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'In the noontime of his life...'

In the year 702 before Christ, the Prophet Isaiah foretold the impending death of King Hezekiah of Judah, who had heeded the prophet’s warning and purified the religion of his kingdom 20 years before, lest it suffer the fate of the Lost Tribes of Israel at the hands of the Assyrian Empire. On hearing Isaiah say to him, “Thus says the Lord: Put your house in order, for you are about to die,” Hezekiah “turned his face to the wall and prayed, ‘Ah, Lord remember how faithfully and wholeheartedly I conducted myself in your presence, doing good in your sight.’ And Hezekiah wept bitterly” (Isaiah 38:1-3).

 

King Hezekiah uttered a hymn, used as a “Psalm” in the Liturgy of the Hours. This hymn/psalm begins with these words:

 

In the noontime of life, I said, I must depart!

To the gates of Sheol I have been consigned

for the rest of my years.

I said, I shall see the LORD no more

in the land of the living.

Nor look on any mortals

among those who dwell in the world.

My dwelling, like a shepherd’s tent,

is struck down and borne away from me;

You have folded up my life, like a weaver

who severs me from the last thread.

From morning to night, you make an end of me;

I cry out even until the dawn.

Like a lion he breaks all my bones;

from morning to night, you make an end of me.

Like a swallow I chirp;

I moan like a dove.

My eyes grow weary looking heavenward:

Lord, I am overwhelmed; go security for me!

What am I to say or tell him?

He is the one who has done it!

All my sleep has fled,

because of the bitterness of my soul.

 

These words came into my mind as we—the bishop, priests, deacons, religious and lay faithful of the Diocese of Savannah—sang the Entrance Song, Lord of All Hopefulness, at the Funeral Mass of Father Jacek Szuster, pastor of the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, Augusta, on Sept. 8, 2018, especially the second verse:

 

“Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all faith,
Whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe,
Be there at our labors, and give us, we pray,
Your strength in our hearts, Lord at the noon of the day.” 

 

 

In the year of our Lord 2017, Father Jacek Szuster’s doctors gave him a most unwelcome diagnosis: stage 4 colon cancer. He received this bad news just after the diocesan priests’ retreat in September. He then underwent extensive surgery and follow-up chemotherapy, which worked for about 10 months, and then stopped working. Although the excellent medical community in Augusta tried desperately to find a treatment that would work, no such treatment could be found in time to save his life. At the beginning of this year’s retreat, on Sept. 4, 2018, we received the sad news that Father Jacek had passed away, with his compatriot and brother priest, Father Adam Kasela, at his side. 

 

The Lord “remembered how faithfully and wholeheartedly” Father Jacek Szuster, like King Hezekiah, conducted himself in his presence, doing good in his sight. But whereas had Lord said to Isaiah: “Go, tell Hezekiah: ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of your father David: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Now I will add 15 years to your life,” he said to Father Jacek, at the age of 47, in the noontime of his life: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Now enter into the joy of your Lord.”

 

We might wonder why God did not add at least 15 years to Father Jacek’s life. We can ask the Lord at the gates of heaven, but until he deigns to answer us there, we will never know. As I have pondered the mystery of the untimely death of my friend and brother priest Jacek Szuster, I have recalled the eloquent tribute of the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to King George VI, his late sovereign and “comrade in arms,” during the Second World War. The father of Queen Elizabeth II, he had died of lung cancer at the young age of 56, “in the noontime of his life.” The Prime Minister broadcast this tribute: “The last few months of the King’s life, with all the pain and physical stresses that he endured—his life hanging by a thread from day to day, and he all the time cheerful and undaunted, stricken in body but quite undisturbed and even unaffected in spirit— these have made a profound and an enduring impression and should be a help to all. He was sustained not only by his natural buoyancy, but by the sincerity of his Christian faith. During these last months the King walked with death as if death were a companion, an acquaintance whom he recognized and did not fear. In the end death came as a friend, … he fell asleep as every man or woman who strives to fear God and nothing else in the world may hope to do.”

 

During the past year, Father Jacek Szuster walked with death as if death were a companion, an acquaintance whom he recognized and did not fear. In the end death came as a friend and at the beginning of last week, fell asleep as every man or woman who strives to fear God and nothing else in the world may hope to do.

 

Father Douglas K. Clark, STL is pastor of St. Matthew Church in Statesboro.

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