Funeral Homily for Father Phillip A. Widmann
St. Peter Church, Fort Wayne, Indiana
March 22, 2021
Friend, Priest, and Disciple
Bishop Rhoades, brother priests and deacons, those in consecrated life, seminarians, and all dear brothers and sisters in Christ, In requesting that I preach his funeral homily, Fr. Widmann made it clear that he did not want me to share vignettes about himself. “Just stick to the Scripture readings”: that was his directive to the homilist. But then again, Father Phil’s whole life was saturated with the Scriptures, so by my calculations, I have some latitude to speak personally about him. If I may, then, I’d like to speak about Fr. Phil as a friend, as a priest, and as a disciple.
Father Phil, the Friend
I have been privileged to account myself as Fr. Phil’s friend since January 1972. That’s when he entered The Seminary of St. Pius X in Erlanger, Kentucky where, at the time, I was studying, and as luck would have it, we were in the same class. We became fast friends when I guessed him to be eight years younger than he was; when he found out that I liked to read about the Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt; and when he discovered my interest in antiques and old cars, especially Studebakers. From the start, there was also a genuine reciprocity and mutuality in the relationship. After working at International Harvester for a number of years, Phil was understandably wary of returning to the classroom, especially to study something so speculative as philosophy. Up to that point in my life, however, I had done nothing except go to school, so I helped him with subjects like Epistemology and Metaphysics … and he did quite well. Phil, on the other hand, lent me the practical wisdom that I sorely lacked. In our conversations and by his example, Phil taught me a lot about assessing situations, standing on principle, and taking care of business promptly.
Former union steward that he was, Phil challenged those he thought were wrong. That included me when I told him philosophy would help in the study of theology. After we began our theological studies at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Phil never missed a chance to tell me that philosophy was doing him no good at all. Undaunted, I teamed up with a fellow seminarian, one Steven P. Rohlfs, to persuade Phil not to do an M.Div. degree but to go all out for the Masters’ Degree. In the throes of preparing for his comprehensive exams and his thesis, Phil swore he would never forgive the two of us – but, as always, he did well – and I was happy to see that Fr. Phil included his M.A. from the Mount in his obituary.
Through the years, through thick and thin, we remained friends. We visited one another in the summers, though in hindsight, not nearly often enough. When we spoke on the phone, it was as though the years melted away. In later years, Phil sent me mementos that recalled our friendship, including a pair of his cuff links that I admired way back when (I’m wearing them today), and also a pair of cuff links that had belonged to Bishop Pursley … Bishop Rhoades, I really hope that you won’t make me give them back! Let me conclude this point on friendship with words from the Book of Sirach: “A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who finds one finds a treasure” (Sirach 6:1). In Fr. Phil, I found the shelter and the treasure of a true and lasting priestly friendship.
Father Phil, the Priest
Fr. Phil and I were ordained in 1977, he on January 15th, and myself on May 14th. Though at the time he was considered a ‘delayed vocation’, it was very clear that he was cut out to be a priest, and he was indeed a very good and faithful priest, whose life and ministry was rooted in the Eucharistic celebration of the Paschal Mystery. As his obituary noted, he served generously in a variety of parishes and other ministries such as teaching moral theology at Bishop Dwenger High School, serving as chaplain to the Bishop Dwenger football team, directing the Office of the Propagation of the Faith, serving for years as diocesan MC, and founding and directing the wonderful Diocesan Museum, from 1978 until now. Fr. Phil truly cherished the heritage of this diocese and the State of Indiana.
I think it is safe to say that, as pastor, he left his parishes better than he found them. He was the first member of our class to be appointed a pastor, at St. Mary of the Assumption in Avilla… and as soon as could, I visited his new benefice. One of the most obvious things I observed was that he was a good administrator. He responded promptly to needs and challenges, understood how to use resources, made sure the parish plant was in good condition, and was well-liked by the people. Less obvious to me at the time, but no less real, was his genuine pastoral love, a love which rooted in daily prayer, the Eucharist, and his devotion to the Bl. Mother. Appointed to be pastor here at St. Peter’s, his home parish, as well as at St. Mary’s, my friend Phil thought he had entered the new and eternal Jerusalem. He told me that he would henceforth lay low, lest his bishop get ideas of moving him. Fr. Phil was a gentleman, and by nature a gentle person, but he was also a truth-teller. One memorable Lenten homily, preached from this very pulpit, went like this: “This Lent I think you need to get serious, because looking around, I don’t think some of you will make it until next Lent” … only your friends will tell you!
An index of Fr. Phil’s priestly goodness was his resolve to serve as long as he could. Msgr. Rohlfs and I visited Phil a few years ago, and it was clear that Parkinson’s had greatly impaired him. Not unlike St. John Paul II, however, Fr. Phil kept going, doing all that he could until his physical condition left him no other choice but to retire. Here, I think, he demonstrated a true spousal love for the Church and for his people, loving them “for better or for worse, in good times and bad, in sickness and in health.”
Father Phil, the Disciple
Finally, let me say a word about Fr. Phil, the disciple of the Lord. Those of us who knew Fr. Phil realize that he was down to earth and practical, and that he was not one to be carried away by dreams or overly optimistic plans. This is not to suggest that he lacked vision or that he was in the least unenthusiastic. Nor did his realism translate into a cynicism that stops so many in their tracks. Rather, he was one who calculated carefully before he built the tower or went to war.
All the more remarkable, I thought, that the Scripture readings he chose look toward that absolute and beautiful future found only in the Risen Lord. Appropriate for us Mounties, he chose a reading from Isaiah that speaks of the Lord’s holy mountain where strife, sorrow, and hunger are at an end, where we are safe and secure in the Lord…the Lord ‘to whom we looked to save us.’ So too, Fr. Phil chose a reading from the Book of Revelation which speaks of the indescribable beauty of the new and heavenly Jerusalem, that place where God dwells and is worshipped by the redeemed, that place where there is no more mourning, or wailing, or pain – and where in Jesus, the Victor over sin and death, Fr. Phil will be a beloved son. Finally, Fr. Phil chose a passage from the Gospel of John where Jesus expresses his deep and tender love for his disciples – “Father, those whom you gave me are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me . . . .” The choice of these readings suggests to me this facet of his spiritual life, viz., that Fr. Phil lived in this passing world with his heart set on the world that is to come.
Fr. Phil expressed this longing for God in his daily prayer, especially the Divine Office, the recitation of the Rosary, and his devotion to the Eucharist. His prayers, clearly, were not formalistic but rather from the heart. He was not only the Lord’s good priest; he was also the Lord’s good disciple. As his illness progressed, Fr. Phil had many very difficult days and how grateful we should be to all those who took such good care of him. I cannot discount the possibility that he grumbled – that he always did – but I can say for sure that, deep down, he accepted this cup of suffering, that is to say, his participation in the Lord’s suffering and death, and that he ended his days every inch the priest and victim he resolved to be on that happy day in 1972 when I was privileged to meet Phillip Allen Widmann.
Phil, my good friend, may your great priestly soul rest in peace! Amen.