The Holiest Priest I’ve Ever Known

Birgit - presiders chairs

Birgit - presiders chairs

“Jesus Christ is Lord!”

I can still hear the booming voice echoing through Dowd Chapel on the campus of Boys Town in Omaha, NE. The voice was unmistakable in its passion and its clarity, and for many years, was a mainstay in my experience of attending Mass.

Every once in awhile, the world is graced with a priest who is so holy, so reverent, and so in love with the Eucharist that his whole life becomes a witness to the love God has for the world.

For the last twenty years, I have had the privilege of knowing such a priest. Monsignor Peter Dunne passed away on October 8th, 2015, after serving the Archdiocese of Omaha for over seven decades. My mother was his caregiver for the final twenty years of his life, making sure that he was able to serve as a priest in the fullest capacity for as long as he could.

My memories of Monsignor Dunne go back to when I was in middle school. He said the 11:40 Mass every day over the summer at Boys Town’s Dowd Chapel. Since I enjoyed being an altar server, I approached and asked if I could serve as the daily altar server for his Masses over the summer. I considered it a great honor to be able to assist him during Mass every day. It was there that I first noticed his devotional love of the Eucharist, his passion for preaching, his unrelenting faith, and his love for the children of God.

I began going to Confession with him on a regular basis. As a young teenager, my experience was characterized by the sheepish feeling of always having to confess the same sins, but even then I remember the understanding and gentleness with which he heard confessions. He was always tough on me, calling me to something greater. He didn’t sugarcoat sin as so many do nowadays. He reminded me how selfish sin is, but I never left that confessional confused about how much Christ loved me. The confession always ended with, “Keep up the good work, you’re doing a great job”. How he managed to be tough on me, remind me of the selfishness of my sin, and show me how much Christ loved me all at the same time, I may never know.

There is a plaque that sits on a shelf in his now-empty apartment. There are two pictures juxtaposed alongside each other: one of him as a young priest, and one of him as an older priest. The caption reads, “Legendary love, uncompromising faith”. This caption sums up what it was like to know Monsignor Dunne, and probably answers the question about how he conveyed what he did during the sacrament of Confession.

As the years passed, his health gradually declined. At Mass, his homilies became repetitive, but somehow people did not seem to tire of hearing the messages he continued to drive home. Each of his regular listeners could undoubtedly repeat the beginning of the Baltimore Catechism: “Who made you? God. Why? To know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world so as to be happy with him forever in the next”. And in that booming voice:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and the second commandment is like it…”.  He continually told us, “forgive, forgive, forgive.”  And, in his last months, every conversation and prayer ended with, “Here I am, Lord, I come to do Your will.”

In 2011, at the age of 92, with the advent of the new Roman Missal and his eyesight having deteriorated to the point that he could not read the new prayers, Monsignor Dunne had to discontinue his Masses in public.  His archbishop dispensed him from the new missal and gave him permission to continue celebrating the old Mass in private which he did up to the last month of his life.

Over a period of several years, my mother would host a brunch each Sunday at noon, and occasionally I would stop in for this. Eventually Monsignor Dunne, unable to see or hear very well, could no longer join in our conversations over brunch. Health scares came and went until finally one came and claimed his life. He died peacefully, surrounded by loved ones, and I have little doubt his soul went straight from his deathbed into the arms of Christ.

Monsignor Dunne has now passed on from this life and is probably partying all day, every day in Heaven. During the funeral proceedings, which seemed much more like a celebration than a funeral, the Archbishop made a few comments, musing about how fun it might be to think about all the lives Monsignor Dunne had touched in his 71 years as a priest. I am certainly among those lives that he touched, and so here are a few aphorisms that will forever be etched into my memories of Monsignor Peter Dunne.

“He is Lord of all or not at all.”

This is perhaps my favorite of all his adages. He was always quick to remind his audience that “Heaven is all the way to Heaven now and hell is all the way to hell now”. He taught that our lives should be a complete and humble acceptance of God’s will and that, by doing so or not doing so, we can taste Heaven or hell even now . He did not shy away from reminding us that hell is real, and we can choose to go there. He fought against the complacency that comes when we forget that our eternal souls are on the line in the way we live our lives. He had a real live passion for encouraging people to place Christ at the center of their lives, and that there is no way to “half-serve” Christ or be a “part-time” Christian.

This truth calls us to leave our sin behind and fully embrace Christ as our Lord and Savior. It calls us to consistently seek repentance for our wrongs and place them at the foot of the cross. In a world consumed by relativism and selfism, this is a jarring sentiment that demands a response on the part of the believer. And as the adage implies, the response has eternal consequences.

“There is no happiness in sin; it is a contradiction in terms.”

This is self-evident, as it is universally known through our experiences. In all my time knowing Monsignor Dunne, he constantly preached virtue and encouraged me to turn away from sin. Of course he knew that this was easier said than done, but he always reminded me of the unhappiness and sorrow that comes from living a life incongruent with that to which Christ calls us.

This is a truth that resonates so deeply in humanity, but yet somehow is widely either vilified or denied. Relativism has attempted to erase any shred of objective morality, but Truth still calls to us. The scars of humanity reveal the truth of this statement. Monsignor Dunne constantly reminded me and others that no matter how appealing sin might seem on the surface, it cannot and will not ever lead to joy. Over the years, I came to understand the truth contained within this idea, and this understanding continues to guide the decisions I make in my life every day.

“It’s all about relationships.”

Monsignor Dunne was quick to preach forgiveness. He understood that our relationships with one another are where we find happiness, and that those same relationships can be reflections of the joy we experience in our relationship with our Heavenly Father. No relationship is perfect, and every relationship finds the need for forgiveness cropping up with relative frequency. He recognized this and encouraged forgiveness at every opportunity.

Conversely, Monsignor Dunne also saw the bitterness that came with unforgiveness. The resentment that persons hold onto can become toxic, and eventually leads to isolation, depression, despair, and hopelessness. These, in turn, lead to broken families, destroyed marriages, and children caught in the middle of the parents’ mess. He understood that forgivenesses is of paramount importance in the home and in our daily lives.

Another aspect of this is the idea of sacrifice. He taught that sacrifice brought joy, and it is through giving that we receive. He understood the importance of sacrifice for married persons, for parents, and for children. He knew that selfishness breeds sin, and again, there can be no happiness in sin. The call to sacrifice is one that has stayed with me for many years, and one that continues to serve me well in my marriage and with my children.

These are just a few of the lessons that I will always remember from Monsignor Dunne. I could easily go on. While they are great lessons and ideas, the truth is that they would be far less impressive if they were not a direct and authentic reflection of the way the man lived his life as a priest. He was quick to forgive, quick to sacrifice, quick to call people out of sin and encourage them toward virtue. He quite literally lived out his deep love for the Eucharist in the relationships he had with the people who surrounded him. He practiced gratitude as a way of life and was as kind and thoughtful as he was passionate and unrelenting in his faith.

He is a man who will be mourned and missed by many. His legacy is a legacy of love, and those who knew him can tell stories of his abounding kindness, generosity, humor, and humility. He never sought to be recognized by this world, but made it the point of his life to be recognized by Christ. He had a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and when younger, he could often be found pacing the aisles at the chapel praying the rosary.

Though Monsignor Dunne has passed on from this life, we still have the memories and the wisdom that he passed along to us. No matter what happens or where this life continues to take me, I will forever be able to hear that booming voice:

“Jesus Christ is Lord!”  Now and forever.

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