This entry is a cross between a reflection, a rambling, and a eulogy. Take it for what it is. I debated how to go about this, and I’m going to do even less polishing than I usually do on this post. I just want to share what’s been going through my mind for the last week.
I approach writing this particular post with an unfortunate mix of joy and sadness. I am writing this on Thursday evening. Yesterday afternoon, William returned home to the Father. Monday morning, he was ordained a deacon and a priest of Jesus Christ. Saturday morning, his funeral liturgy will be celebrated in San Antonio. Sometime soon, he will be laid to rest in his home country of Colombia. And for the entire event, I have been in New Orleans.
Let me start at the beginning.
I began seminary for the Diocese of Nashville in January of 2011. Shortly before I arrived in Nashville, William had overcome a bout with stomach cancer, and he was returning to seminary, but a little bit behind. I didn’t really meet William that first Christmas that I was in Nashville. I can’t even say that I met him the next summer, but I have a picture from him from the retreat during my first summer in seminary – and I have to admit that picture is the William that is almost always my mental picture of him.
Honestly, I can count on one hand the number of times that William and I spent more than a few minutes together. But that isn’t why he sticks in my mind. And it isn’t even this past week that puts him in a unique place. The simple fact is that William was one of those people who you could spend time around, and, he was always cheerful. Even when he was frustrated (and he had some reasons to be frustrated in the last several months), he would laugh. He would find the joy and the opportunity for happiness in just about anything.
The only time when I have spent more than a few minutes around William was Holy Week of last year. Bishop Choby arranged for William to use a room in the house in which I was staying for the week and to help at the same parish. I noticed then that he had lost quite a bit of weight. I had attributed it to the fact that he had been dieting. I took it as a cause for joy. Sadly, I was wrong. I told him that some parishioners had sent food back to the house for us. William did that gesture which I was to come to notice was so common for him. Everyone has seen the gesture, but I’m not sure how to describe it. Try this: keep your elbows by your sides, put your fists both about 6 inches apart and up over your chest maybe 6 inches below your chin. Smile real big and say (quietly – I never once heard William raise his voice) yaaay while shaking your fists alternately forward and backward a few inches. The great thing is that large joys or small joys would arouse the same joyful reaction in William. He always could find the joy in a situation, story, or gift. William would always do everything to avoid troubling or inconveniencing anyone. I recall during that week, the weather was a bit unpredictable; some days were below freezing, and others were sweltering. William was spending most days at the kitchen table working on a paper for his last few classes to catch up in seminary. I had switched the downstairs air conditioner to cool the previous day to combat the heat, but that day, it was truly freezing again. William, a significantly earlier riser than I am, knocked on my bedroom door, and, apologizing profusely for disturbing me, asked me if I knew how to change the air conditioner because it was too cold for him downstairs. He had been working in that cold wearing a coat and gloves indoors for a few hours before he finally gave in and asked me if I could help him make it warmer – than 40º F. I don’t think I ever did manage to convince him that he should have awakened me earlier for that.
I visited with him a few times this past summer. Our bishop assigned him at the parish at which I spent the summer of 2013. Some dear friends of mine that I made in that parish also took him in, and we spent time with them once and with one another to visit and catch up as brothers once or twice, too. Summer drew to a close, and we all returned to our respective seminaries. William returned for his last year of classes in San Antonio, TX – He was to be ordained a deacon over Christmas and a priest next summer. I returned to New Orleans.
Last week. Friday. September 5, 2014. Around 11:30am. I looked at my email before Mass. I had a message from the bishop (forwarded by another member of the staff, of course). William had been seeing a doctor, and the weight loss was not caused by a particularly effective diet, but by some, then unknown, illness. He was admitted the previous night into the ICU, and the bishop had dispatched one of the deacons from the cathedral, a man with extensive medical experience, to assess the situation at the hospital in San Antonio. It was clear that this was no minor event, and I must admit that focusing on that Mass was both the most difficult I had ever experienced, and it was the most I have needed the Sacred Liturgy in my life. I spent most of that Mass with my eyes shut just trying to remain composed. The next day, we finally got word that the situation was not just serious, but dire. William’s cancer had returned, and it had spread everywhere; it was already too serious for any treatment, and all doctors could do was help him cling on for a little while longer. I am going to share a little bit of an email that came from the deacon who was representing the Bishop in San Antonio for the next part. It’s a beautiful thing to share, and it speaks of William, and it also tells just what an amazing gift we all have in Bishop Choby shepherding the Diocese of Nashville.
Note: I am editing this message a bit to try to avoid giving away too much in private information. I’m walking a fine line between sharing this beautiful story and divulging information that I have no right to share.
I arrived Friday afternoon to a crisis of health for William Carmona that I have not seen anyone survive, even this long, in all my years in practice. It brought great peace and comfort to William knowing I and Father Menezes had been sent by the Bishop whom William loves so very much. [William has improved] He is still very critically ill however, and cannot survive long. Since he has no reserve, even the smallest medical complication will not be survivable.
When I arrived we called the Bishop, and when William spoke with Bishop on the phone his suffering and agitation were replaced with peace and comfort…William asked if all of his paperwork was in order at the diocese so that he could be ordained a deacon this Fall, and William told [the chancellor] any date chosen by the bishop would be fine with him.
