but wasn’t exactly a household name in Chicago. His life simply proved that an ordinary man, with an ordinary job – a retired parish priest – can leave an extraordinary impact on people.
Officially, Fr. Joe Seitz was simply the Pastor Emeritus of Christ the King Parish (9235 S. Hamilton Ave.) in Chicago, and the Chaplain at Little Company of Mary Hospital and St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park. He also was a visiting priest at numerous parishes near the southwest side of Chicago: St. Bernadette, St. Cajetan, St. Bede, St. Walter, and so on. Yet his passing caused an outpouring of grief and good will from Catholics in southwest Chicagoland. Nearly every pew was packed at his funeral service at Christ the King Parish this week (though he had retired as its pastor 14 years ago, in 1998) and the Mass was presided over by no fewer than 9 clergy – one of whom was a monsignor, and at least three of whom were active or retired bishops in the Archdiocese of Chicago. All together, at least two dozen clergy participated in the Mass, and a letter was read aloud from Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, who was unable to attend in person because of an ordination in Oregon. From the look of things, you would have assumed the funeral was for a powerful Catholic official that passed away, instead of a local parish priest that had been retired for over a decade. But then again, Fr. Joe Seitz gave the term “active retirement” a whole new meaning.
Like Col. Sanders proved, Fr. Seitz was the kind of man who was perhaps better known for what he did during retirement than his career when he was a younger man. Many of the people at the funeral didn’t know Fr. Seitz until long after he had retired as a parish priest, myself included. As a child, he grew up at Christ the King parish, quite remarkable in itself since most parishes on the southwest side on Chicago didn’t even exist until the 1950s or 1960s. Having been ordained in 1958, Fr. Seitz was only 9 months into his pastoral career when Vatican II happened and he found himself having to relearn everything he had been taught in seminary school. He first served at St. Benedict Church in Blue Island from 1958 to 1966, then assistant pastor and pastor of St. Raphael Parish from 1966 to 1989 (now known as St. Benedict the Africa-East, and featured in another Examiner article of mine), and but his greatest joy was his final assignment, when he was returned to the parish he was raised in and served as pastor of Christ the King from 1990 to 1998.
As he aged, Fr. Seitz had a bad accident one day where he slipped and fell, and also suffered from failing eyesight, so he stepped down and retired in 1998. Yet it was at this time where Fr. Seitz truly became an invaluable contribution to Chicago. Wanting to continue serving the church, he volunteered to “fill-in” throughout the local neighborhoods when needed. In many ways, Fr. Seitz seemed to be more active in retirement than when he was a parish priest! It was at this time that he earned the nickname “Father Available” because he became known as the go-to guy whenever a priest was needed immediately but none were available. If someone was sick at 2 a.m. or needed a special prayer on a holiday when the regular pastor is out of town, Fr. Seitz was your man. Despite having the status of a ‘retired’ priest, it was during this period that Fr. Seitz regularly trained lectors and Eucharistic ministers, interviewed candidates for Confirmation, presided over funerals, visited loved ones in hospitals, served as a substitute teacher for Religious Education (CCD) classes in Chicago, and led adult Bible study groups. After buying a home in Evergreen Park that he shared with his niece, Fr. Seitz would regularly preside over masses on the weekend and during the week at St. Bernadette’s parish, despite not having the status of associate pastor but rather just an auxiliary retired priest of the diocese that was “available” for masses. In July 2001 when there was a sudden vacancy in the parish, Bishop Gorman asked Fr. Seitz to run the parish until the new pastor arrived. As a retired priest, he also stayed active with a variety of hobbies that included gardening, home repair, carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, photography and baking. He also enjoyed travel, visiting the Canadian Rockies, as well as Switzerland when he was well into his 70s. But when asked what he enjoyed the most, Fr. Seitz said it was being with the Catholic faithful and presiding over Masses. Towards the end of his life, he had to adjust his pastoral career just had been done at the start of it when Vatican II arrived. With the changes to the English translation to the Mass in 2012, Fr. Seitz had to relearn the liturgy from scratch at age 81 and follow a special large size text in a book to read the liturgical text with his poor eyesight.
