In Memoriam: Bishop Joseph Gerry, OSB (1928-2023)
The call came midmorning on Sunday, July 2. Bishop Joseph Gerry, OSB, 94 years old, had died in his sleep early that morning. When the nurses checked on him at 4 a.m., he had passed away. It was a quiet and peaceful way to die. He had had a few brushes with death over the last few years, but he was blessedly ready to make the journey. In fact, he even joked about it at times. When I would go to visit him, he would remind me that he was still alive. As his age increased, it became more fascinating to him that he was still here. Though he was curious about heaven and thought about life after death, he did not fear it. After all, his life was lived in preparation for this encounter with the Lord Jesus. The Rule of St. Benedict invites the monk to “hold nothing dearer than Christ.” Bishop Joseph lived that invitation.
Bishop Joseph served as bishop of Portland from February 21, 1989, until March 31, 2004. After his retirement and return to life in his beloved monastery of Saint Anselm in Manchester, New Hampshire, he continued to return to Maine as he was asked to help out or was invited to celebrate important events in the diocese. He was a regular visitor to Maine until just a few years ago when his age and health made it difficult to make the journey. After that, I was among those privileged to bring the news of the diocese to him in the nursing home when I was able to make a visit to Manchester. He was always keenly interested in the experiences of the priests and people of the diocese. I always found encouragement in the promise he would make to keep the diocese in his prayers. He was also a man of great insight. It was insight born out of his prayer and his long experience in living his monastic life.
July 2, the day of his death, was the 75th anniversary of Bishop Joseph’s profession of first vows as a Benedictine monk. He took those vows on the Feast of the Visitation in 1948. Bishop Joseph reflected on that feast and the taking of vows in one of his homilies as abbot of Saint Anselm Abbey. He recalled the words of Elizabeth, the expectant mother of John the Baptist, as she greeted her younger cousin Mary, who herself had just learned of her own call to be the mother of the Divine Savior. Elizabeth cries out, “How is it that the mother of my Lord is coming to me?” (Lk 1:43) Bishop Joseph preached, “That same joyful prayer of surprise could be said by every monk as he prepares for an encounter with the Lord at his profession. The Lord is coming to him.”
And now, the Lord has come for Bishop Joseph. I trust he was able to greet the Lord with the trust and faith with which he lived his life, confident in the love of God for him. We will miss his presence and his support, but we know that he lived his life striving to “hold nothing dearer than Christ.”
With these few words of remembrance, I want to invite you to join me in appreciating the gift this man’s life was to the Church and to our diocese in particular. I am grateful for the homily that Msgr. Paul Stefanko preached when we held a memorial Mass here in the diocese for Bishop Joseph. Msgr. Stefanko knew Bishop Joseph very well as he had worked with him through the years that he was the bishop of Portland.
In his homily, Msgr. Stefanko shared with us that soon after Bishop Joseph was installed in Portland, he gave copies of the Rule of St. Benedict to the members of his staff. He was not giving them this rule to turn them all into Benedictines, but he wanted them to understand who he was and where he was coming from, saying that the rule was in his blood.
For Bishop Joseph, the Rule of St. Benedict set for him a way of life. St. Benedict had fashioned his rule as a help for those who seek to keep the Lord Jesus at the center of life. The rule gave them the opportunity to do that in prayer from the early hours of the morning to the late evening. That prayer, however, has a purpose. As Bishop Joseph taught, “Through prayer, we receive the love that enables us to open our hearts to each other and to form a new world, a community of human beings living and loving, bearing in truth one another’s burdens.” To “hold nothing dearer than Christ” calls the faithful Christian not only to be connected with Jesus in prayer but to live as Jesus called us to do, in service to each other and to all those we encounter in this world.”
We give thanks, then, for the way in which Bishop Joseph lived humbly the life of service to which the Lord Jesus called him. We give thanks for the life of this good man, priest, monk, and bishop. In one of his writings, he taught that “the Eucharist is the greatest reminder we have that God loves us, that He loves us dearly, and that He loves us to the end and beyond. His love endures forever.”
May Bishop Joseph rest in that enduring,
God bless you,
Bishop Robert P. Deeley, JCD