This morning (Saturday)…I had some time alone with William, so I asked him if he remembered calling our Chancellor last night – and he did. To relieve any worry, I repeated to William that all of his paper work at the diocese was in order. William smiled and said, “Thank you, I want to be ordained to serve the people of God.”
William and I cried and then prayed together. I informed Bishop of this conversation along with my assessment that William is totally cognizant and aware of everyone and everything he is saying, although at times he is too weak to talk. In consultation with the rector of the seminary and Archbishop Gustavo of San Antonio, the Bishop has decided that William will be ordained on Monday, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Mother.
This evening I was able to wake William to tell him his bishop had called and was coming to see him tomorrow (Sunday) and wanted his permission to ordain him to both the diaconate and the priesthood on Monday. In the holiest and most joyful moments of my life William opened his eyes smiled and said, “Wow! Bishop wants what?!!?” I said, “William, God wants you to be a priest. The Bishop wants to know if he may ordain you on Monday.” About that time the nurse came in and asked if William was in pain because his heart rate had suddenly become faster. I assured her that what she was seeing on the monitor was a heart filled with great joy. William smiled and said, “Tell bishop I say, ‘YES!’”
So that was that. William accepted the offer from our Bishop to be ordained so that he could die a priest.
Sunday, we received word that Bishop Choby had arrived in San Antonio. He spent time with William. He made the final arrangements for the sacrament he was to impart on William the next morning. From New Orleans, I admit there was a struggle within me. I wanted to go. I was afraid to ask to go. I didn’t know if I would be wanted there or in the way. By the time I had collected what was going on inside me enough to even say that to someone, the only response was, “Go!” Sadly, by then, it was too late to make the drive safely and arrive on time for the ordination liturgy. Should I have gone? Maybe. I still don’t know that. But I didn’t. Instead, I watched my phone and computer and iPad expecting and dreading an email or text message from those in charge of keeping the rest of us informed that William had died. That message never came.
Monday morning arrived, and William was to be ordained shortly. At 10am, we received a note that the ordination had begun in an auditorium in the hospital. William, in his hospital bed, had been wheeled in. A few of us on the text list followed up with a question here and there, but, for the most part, all was quiet for a couple hours. Just after lunch, I finally saw a message that the ordination was complete. My diocesan brother was now Father William, a priest of Jesus Christ. I was filled with joy and sorrow, joy that William had been given such a great gift in the last moments of his life, sorrow that I would lose an inspiring man in mine and that William would never be able to share those gifts in the diocese that he yearned to serve. A few minutes after that, we received a follow-up message that William had requested after the ordination to receive only pain management from then on; the bishop asked the seminarians of the Diocese of Nashville to gather together to pray the Commendation of the Dying as a community for William. It’s funny, the Church gives us many of these wonderful pre-written prayers. We want to think that we will always have the right words, but sometimes, the Church’s wisdom to offer us something to say that, if we allow ourselves to be touched by it, is more profound than anything we could think of on our own.
Here in New Orleans, we waited for the video of the ordination. The rector here had given clearance for me to use the large television to show it in the family room as soon as the video was available. This was, sadly, a true test of patience. The video did not become available until about 7:30, half an hour after I gave up for the night. The other Nashville men and I had decided when we gathered for prayer Monday evening to watch together the next afternoon. So I was not to watch the ordination until Tuesday afternoon.
I do want to share one short story from Monday, though, before I move on. I got to talk at Father William one more time. That same mutual friend from my 2013 parish assignment had taken a flight down to spend one day with him and assist as a deacon in the ordination. Our friend held his cell phone to William’s ear so I could speak to my friend one more time. I got to say goodbye. I got to tell him that I was jealous of his Mass of Thanksgiving. One of the other seminarians here in New Orleans had pointed out that William, since he was being ordained in his last hours, would celebrate the heavenly liturgy for his First Mass. His Mass of Thanksgiving would not have a local parish choir, but all the choirs of angels singing the Glory of God. He would not have a congregation ignoring the event, but all the apostles, martyrs, and saints participating with him in the heavenly liturgy. I expressed my love and sorrow to see him go, too, but I like to think that, if he had the strength, he would have done the William “yaaay” that I tried to describe above. Instead, he could only lift his hand a little.
Tuesday, we waited. We continued to expect William to leave us at any moment, but he held on.
Wednesday. September 10, 2014. 2:30pm. I received the final update. William had returned to his Father. His suffering was over. Again, I was sad. I was happy. I was sad that William was gone. I was happy that his suffering had finally come to an end. I was happy that he had gotten his greatest wish on earth – to be a priest of Jesus Christ.
We found out today that William’s funeral Mass will be celebrated on Saturday morning in San Antonio. His mortal remains will be flown back to Colombia shortly thereafter so he can be laid to rest in his home country.
Below, I am sharing a few pictures from his last days and from his ordination that I took from the story on the Diocese of Nashville website. I encourage you to read it. It’s a wonderful statement on the man that this gentle priest was. I felt it necessary to share my own reflection, also, though.
In short, if we put forth the effort to do the research and the cause, I would not be in the least bit surprised if Father William Carmona were one day added to the Roman Calendar. If I’m alive to see that day, I’m going to beg the bishop, whoever it may be at that time, to erect a parish under his patronage. William, if by some chance you need them, I am praying for you. But it seems to me far more likely that you can answer my plea to pray for me to the Lord our God.