ECCE SACERDOS MAGNUS!
“Behold a Great Priest!”
The Most Reverend Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Belleville
The Reverend Henry J. Fischer
(June 26, 1945- June 3, 2013)
The startling news of the sudden death of the Reverend Henry J. Fischer, Pastor of St. Cecilia Parish in Bartelso, Illinois, has been the source of a profound experience of sadness and grief in the Diocese of Belleville. This grief has been most acute for the members of his family: his brothers, Fr. Adrian Fischer, OFM; David and his wife, Bonnie; Paul and his wife, Linda; his sisters, Rita and her husband, Frank; and Joan; and his many nieces and nephews. His parishioners at St. Cecilia Parish and in all of the parishes where he has served have an extraordinary love and devotion for him that was only surpassed by the deep love and pastoral concern that Fr. Fischer had for them. Many of his fellow priests have gone out of their way to express to me how much they appreciated his thoughtfulness and his quiet example as a zealous and completely unselfish priest.
Though he endured problems with his health throughout his life, he did so without complaint. He was always cheerful and upbeat. Yet, he was a suffering servant. They knew that he was truly the man for others. I, too, have been very saddened by the shocking news of last Monday morning. I had just spoken to him days earlier and visited him at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital on Sunday afternoon. I fully expected him to recover as he had recovered from frequent illnesses in the past. In our last conversation, it was clear that he also was hoping to recover and return to his beloved parishioners in time for the weekend Masses.
During his homily at the Liturgy of Christian Burial, his brother, Fr. Adrian Fischer, asked a rhetorical question: Who will take dear Henry’s place? I believe that I am in a unique position to answer that question. And the answer is simple. No one! I have lived and served around the country and around the world and I can say, without hesitation, that Henry Fischer was one of the finest priests I have ever met. His unique pastoral devotion for the Christian faithful was admired by all. He will not be replaced. There is no one who can take his place. In the midst of implementing My Formal Response to the Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring, we hope to be able to appoint a good and faithful priest who will build upon Fr. Fischer’s outstanding ministry with his own gifts and talents.
Because of his generally low profile, many Catholics in southern Illinois, outside the parishes where he served, did not know Fr. Fischer, though they might have met him at a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, which he enjoyed very much. Most of the priests and parishioners of the Diocese of Belleville are unaware of the fact that I have known and admired Fr. Fischer for a very long time -- for more than forty years, since we studied theology together at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois. My earliest memories of him are of a quiet and gentle man, thoughtful, patient, kind and faithful, and clearly focused on his goal of preparing to be a holy priest. We were seminarians during the late 1960’s when quite a few of our fellow seminarians were consumed with the desire to change the seminary and the entire Catholic Church into the kind of seminary and Church they wanted. It was the time of heated discussions and “secret meetings.” The future Fr. Fischer was consumed, instead, by the desire to open his heart to the working of grace so that God could change him and prepare him so that he could become the best possible priest. And we have all been deeply enriched by the good works that God has accomplished through the ministry of Fr. Fischer, who had become the best priest that he could be.
At Mundelein, the man whom we commend to God this day was always a man of purpose, perseverance, light-heartedness, and common sense. I remember him on his walks around the lake, at the center of our beautiful seminary grounds. Even in those early days, he experienced challenges osteoporosis. He said that walking was good for his health and he persevered even as the occasional jogger sped past him. One day when he was walking into a room one of the seminarians made a cruel and insulting comment about the way he walked. I told the seminarian that I could not believe that someone who wanted to be a priest could make such a hurtful and unkind comment. I felt compelled to inform the seminary rector of the incident. The insensitive student eventually departed from the seminary. When Fr. Fischer learned about the incident, he thanked me for “looking out for him” and he told me that when people say things like “that,” they are really saying a great deal more about themselves than about the person they are belittling. He told me to ignore them and not to let them trouble my soul. This was very sound advice for someone who hoped to be a priest and it was particularly wise advice for someone who would one day become Henry’s Bishop.
Since that unhappy day when the silver thread of Fr. Fischer’s exceptional life in this world was severed, two Latin expressions have spoken to me about him. The first is De mortuis nil nisi bonum. The expression means that you should say only good things about a person who has died. That is, if you have been critical of someone, or worse, if you have slandered someone during life, you must not speak ill of him now that he has died. Of course, the maxim is paradoxical in Fr. Fischer’s case. Because of his singular life of service in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, almost no one ever spoke ill of him during his lifetime. Now, the good they speak of him will grow only louder and clearer! The second Latin expression is from the common of confessors in the Liturgy of the Hours, Ecce sacerdos magnus, qui in diebus suis, placuit Deo. "Behold a great priest, who in his days, was pleasing to God." Dear Fr. Fischer, you have indeed been a great priest in our midst, a quiet model of Christ-centered, selfless service, which will continue to be an inspiration and a challenge for every priest and every Catholic in the Diocese. From the day of your First Solemn Mass on June 5, 1971, to the day on which we were privileged to celebrate the Liturgy of Christian Burial for you on June 6, 2013, the 42nd anniversary of your ordination, you have been found pleasing to God!
Know how we shall miss you, dear Henry. Be assured that we accompany you with our prayers. We ask that you pray for us as well. We have all been grace-filled by your 42 years among us as an “alter Christus.” In paradisum deducant te Angeli! May angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem. May the ranks of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have eternal rest!
Ecce sacerdos magnus!