I was just returning from Amherst, Massachusetts, where I was at work clearing out the house that our family had occupied for forty-five years, and I was counting on seeing Fr. Arne as soon as I’d returned. Fr. Arne Panula had been thought months earlier to have entered the last stages of the slow-moving cancer he had borne for about fifteen years.
The cancer had been slow moving, but Fr. Arne had not been. He had expanded dramatically the programs and reach of the Catholic Information Center on K Street; he had managed to reach so many young Catholic professionals and bring them into an expanded network of Catholic teaching and engagement. But he was now receding from the directorship of the Center, and we were told that he was now essentially moving into the conditions of hospice in the house he shared with other members of Opus Dei.
Mary Eberstadt (who wrote about him here the day of the funeral) and I went to see him, expecting to find him in bed. Instead, he was on his feet, looking as engaged as ever, and ready as ever for a round of serious conversation.
Still, the word that Fr. Arne was in his last days set off a long line of visitors. Every day he found himself dealing with the kinds of questions that devoted friends were determined to get in before he left us. He would later remark that these last months were some of the richest months he would have in his life, with a concentration of friends old and new, and devotions ever more heartfelt.
And that is why I could go off to Amherst with the illusion that I could see him right away after I returned. That was a week ago. But the following day the word came that he was truly in his last hours. Tom McDonough, caring for him, brought me into his bedroom Wednesday morning, and I found Fr. Arne with his face swollen from medication. He was a master of language, but now was straining and frustrated because he was trying to tell me something and couldn’t get the words out. I held his hand and began to talk to him, remembering so many of the things we had done together, but most notably his gentle and clever move in drawing me into the Church, and his loving Memorial Mass for my beloved wife, Judy.
His drawing me into the Church became the subject of comic legend. I told the story seven years ago when he had presided over my baptism. It was October 2009 – the day of the Red Mass in Washington held to mark the opening of the courts of justice. The Supreme Court would open its term the next day, and most of the Justices would be present at St. Matthew’s Cathedral.
Following the Mass, my wife and I were on the way to the luncheon, to catch up with the Scalias. We encountered Fr. Arne on the way – a lovely surprise, for I hadn’t seen him since I’d met him years earlier at the Opus Dei house in New York. But instead of giving me the “big hello” he offered a friendly chiding: “You,” he said, “are the most notable figure standing for so long now at the threshold of the Church – but not coming across. What has been holding you back?”
I was caught off guard, and in mild desperation, I dipped into the Bert Lahr repertoire from The Wizard of Oz: “C-c-c-courage,” I said, recalling the Cowardly Lion. “That’s what put the ‘Ape’ in Apricot, and that’s what I haven’t got.”
Whew, I thought: I finessed that one. About a week later I joined a friend, newly arrived, who was attending noon Mass with Fr. Arne. Fr. wasn’t expecting me, which made the next move all the more remarkable. He said in his homily that “the one thing connecting these two readings together today is. . .c-c-c-courage.”
All right, I had to concede, the point was made, and it was time to stop wavering. And thinking back to that moment now, I was struck by the quick wit and genius he showed in reaching me that way. He would take it upon himself to offer me instruction, and it meant hours of the most illuminating conversation.
He died Wednesday evening; I had seen him in the morning. I made it back to his room that night to kneel at his bedside, kiss him on his shoulder and cheek, and pray again. His face had changed: No longer swollen, he looked himself, and looked peaceful. He had his familiar smile, which seemed to say that he was glad to see you and eager as ever to hear what you had to tell him.
Five years ago he invited me to do a few talks to young priests, just after Easter in a retreat a Longlea, Virginia. Some of the priests were sons of my friends. They would bear in some way the legacy of Fr. Arne’s care. We published in The Catholic Thing a picture of those priests, and I wrote, “the faces of those men radiated in themselves the surety that all will yet be well – that the Church, in this coming generation, will be vibrant and manly and joyous.” This is the Church that Fr. Arne had helped in turn to shape, and on the day we gathered for his funeral Mass, it was one of those young priests, Kevin Regan, who guided me to the lectern to the do the first reading. That was not only fitting, but for me an act of completion.
When Fr Arne would do talks for us during a retreat, he would begin by saying, “My Lord, I know that you can hear me now.” The going hunch is that Fr.’s time in Purgatory will last about a nanosecond, and so some of us will be thinking to ourselves, “Fr. Arne, I know that you can hear me now.”