For Father Tom, everything was larger in life, because he could see past our weaknesses and our failings. For Father Tom saw what God made a person to be, not what the person did stupidly with his own free will. When Father Tom looked at us, when he smiled at us, he did so with the best eyes—the loving eyes of Christ…
Originally Delivered April 30, 2011
Father Thomas Butler passed away today, May 3, 2018
A week ago tonight on Easter Eve, a fire burned out by the statue of Our Lady and Her Son—1,624 years after St. Augustine entered the church. Stephen (a sophomore college student who was confirmed in the Church that glorious night), Professor Harold Siegel, and I were quietly talking about what life would’ve been like and what we would’ve been like had we lived in the time of Christ—at the time of his preaching, his resurrection, and his ascension. Of course, little could have been more inappropriate, as Mass had already begun.
Stephen admitted that he had after great thought he had chosen St. Matthew as his patron saint—as this young finance major realized, he too would’ve been a Pharisee and a tax collector.
Stephen’s choice, revealed as we stood by Pat Flynn, watching dutifully over the dancing Easter flames, gave us pause.
Harold, with that uniquely intelligent and self-deprecating Siegel smile on his face, confided he would’ve probably been a loyal Roman.
I have to admit, as much I would like to have been like St. John (in the way that I once thought I could grow up to be either Davy Crockett or Batman), standing with Jesus and his Mother at the cross, I probably would’ve been that anonymous Greek philosopher who argued with St. Paul at Mars Hill in Athens, called him a “Babbler” in almost complete dismissal, and walked away with my head buried Plato’s treatise on the eternal soul, oblivious to what Christ had just offered in the person of that babbler, Paul.
There, but for the Grace of God, go we, the three of us realized in the light of the Easter fire. Praise the Lord we were born in this modern world and not then, when paganisms would have attracted at least two of the three of us.
There, but for the Grace of God, go we.
Tonight, through the graciousness of Larry and Penny Arnn and Dean Deacon Peterson, we honor the life and the gift of grace that is found in that wonderfully incarnate package of Father Thomas William Patrick Butler, himself born on the Feast of St. Augustine, slightly over six decades ago.
But what about 2,000 years ago? Where would Father Tom have stood?
Father Tom would not have been Matthew (too many laws and too many financial problems), he would not have been a loyal Roman (imperialism and bloody expansion just simply aren’t a part of Father Tom’s makeup), and he would not have been the guy who called St. Paul a babbler (Father Tom has always been much more of a Thomist than a Platonist).
As every person in this room knows, Father Tom would be then exactly what he is now—the embodiment of loyalty, humility, and charity.
He would have stood with His Lord and Our Lady (after all, Father Tom frequently reminds us, we all need a good Jewish mother) at the foot of a cross, the Romans executing an enemy of the state, at 3pm on a Friday Afternoon, at Golgotha, the place of skulls.
Later, when he found his friends, all of whom had deserted the Lord in one way or another, he would not have chastised Peter or Andrew or any of the other eight apostles for not having been there. He would’ve have greeted them with a warm smile and a tight hug, listened to them, forgiven them, told them a story about his Aunt Jeanne, or his Baptist side of the family, or his neighbor, Francis Anne.
And, of course, he would have reminded them of the most important truth in the history of the universe, time, and existence—that Jesus gives them a reason to get up—no need to worry about what came before—only the mission ahead, because Jesus loves us.
Who in this room has not experienced that love of Christ through the incarnate person of Father Thomas William Patrick Butler?
Who has not received that warm smile, that tight hug, that intense ear, that good and meaningful story of some Flannery O’Conner-esque characters running around north Texas?
Who in this room has not been reminded that the most powerful thing the Enemy can do is convince us that the worst things about us or our actions are the best we can ever accomplish?
Who in this room has not been welcomed back after we too have turned and fled with Peter and Andrew and left John and Mary and Our Lord behind, to suffer at Golgotha, nearly alone and abandoned—not because of a single thing He did, but because of everything we did?
Who in this room has not had Father Tom look straight through all of the sins and failings of our lives and to see only that part of us which reflects the Image of Our God, the part we ignored in our own transgressions; he reminds us to treat others the same.
Like Our Lord, Father Tom loves his mother. Like Our Lord, Father Tom understands. Like Our Lord, Father Tom speaks in parables and has the gift of story.
Like Our Lady, Father Tom always points us in the right direction—toward the Incarnate Person of Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior. He gives us a reason to get up.
Who in this room has not been changed by the incarnate person of Father Tom? Who will forget Aunt Jeanne, the four Butler boys, the Baptist relatives, Francis Anne, Frito Pie, Butler Hard candy, the loan to the Hilton family, Auntie Con, Brother William Dunn, nephew Patrick, nephew Garrison, niece Amberlee, Mama Calla, the business disasters, the real estate successes, the car wrecks, or the retelling of Father Juani’s exploits on the golf course, clubbing fish, or back behind the Church in Stock Park, gathering wild herbs.
Of course, we’ll always have the Father Tom Elevator at the Hospital as a physical reminder of his time in our community.
But, most importantly, of course, we all have the imprint of Father Tom’s love on our very souls, wrapped into our very being.
For you all know, for Father Tom, everything is larger in life, because he can see past our weaknesses and our failings. For Father Tom sees what God made a person to be, not what the person did stupidly with his own free will. When Father Tom looks at us, when he smiles at us, he does so with the best eyes—the loving eyes of Christ.
Father Tom, as we look back over your gift of service here—nearly 1/5 of a century—we salute you in every way. You are a part of this community, you have shaped us in ways we will probably never fully understand—and you’ve shaped not just us, but you’ve shaped the very ways in which we interact with one another as colleagues, with our students, with our families (our spouses and our children), and even with ourselves. As the Catholic pastor of Hillsdale College, you have made this school immensely better by your words and your example.
When we meet God face to face, He will, we are told, show us our lives and He will check where we stand in His Book of Life.
I expect that as I watch the progress of my own adult life, I will see a figure standing behind me—at times laughing with me, at times breaking bread with me, at times restraining me, at times encouraging me, at times comforting me. If I turn around to see this person, I will see the loving smile of a priest—a man of God armed with a heart and soul much larger than his native Texas.
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