It was during this phase of his life that I knew Fr. Seitz (despite living close to Christ the King, I had never driven past the parish, let alone attend a service there) Some of my faithful readers may recall one my earliest Chicago Catholic Examiner columns from last summer, when I wrote about attending Theology on Tap. This event provided one of my recent memories of Fr. Seitz. The sessions were to be held in a new area called the “Young Adult Ministery Center”, and I didn’t have the faintest idea where they put that despite growing up in the parish. Then a voice called out “To your right, young man!” and I turned and saw the elderly Fr. Seitz had come to join us for an event “targeted” to Catholics age 18-34. “You lead the way!” he told me. Fr. Seitz hadn’t been asked to attend these sessions, he did so simply because enjoyed the company of the local community, and we enjoying having him minister to us. He asked what I had been up to, and I told him about my new position as the Chicago Catholic Examiner and discussed a fairly new radio show about Catholic theology I thought he’d enjoy called “A Body of Truth”, which was hosted by Fr. Tom Loya. “I’ve heard it!” he exclaimed, and told me he used to listen to it on Relevant Radio all the time and it was “wonderful stuff” but they took it off the air and he misses it. I told him that you can downtown the episodes for free on a website, and to my surprise he jotted down the webpage for future reference.
As far as priests go, Fr. Seitz was probably one of the most warm and approachable figures you could find on the southwest side of Chicago. He had a tendency to ramble on a bit too long during homilies and get off topic, but that only made him more endearing to parishioners. I found out after his death that one of the nicknames for him among local Catholic school children (surprisingly in lightheartedly jest) was “Papa Smurf”, because he had the same kind of voice and mannerisms as the little blue cartoon character. I had never thought about that, but in hindsight he did seem a lot like a clean-shaven Papa Smurf –if you could image Papa in the role of a Catholic priest. At his funeral, one of his great grand-nieces even placed a small Papa Smurf plush in his casket as a remembrance of that. Unlike my acidic and sometimes biting style, Fr. Seitz was never judgmental or ill-tempered against others motives when there was conflict in the Catholic Church. For example, during the crisis last year where Fr. Pfleger was preaching hate-speech from the pulpit and had been suspended after threatening to leave the Church, Fr. Seitz took a nuanced approach in a homily. He noted that Pfleger had sincerely wanted to do good for an improvised Chicago community, but “at some point, something went terribly wrong”
In the end, this simple, humble, retired parish priest had touched the lives of countless Catholics in southwest Chicagoland; perhaps far more so than even he had realized. As a result, what would seemingly turn out to be a low-key memorable mass for a minor figure in the Archdiocese of Chicago turned out to be a funeral fit for a king at Christ the King. The 75+ year old parish brought Fr. Seitz back home to where he grew up, and laid him in state. Catholics from all different backgrounds – white, black, and Hispanics alike turned out, and priests from all the parishes and places where he had helped out were there to pay tribute. Nuns from the hospital and cemetery were there as well, remembering the countless hours he had spent counseling people in grief over the death of a loved one. His immediate successor as pastor at Christ the King – now Monsignor Patrick Pollard – delivered an incredibly moving homily, and the parish choir provided some of the best renditions of “Shepard Me, O God” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” I have ever heard. The grand precession of dozens of priests filing past his casket to pay their respects was more than I had ever seen during a “regular” Mass, even for a funeral service. Fr. Seitz ‘s brother played a recorded farewell message, and admitted the hundreds of people who had spoke to him about his brother Joe had told him more about his family than he ever knew. The parish erupted in a round of applause. After the funeral Mass, a luncheon was held and I spoke to another priest in his 80s who had likewise been inspired to stay active after he retired and had known Fr. Joe Seitz since they went to seminary school together. He said that Fr. Seitz was the same in those days as he had been towards the end of his life – caring, gentle, and open to everyone who needed him. In the end, it was a profound farewell to a kind soul who had served Chicago loyally for over 50 years a priest.
We often hear from the media about the scandals of “pedophile priests” beaten into our heads endlessly, which is rehashed constantly by critics of the Catholic Church, but where are the stories of priests like Fr. Joe Seitz? What he gave up to help others was truly extraordinary – a lonely man who never married or had children, and was never able to relax and enjoy himself until the day he died, all because he had a calling and a belief that the Catholic faithful in Chicago came first. He will get his eternal reward, but what can learn about him while we’re here on earth? Perhaps, like Fr. Joe Seitz, we should keep a stiff upper lip and learn to focus on the positive things in life, not the negative. Here’s to you, Fr. Joe.