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A higher greatness

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For many years he could not speak or write, could not control any of his movements. Yet at his wake and funeral perhaps the most common phrase used to describe him was, 'He was a great man.' How can this be?


Kevin Dolan was laid to rest two weeks ago Friday after a funeral Mass in St. Paul's Cathedral, Worcester. His life like so many things associated with Christ was both mystery and paradox. Twenty years ago he began to be afflicted by some disease of his nervous system that was never diagnosed or understood. Over the years, it successively stripped him of the abilities that all of us take for granted, eventually claiming his life. For many years he could not speak or write, could not control any of his movements. Yet at his wake and funeral perhaps the most common phrase used to describe him was, "He was a great man." How can this be?

The winter Olympics which begin this weekend affords many opportunities to reflect on greatness. Faster, higher, stronger -- that is one path, not so much winning in high competition, but the self-discipline, struggle, boldness, and perseverance. All the Olympians are great, are they not?

As this word taken from the Greek gods indicates, there is truly something transcendent and divine about athletic greatness. But how transient such greatness is! We share in it only briefly. The great men and women of sports come at us like waves which fall on the beach. With few exceptions, every four years they are different. Even the Greatest of All Time breaks and falls -- not to another marquee quarterback, but to a substitute who for the moment outshines everyone else in greatness.

These athletes sometimes witness to a higher greatness, and that startles. In an interview after a game on national TV a star player will "give all honor to the Lord Jesus Christ." Or the upstart quarterback will say that the sport is a just a game after all and has little value if it does not draw people to Christ.

The superb golfer Ricky Fowler was wearing on his cap in the last tournament a picture of a 7-year-old boy, Griffin James Connell, who had died of a rare breathing disorder the same week as Kevin Dolan. The boy and Fowler had grown close over the last couple of years. "I claim him as my number 1 fan," Fowler said, "he just humbles you, keeps you on the ground, and makes you realize that there are things a lot bigger than just playing golf."

Rickie can hit a three-wood boring through the air like a bullet, with a slight draw, to a target green guarded by water almost 300 yards away. But something a lot bigger than that, is a little boy who died of a rare breathing disorder. Rickie played the tournament for Griffin and was convinced that he was watching and helping him still as a fan -- testifying implicitly that we think of this higher greatness not as something passing, but as a closer sharing in the life of God.

Every mystic needs an interpreter. Kevin Dolan's was his eldest son, Patrick, who at the end of the funeral Mass eulogized before the congregation of hundreds. Just one story, he said, would capture what his dad was about: "When I was a junior in high school, I came home one day to find my dad sitting at our kitchen table with a pen and paper. His disease was advancing quickly; he had already lost the ability to do a lot of things -- among them, the ability to write. 'I am going to write a book about God,' he declared. At the top of the page, there was something that looked like the letter 'G,' but it trailed off into a scribble. He had been at it for hours, but he couldn't manage to write a single word."

Patrick was heartbroken by his father's condition. Why was this happening to the man? Why would God treat his dad in this way? Why would his family life, with his mom and three siblings, be a tale of unrelenting suffering?

Like John at the foot of the cross, he stood beside his father and watched. He saw his father's love for God only grow. Kevin went to daily adoration so long as he was able, and he deeply desired to go when he could not. He devoted himself to prayer, raising up hosts of intentions for family and even far-flung friends. "It was his mission, and his great honor, to pray for you. He took your joys and successes, and especially, your sorrows, your loneliness, your heartbreak, to prayer every day. He was your companion, even if you didn't know it. ... My father's love was persistent. It was patient. It was holy. And it did not fail."

My father loved God and neighbor, and his love did not fail. How blessed is the man whose son can eulogize him with such words!

"My dad never wrote his book about God," Patrick said, "He left that task in less capable hands. But his life told a story far better than his words on a page ever could. My dad's story is not -- emphatically not -- one about decline and decay, but about a heart that grew with every sacrifice that had to be made. A story about how love and grace truly are stronger than disease and suffering and even death."

Patrick said it took him his entire life with his father to learn this lesson. Let us stand by the cross and learn it too.

Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. His book on the gospel of Mark, ‘‘The Memoirs of St. Peter,’’ is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in March 2019.

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