28th Feb 2011

A Teacher’s Living Lesson

Remembering – and continuing to learn from – Fr. Kurt Pritzl, O.P.

by Kathryn Jean Lopez 

His life was “a testimony, a witness, to what it means to joyfully live your life with confidence that Christ walks with you,” Donald Cardinal Wuerl said as he joined Rev. Kurt Pritzl, O.P.’s fellow Dominicans in saying a final “thank you” to a scholar, teacher, priest and disciple.

On Friday at the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, family, friends, colleagues and students of Fr. Pritzl’s remembered and celebrated his life. Almost 900 gathered in the standing-room only church, with 110 concelebrants, including CUA faculty and former students of Fr. Pritzl’s.

Fr. Pritzl was the dean of the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. After a long struggle with cancer, he died last Monday night, two weeks after checking himself into a hospice.

The weather reflected the mood. We walked into Mass in sadness, mourning the loss of a friend, and it rained. Having celebrated his life in Christ during the Mass of Christian Burial, we walked out into a bright, shining sun. After his burial, the heavens seemed to burst again – perhaps for us, as we go on without our friend and his inspiring Christian presence and devotion to loving, encouraging and challenging his fellow man.

But he lives on in Christ, remaining here – in the memories and testimonies of so many who encountered him professionally, educationally, pastorally and socially as a model of life in Christ.

He even lives on virtually, through the blessing of YouTube, even to those who never had the honor of knowing him during his life on earth. A homily Fr. Pritzl gave last year on the Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas – in the same crypt church where we gathered for his funeral Mass – offers a beautiful introduction. Appropriately, the first click-through many people found on Google searches of his name as they learned of his death ended with this:

Saint Thomas Aquinas’ life in its holiness shows us that love, real love, divine, unconditional love, actually happens in human lives. God grant that it happen in our lives, even in our lives here together in this university, for as long as we are granted to stay here.

Holiness, of course, is not the wholly owned subsidiary of officially canonized saints of the Catholic Church, brilliant men and women like Dominican doctors of the Church Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena. It’s the call of each and every one of us – to be saints. And it was hard not to notice Fr. Pritzl yearning to answer that call every day of his life, in every class, in every run-in, in every correspondence, and finally, as he asked for prayers as he suffered.

He would ask for prayers that he would remain faithful to his vocation through his dying hour, that he would discern and serve His Creator’s will in the last moments of his life. It’s a prayer we all could afford to echo as we remain here, inspired by his life and aspiring to meet him once again in the arms of our Heavenly Father when our time on earth is done – when we meet him at home.

Fr. Pritzl had a great gift for friendship, Rev. Edward Gorman, O.P., remembered during his homily at the funeral Mass Friday. So many who gathered had stories of Fr. Pritzl writing to them, spiritually advising them, marrying them, baptizing their children, encouraging them. One of his colleagues described his fidelity to keeping in contact with so many people who loved him as an “apostolate” of his.

This good man and holy priest was also a great scholar. He loved to teach, he loved to listen, and he loved to argue. He wanted to bring you closer to the Truth – to Christ, the Resurrection and the Life.

Fr. Pritzl, “would always listen,” Fr. Gorman, a novitiate classmate, remembered. “And then, when he was done listening, then he’d let you have it because he was your friend.”

“And a friend tells you the truth.”  He had an unforgettable, loving “Pritzl glare” if you weren’t making sense.

“His stubbornness was part of his friendship,” he said. “He was good at arguing. He did it for a living. … He was always honest.”

His life as a priest spanned both sides of Michigan Avenue, where the Shrine and CUA sit. The Dominican House of Studies, home of the community that nurtured his faith was on one side, and his office and classrooms were on the other. Frequently, those he taught in the classroom were physically drawn in deeper to the life of faith he and his brother Dominicans lived on the other side, attending Mass with the community there.

The Milwaukee native’s community and professional home here – the Dominican House and Catholic University – exist to bring us home. To contemplate and to share with others what is contemplated (as Fr. Pritzl explains in another YouTube hit), and to live this confidently in prayer and service, humbly and with great love.

For we are made in the image and likeness of God, and we live here to die to live in His presence.

In his final days, Fr. Pritzl “knew it was time to go home,” his friend and brother Dominican Fr. Gorman, told us.

On Thursday night, as Fr. Pritzl’s body was on view in the Dominican House chapel, those gathered sang, for him and for us:

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the wave and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

Sitting across from Fr. Brian Shanley, now president of Providence College, I looked for Fr. Pritzl out of habit, expecting him to be a few seats down. That’s how I remembered things back when they were both young philosophy professors at CUA, my teachers. Time marches on, but the lessons remain.

Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus understood that “one is consumed by Love to the extent that one is surrendered to Love.” Anyone who sat in Fr. Kurt Pritzl’s classroom, anyone who was on the receiving end of his life of service, was directed to the source of his joy, the Lord God this Aristotelian scholar wanted to bring others to. May we be so consumed. Students, following the Teacher. Until we rest with Him. 

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She speaks frequently on faith and public life. 

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)