No one is really prepared for it, even when you know it is coming. The loss of a beloved priest and pastor is like the loss of a father, a brother, a friend. So with the passing this morning (March 24) of Fr. John Baran, pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Fairfield, we are bereft. We aren’t ready to let go of him.
Sent to the former Franciscan parish in 2002, for what some assumed was the difficult and unwanted task of closing it down, Fr. Baran gathered a community to himself and revived the parish. It was incremental, the hard work of doing what any pastor does: bringing the sacraments, building trust, creating community and preaching the word of God.
And what a remarkable preacher! but not in the way you might expect. He didn’t deliver fire and brimstone, rarely if ever spoke in an anguished or soaring voice, and offered no scholarly exegesis. Week after week he amazed parishioners with something simple and unexpected, almost casual, as if he had just thought of it and needed to share it with them.
It may be that he had a way of beginning his homily almost in midsentence, as if you had been speaking with him and were just getting to the very interesting part. He could be truthful about his faults; his occasional ill-temper or lack of patience. And he was funny. He had us laughing in Church, but never humor for its own sake. It was the laugh we shared about our human foibles on the way to where he was taking us.
Fr. Baran knew how to bring contemporary attitudes to a gospel passage; he had a way of taking people from the outside of scripture into its very center. His words often spoke to contemporary doubt and the challenge of approaching the sacred in a secular culture. At a time when the Church works to welcome many Catholics back, he had the tools to preach the Gospel anew. His voice spoke to those who might not find a spiritual home elsewhere.
One thing he never did was arrive at a routine answer. As in the Gospels themselves, he found new wine in old wine skins, and he helped the blind man in us to see. Each homily was a revelation. Though typically only seven or eight minutes in length— brief by many standards— they were finely crafted and complete. They had the compression of poetry, the accessibility of conversation, and the quality of parable.
His homilies ended as they began, almost in mid-sentence with a powerful insight hanging in the air. The last line could leave you breathless. How often the congregation fell silent as he struggled back to his chair from the pulpit. Perhaps it is how the people who knew Jesus felt when they first heard the parables. The words were strong enough to change your life, to make you feel more spiritually alive .
Mostly he brought his own humanity and vulnerability to his words about faith and belief. His homilies became more poignant as he struggled with muscular dystrophy and the brief and final illness of melanoma. How does a man so well understand the human heart—it’s jealousy, longing, loss, suffering; its tendency to harden—and help us see new life through the eyes of faith?
A true priest, he drew an unlikely congregation around him with the power of his words and his generosity in engaging laity in every aspect of parish life. He met us where we were on the road—we should have known that we would have to walk that road without him.
Written by Brian Wallace, editor of Fairfield County Catholic and a parishioner of St. Anthony of Padua Parish.