I’m a lucky guy…that is what John would often say about his life, certainly about his friends, but most particularly about this parish. He felt so blessed to have been given the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those people entrusted to his care. And make a difference he did. He was the consummate preacher, reading the signs of the times and touching them to the Gospel, speaking in ways that touched hearts and moved people into gospel ac on. His homilies were woven, crafted really, with words that resonated. In sprinkling his words with references to art, music, poetry, literature and the news, he sparked the religious imaginations of his listeners and changed their perceptions of church and of the meaning of life itself. So many mes at the wake I heard stories of lives changed, of people giving the church another chance, of so many quiet moments of healing.
John believed in “unlocking “ people, and had a gift for discovering and nurturing the gifts of others, encouraging them to become who they were created to be. He empowered the members of the parish to use their gifts in the service of others, and fostered the maturity of people by helping them face the truth of themselves, acknowledging their limited but overall, graced natures.
John was precise…some might even say persnickety at times…but with the goal of reaching clarity of thought or arriving at the essence of a situation. He was a good listener, with a quick wit and a mischievous twinkle in his eye…bringing humor to situations that might not have been bearable without it.
In February, John read a Joan Chittister article that colored his search to find meaning in his suffering. He was on a quest for signs of newness of life as being the locus for finding God.
Ultimately he found that newness of life in his entry into eternal life, but during the course of the intervening weeks he sought and found many new moments and situations that gave him comfort and hope.
Throughout his last days, John pondered what his life had meant, what was coming next, and how to get there. He spoke of his great love of this parish, a love that was clearly reciprocated as evidenced by the crowds, tears and comments of so many last evening.
In the hospital, when listening to a few Taize chants, he remarked, “I am so proud of that choir.” When asked if there was anyone he would like to see, he responded, “The Big Guy.” I asked him what he would say to God. Just before undergoing the sedation that would ease his breathing and prevent further communication, John struggled to tell the two of us present that he had decided to tell God how grateful he was. Gratitude, for his life and his friends, he had expressed earlier. These declarations were something new… he said that he was particularly grateful for:
- A new found appreciation later in life for the gift of the feminine … surprising me as he was always a believer in equality and mutuality, and shared his ministry and his life with many women…but his reference here was for the care and compassion of his caregivers… particularly the women who gently washed and cared for him in those difficult days…here, a fiercely independent man was humbled by the compassion of these unknown women…reminding him of foot-washing…and of his beloved celebration of Holy Thursday.
- The second item John whispered was gratitude for recognizing the concept of a team, and I quote…”without which there is nothing.” John was so proud of our parish all working together, and was so grateful for the team he assembled to help him enflesh his vision of a Vatican II church.
- John was lastly grateful for the gift of imagination, without which access to mystery is occluded. Knowing that mystery, God, can not be measured or attained by logical means alone, John knew that by providing images for people he could evoke thoughts and feelings that could aid in the recognition and perception of the divine. His was a sacramental imagination.
To those of us who were privileged to share John’s last days, he became an icon of the suffering Christ, a personification of the Paschal Mystery. His suffering was profound, as were the insights and the wisdom that suffering elicited. John Baran taught us how to live…with truth, with passion, with joy and laughter…and with a keen sense of the something more beneath it all…and he taught us how to die…valiantly, heroically resisting until the time when surrender to the Mystery who is our God becomes inevitable and in fact desirable.
And so, we are left with our memories of John, each of us having different words and experiences to savor as we continue to live our lives and absorb his lessons, without benefit of his physical presence among us. Unable to perceive the shape of him, we find him all around us. His presence fills our eyes with his love. It humbles our hearts. For he is everywhere.
Eleanor Sauers, PhD. Is Director of Religious Education at St. Anthony Parish. Her tribute was delivered on Wednesday March 28, in Fairfield following the Mass of Christian Burial for Fr. John Baran. Ending poem adapted from one attributed to Hakim Sanai.