Remembering a confrere and friend

Today, March 3, Father Fran Dorff will be buried at Santa Maria de la Vid Abbey in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  We will also have a stone for him here in our Daylesford cemetery, since he was a member of our canonry for 35 years. I first met Fran when I was a first year novice and he was a newly ordained priest on a visit home, as he completed his studies in Rome and was on his way to do a doctorate in Paris. I later had him for a theology class at St. Norbert College, and then after I was ordained in 1969, lived in a room close to his at Daylesford. During that time he taught at Rosemont College and began to do “Intensive Journal Workshops” in what we now call the Spirituality Center (as well as throughout the country as a colleague of Dr. Ira Progoff). As Fran explained it, he moved from teaching “content” in a classroom to teaching “process” to fellow spiritual pilgrims.

He also served as our vocation director and keeper of the Abbey grounds. Indeed, he oversaw the rebuilding of the oldest building on the property, a springhouse constructed over a small stream, and renamed it the “John the Baptist Chapel” — in honor of where Norbert accepted the vows of his first disciples in 1121. The Chapel continues to be a prayerful place that, for many of us, will always evoke memories of Fran.

He later went to New Mexico to minister at a rehab for priests struggling with addictions. As always, his compassion and wisdom were channels of healing. Eventually, he joined the newly established Norbertine community in Albuquerque, where he lived in retirement for a number of years. He wrote eight books, beginning with THE ART OF PASSING OVER. It described the call to “Let go, let be and let grow”, which very much defined Fran’s personal journey — including what the liturgy celebrated today, his “passing over” into eternal life.

A visit to our Abbey in Albuquerque

Twenty years ago, Fr. Domenic Rossi and I were on loan to the Norbertine community in New Mexico. Dom and I lived at the Priory (now Abbey) and worked at the local parish of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. From last Thursday to next, we are back visiting — and there are lots of fond memories.  However, we especially chose to come now because our confrere, Father Fran Dorff, is in a hospice program and we both wanted to say goodbye. Fran taught us both many years ago (when he was a member of Daylesford), and we lived with him again in our time at Albuquerque. Not only have we had daily opportunities to be at his bedside and talk and listen. This evening, after Vespers, we joined the local community in celebrating “Viaticum” (a simple communion service to provide food for the final journey) with Fran.
The doctor was here earlier today and explained that our brother was very near the end, with days or even hours left to live. Fran was alert and fully responsive to the prayers. Indeed, before we started, he had a few words for each of us. It was a gift to be with him tonight.  A fine theologian, gifted preacher, published poet, skilled spiritual director and genuine wisdom figure, Fran will leave his mark on the life and ministries of three abbeys: DePere where he first entered after graduating from our high school in South Philly, Daylesford which he joined upon our independence in 1963 and then, after having served in New Mexico for seven years, he joined the new Albuquerque community in 1997.
We have all been blessed to know him and call him both confrere and friend. May he soon awaken on the other side of heaven’s gate. He promised to pray for us.

Some good that came from the flu

It’s Monday evening and I’m just about recovered from a bad bout of the flu.  I went to the doctor’s last Thursday. He gave me an antibiotic and told me to take it easy for a few days.  That was easier said than done, if only because I was assigned out for Mass on Friday, Sunday, and Monday.  I’m happy to report that three of my confreres rearranged their schedules to be able to cover for me — and so allowed me to stay in my room and wait for the meds to work. Today, I’m almost back to normal and will be taking Mass with the nearby IHM Sisters tomorrow.
Anyone who knows the Abbey knows the key word in our mission statement is communio. We keep it in Latin because it defies a simple translation. It is the call to be of “one mind and one heart on the way to God”, to quote from the opening chapter of Augustine’s Rule (as the Rule quotes from the Acts of the Apostles).  This description of our charism is described again in the Rule’s last chapter, when it says, “You will know that you have have made progress when you put the community’s interest before your own” — which is what my brothers did for me these past few days. 
While in my room, I got to read three books that had been siting on my desk for months.  (Since I couldn’t go to church for community prayer, I thought I’d catch up on some spiritual reading.) I read a novel about early Christianity, another about St. Bonaventure’s insights into the Holy Trinity, and the third a lovely little book that I would recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about God’s unconditional love. Its title is GOD FIRST LOVED US and the author is a New Zealander who teaches in Australia, named Antony Campbell, SJ.  He beautifully makes the case that salvation is never something we earn but rather “accept”, and then try to live that acceptance by treating others with some measure of the generosity the Lord has shown us. The book is an invitation to take seriously the heart of the Good News, “It’s all a gift”, and then revel in the mystery of the Prodigal Father who loves us out of our brokenness.

