Jesuit Fr. John Schlegel is living his own version of Lent this year.
Diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer in mid-January, he was given the unsettling news by doctors that he has perhaps a four-to six-month window of opportunity before the disease further ravages his body, and takes its toll on him.
A self-described “Easter person,” however, he is making the most of that window of time.
And what better way to experience this, perhaps his last Lent, than with a visit to the pope!
Thanks to some strings pulled for him by Milwaukee-native Cardinal James M. Harvey, prefect of the papal household for 14 years, Fr. Schlegel, 71, was one of 12 priests who concelebrated morning Mass with Pope Francis in his private chapel last Thursday, March 26.
It seemed as if Pope Francis was speaking directly to him. The words the pope uttered during his March 26 homily in the Domus Sanctae Marthae spoke to his heart.
Cold doctrine doesn’t bring joy, rather joy comes from faith and the hope of meeting Jesus, the pope told the intimate crowd of about 40 during his homily.
And ask the Lord for the grace to be rejoicing in hope, for the grace to see the day of Jesus when we will be with him …., the pope stressed.
That day, for Fr. Schlegel, appears to be sooner than expected, acknowledged the priest, who was given the option of treatment with radiation and chemotherapy which might have extended his life, or a non-invasive approach of letting things take their course.
He chose the latter, preferring quality of life over quantity.
The diagnosis was a shock to the former president of Creighton University (2000-2011) and the University of San Francisco (1990-2000), dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Marquette University (1984-1989) and president and publisher of America (2011 -2012) who returned to Milwaukee in 2012 and was about nine months into his appointment as pastor of Gesu Parish when he was diagnosed.
“I am someone who has been extraordinarily healthy all my life and worked very hard at it,” said Fr. Schlegel during an interview in his office at Gesu on Monday, March 30, adding he continues to work out regularly and play racquetball in spite of the fact that he’s on a palliative hospice program through Froedtert Hospital.
While the illness came as a surprise, he is approaching his suffering as “part of the Christian story.
“Did I ask, ‘Why me?’ Not really. I’ve seen so much (suffering) with others, ‘Why them?,’ and you learn when it’s your turn. I’ve seen so many wonderful people die young and painful deaths, you help them work through their issues with why me, why them with their family obligations, so when it came to myself, I said, ‘Well, maybe it is my time.’
“I’m not a woe is me kind of guy. It’s never been me. I kind of roll with the punches,” he said, admitting, pancreatic cancer was a rather strong blow to the stomach.
After learning of his illness, Fr. Schlegel said he reflected on his life and found himself thinking of the current pope, a fellow Jesuit.
“How I got there – interesting I said to myself – I really like what (Pope Francis) has been up to and I’d really like to tell him that,” he said of the idea that put his trip into motion.
Fr. Schlegel was no stranger to Rome, having been there several times, and he had even met Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, but this meeting was special, he acknowledged.
Following Mass, which Fr. Schlegel described as a “beautiful, quiet, no-frills Mass,” with an extemporaneous sermon delivered by Pope Francis, the priests unvested and the pope greeted each person individually.
“He knew a little about all of us,” said Fr. Schlegel of the pope. “I told him, ‘I’m the Jesuit from the United States,’ and he said, ‘Ah, yes, I know, you have an illness’ and he knew I was a university president,” said Fr. Schlegel of the brief conversation which took place in English and Spanish.
“His English is not terribly good and my Spanish is not terribly good, so we basically communicated in the language of love and respect,” said Fr. Schlegel, adding he found the pope to be a man of humility and simplicity with a genuine smile.
“He puts his hand right on you and if you try to kneel and kiss his ring, he will wave you off,” said Fr. Schlegel, noting, the pope grabbed his hand and pulled him closer in an embrace.
Even though his illness is causing Fr. Schlegel to feel more fatigued, he said the weeklong trip was worth the effort.
Back in Milwaukee and preparing for Holy Week and Easter, Fr. Schlegel said his illness has brought him some unexpected blessings in the form of baskets-full of correspondence from people he has touched throughout his life.
He received a bouquet of cut flowers from the African American student organization at the University of San Francisco on the 50th anniversary of the Selma March with a note from the group thanking him for establishing the organization at the university. Likewise, he received a letter from a senior faculty member at Marquette thanking him and telling him he will be invited to a 30th anniversary celebration for the Women’s Center at Marquette University. The center was also established by Fr. Schlegel.
And he received a note from a mother in Tacoma, Washington, thanking him for saving her son’s life by “making Creighton a safe zone for gay and lesbian students.”
“Maybe you can look back and say, it’s not all for naught. Maybe something really good did happen,” he said, adding, “My whole life has been inclusion, diversity, empowerment of women and suddenly you look back and say, ‘Wow, maybe something happened.’ That part is very gratifying.”
While he will remain pastor at Gesu for as long as his health will allow, Fr. Schlegel said he is also planning to travel to visit family members and friends throughout the country. He is also looking forward to an event in Omaha, a pre-wake sort of event, where as Fr. Schlegel explained, “the corpse will enjoy a drink and make a few comments” and be able to say goodbye to friends.
He noted that the Creighton Center for service and justice will be named in his honor, something he said deeply touches him.
“It’s a center that when I was president out there, I was particularly attentive to, community service, community outreach and they were able to successfully fundraise for it,” he said. “That kind of thing does touch me,” he said.
Fr. Schlegel knows that it’s a matter of time before the illness rears its side effects. While the only medication he is currently taking is Tylenol, he said he is beginning to experience a bit more stomach pain and fatigue.
“In the meantime, however, I am really enjoying the eulogies and I have my funeral program ready to go,” he said.
He also looks upon his experience as perhaps a counterpoint to the growing movement supporting so-called “Death with Dignity” or euthanasia.
“Maybe it is a counter-statement to euthanasia. I think I will die with great dignity, without that kind of human assistance and if I can speak to the needs of others contemplating that kind of situation, fine, it is a grace and a gift,” he said.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t have melancholy thoughts about the shortened time he’s apparently been given.
“After spending 40 years in university work, I always planned on moving to pastoral work as a last career. It’s ironic that it will be cut short,” he admitted. “The appointment (as pastor) was for six years, but only nine months into it, I was diagnosed. I really think this has been the best of both worlds, I am close to a university, but come at it from a pastoral perspective.”
In his letter to parishioners in the Feb. 15 parish bulletin, Fr. Schlegel said he is not eliminating the possibility of a miracle.
“I rely on your prayers that my life, until the end, may praise and glorify God. Please pray for me using the prayer for Pedro Arrupe’s canonization. Who knows, I may be the miracle he needs to be made a saint, so we could still have many more years together!”