I remember that when I was preparing to enter the seminary, there was a newly-ordained priest who was particularly kind to me. As a server at Saint Matthew’s Cathedral, I had served with him while he was a seminarian, then served his priestly ordination. I liked him and wanted to know him better, so after some months I did the necessary research to learn his parish assignment and the Mass schedule there, which took rather a lot of work in those days before the Internet. I found Holy Redeemer in Kensington on the map, and made my way to Mass there - twice, because the first time, some other priest was celebrant.
I reintroduced myself to him outside the church after Mass, and he invited me to the rectory, where I joined a small group of folks who were eating with him and the pastor. It was very loose and casual, so soon we were talking just the two of us. I told him that I had already applied to be a seminarian for the Archdiocese, but as best I can recall, I had not yet been accepted then.
Over the course of that summer, as I was accepted and then assigned to begin studies at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, we connected several times. He encouraged me and gave me advice on how to thrive (or survive!) in seminary. During that school year, he wrote to me several times, and I to him. Just before school ended, his pastor died after a long fight with cancer, and I attended the funeral, where I saw him overseeing the logistics of that large and emotional event while dealing with his own sadness. Then, just two years ordained, he found himself administrator of that substantial parish until a new pastor could be named.
But we talked about those things only a little before I went to my new seminary in Rome. We maintained our written correspondence, and he continued to advise, encourage, and amuse me in the face of all my challenges. Shortly after I left, he himself was diagnosed with cancer – of the colon, as I recall – and he spent a year battling that, until finally it went into remission.
Studying at the North American College brings the expectation that a seminarian will not return to the United States after his first year, and so it was only after twenty-one months overseas that I began to prepare to return home. Shortly before I could, I received a call that my friend had died after a recurrence of the cancer. Only three years older than me, he had been healthy when I left, and died and was buried before I could see him again.
His last letter to me was more reflective, but no less humorous, and no less encouraging. These were real letters, by the way, so I still have them and re-read them on occasion, though I have not done so in years. I often wonder what sort of priest-friends we would have been, once I was ordained and serving in the Archdiocese. Often I try to imagine his reaction to something I do or experience as a priest, which would make him proud, or amused, or satisfied, or jealous. It always makes me smile, and sometimes I chortle out loud.
I keep the holy card from his funeral in a volume of my breviary, but have recently pulled it out to rest atop the kneeler where I pray in our little chapel, because you see, it is almost his anniversary. This Wednesday, May 27, it will be twenty years since Father Derek Goerg entered eternal life. And I remember.