Bethesda Project

This past Sunday, I celebrated Mass at Saint Norbert parish in Paoli. The first reading was from Isaiah 58: a passage that led to the birth of Bethesda Project, a ministry to the homeless in Philadelphia. Some 35 years ago, the leadership of the “Body of Christ Prayer Community” (a group of close to 300 people who met every Wednesday in the Abbey church to praise and thank the Lord) were sharing over this text when they came to a simple realization — finding the time to praise the Lord was but half the story. They also had to take the initiative to “feed the hungry and shelter the homeless”. Our own Father Domenic Rossi and a wonderful woman named Phyllis Martin, who would eventually become an Abbey Oblate, were among those leaders, who proceeded to share their insight with the full group. Soon the community was sponsoring a shelter for a dozen homeless women, that the Mercy Sisters had set up in the upper floors above the “Ugly Pub” in center city.

Three years later, what was now called Bethesda Project, helped by a $ 20,000 grant from the Abbey’s tithing fund, purchased an old house near 11th and Spruce and moved the ladies to a lovely facility that still is going strong. Indeed, the house on Spruce Street is one of five “permanent residences” (serving over 120 women and men who are no longer homeless) that are matched by a series of “overnight shelters” (that provide a safe haven for close to 300 men one night at a time), all interconnected as part of Bethesda’s mission “to seek out the abandoned poor and be family to those who have none”.

For most of the last twenty years, I have been blessed to serve on Bethesda’s Board of Directors– and one of my greatest joys as a priest has been to preach on behalf of Bethesda at area churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Not surprisingly, a little bit of this story was the way I opened my homily this morning on Isaiah 58.

Visiting Our Brothers in Wisconsin: Part Two

(This is a continuation of last week’s blog and so it picks up where my last entry ended.)
I finished my time at Saint Norbert Abbey in June of 1966 – fifty years ago next month. Looking back, they were wonderful years. I much enjoyed Saint Norbert College and living in the Abbey was a great gift. It was a fine community (full of life and talent and friendship). My time in Wisconsin also coincided with the years of the Second Vatican Council, so things were usually exciting and seldom dull. Bob Dylan’s “The Times, they are a changing” was like our theme song. It all seems so commonplace now, but a vernacular liturgy, with the priest facing the congregation, homilies at every Mass — just to mention some highlight. Yes, lots of blessed memories. 
Yesterday I visited the Abbey cemetery. (Traditionally, Abbey cemeteries are right outside the Abbey church. It’s a small reminder that as we came together together to pray in the church each day, so too for eternity we continue to pray with and for each other.) As I walked past the markers, I stopped at many spots to share a memory about a friendship shared. I also counted and discovered that there are over one hundred graves since I left in 1966.  So many names of men I gratefully called confrere.

Today, Saint Norbert Abbey is still a beautiful place. The church is full of various colors of marble, and the guest room where I am staying is just a few feet from where I lived as a novice (but now it has a bathroom and wi-fi). The hospitality is still gracious as are the men here (lots of retirees but about two dozen active priests and brothers, with one man ordained nine months ago and another to be ordained in June). It has been a blessed few days.

Final thought. Of course, we’ve spent a good bit of time talking politics – and my brothers have several times reminded me that Donald Trump lost the primary in Wisconsin and that, no matter what happens in November, this is something I should not forget!

Visiting Our Brothers in Wisconsin: Part One

I’m writing this blog from Saint Norbert Abbey in DePere, Wisconsin, right outside Green Bay. I first came here as a novice in 1961. Lots of memories.
Never having been farther from Philadelphia than the Jersey shore, everything seemed so different then.  The weather was terribly cold. It snowed around Thanksgiving and it never really melted until after Easter! The community was so large (Daylesford was not yet independent): we were 90 seminarians, some 25 priests and about 5 brothers living here. Many of us, including yours truly, went each day to Saint Norbert College (just two miles away; we had our own school bus that went back and forth several times a day). The day began at 5:05 in the Chapter Room, followed by Morning Prayer (Matins and Lauds) and Mass (of course, the liturgy was completely in Latin). All told, we spent about three hours a day in church – and then we had house jobs (a classmate and I did bathrooms twice a week), community gatherings (meals and recreation), along with carrying 15-18 undergraduate credits each semester (plus at least one summer session). Yes, I guess that was the plan: keep them busy and they’ll keep out of trouble.


We only got to go back East for three weeks in August and, since we only made a phone call if there was a family emergency, we wrote letters home each week. (It took just about a week for my letter to get to Philly and my Mom’s reply to get back here.) In those days, the novice master read both incoming and outgoing mail. (That’s just the way it was and I didn’t think much of it at the time.) One day, he called me into his office and asked why I signed my letters “Joseph”. I explained that my father was Joe and I was Joseph. He replied, “No, your name is now Frater Henry” (we received religious names when we received the white habit) and that’s how you should sign your letters”.  I knew this was a mistake, but he was the boss and so I did as I was told.  


Sure enough, a week later, before lunch (mail was distributed after lunch), the novice master called me into his office and said, “I’ve given it some more thought and it’s okay to use your baptismal name with your family”. Well, I could barely wait for mail call after lunch. As expected, there was a letter from my Mom (as always, already opened). The first line was perfect: “Dear Joseph (underlined), Your father and I gave the Norbertines our son, our only son, and we did it willingly – but we refuse to give them ‘your name’.”  (Good for you Mom, tell ‘em!)


To be continued …

Beginning & Ending the Week with Bethesda’s Ministry to the Homeless

Fr. Joseph Serano, O. Praem. may be the Abbey’s treasurer, but we hardly confine him to a desk all day! Below are some notes from Father on his ministry to the Church at large.


Writing for a blog is new to me, but I’m happy to share a bit of “reporting” on what has been happening in my ministry.

Last week, I attended a fund-raiser held at the (donated) VIP lounge at the Phillies stadium; it was for Bethesda Project, a ministry to the homeless in Philadelphia, founded by our Fr. Domenic and the Abbey Prayer Group in 1983. I am about to finish my second nine-year term on the Board of Directors and its Finance Committee. What makes Bethesda more than just a “place” where one can get a bed and a meal; makes it a “home” and indeed “family for those who have none”; is the generosity of thousands of mostly small donors  (of which I am happy to be one!). While final numbers aren’t in yet, we think we made over $200,000 at the event. Amazing!

As usual, I had morning Mass at two local parishes during the week. I really enjoy the chance to pray with good people and to share some thoughts in a homily. On April 24, I celebrated the Abbey’s Mass, which I always find a special joy. I know much of the congregation and they know me, which makes it “easier” to preach. The homily (looking more closely at the phrase “Love one another AS I HAVE LOVED YOU”) is available on our website [click here to listen].

This past Sunday, I visited a group of Sisters outside Gettysburg. We shared Reconciliation and then Eucharist, after which I had an hour or so to spend with one of these fine women who is my spiritual director.

Before that, on Friday evening and all day Saturday, I joined almost 50 of our Abbey’s Lay Associates for their annual overnight retreat. Our theme for the year has been the Ongoing Call to Holiness. Fr. Domenic gave three conferences sharing his own vocation story, especially as it connected to Bethesda and the service of the marginalized. It was a blessed time. Hope to talk to you again next week.