Rev. Bob Nugent, SDS.

ImageWhen we were young we all played the “peek-a-boo” game.  The point of the game was to close our eyes, close them tightly so we can’t see anything (imitating dark and like-blindness)… and then with one wide release of our hands we’d see what we’ve missed.  A simple game that showed us what happens when our eyes are closed.  We closed our eyes and missed what was right in front of us.  But with open hands and eyes, we discovered that we can see more clearly.  (Do we play this game any differently as mature adults?)

Through the eyes of the Catholic Church’s, this game can often be played, sadly, backwards.  What would you call this game if it’s played backwards where your eyes are open and then you close them?  

I guess it’d be called “boo-a-peek.”  “Boo-a-peek” as if to say to another person, “I don’t want to know that you exist.  I do not see you. You are not standing in front of me right now.”  

By keeping our eyes closed we are then able to perceive what we wish to see.  Please note that I said, “perceive,” not “see” because we know that many times in life there are things and people we just don’t want to see.  Hence, the blindness of “perception.”  Perceiving leaves us in comfortable territory; without risk or without a “new way” of doing something that is very old.

We do it in Church and we do it in our culture.

We did it with Blacks for generations. (And sadly still do it in our thoughts, myself included.)  “Oh, they’re happy, just look at them; this is the best they can do, they should be grateful to us.”  How wrong we were and are in our smug perceptions without seeing.  

We continue to do it with women.  “Sacristy work is noble duty,” thinks the condescending priest while vesting himself before Mass.  How wrong we are in our smug religious perceptions without seeing.

“Indians?  Let’s give them all the land they want then and they can build as many casinos as they want.  How much damage can they do with gambling anyway with middle class and lower class folks?”  How wrong we were and are in our sometimes smug religious perceptions.  

This is not a eulogy for Bob.  Rather it is a statement of faith passionately reflected through his life.  And, isn’t our Christian faith always a reflection from you and me?  If our Christian faith cannot be lived and witnessed through you and me then what does it look like?  Then just put the Bible on your library shelve along with all your other old, ancient books.  

Faith is never about one person but sometimes it is one person (or two persons) that show us what happens when hands and eyes are wide open.  Hands and eyes that observe, receive, welcome and include.  Not always Catholic words, are they?

Bob joined the Salvatorians late in life (at least I thought he was old back then!).  He said that something was lacking in the city of Brotherly Love in regards to what can be called brotherly love.  “Ummm, we Salvatorians thought to ourselves.  A disgruntled diocesan priest with an agenda wants to join our ranks?  Let’s see how long this guy lasts!”

Then Bob invited us.  No, Bob forced us.  No, Bob charged us to stop playing “boo-a-peek” and to play the childhood game and to play-out the Christian faith as it was meant to be played and lived, “peek-a-boo, I see you.”  I see you homosexual and lesbian persons joining us each week for communion and I hear you say that you feel second, third or is there even a lower class of being Catholic?  

There is a lower class than second or third.  It is the place were you are unspeakable, as though you don’t exist, because if you have no name, then surely you cannot exist.  

A name means identity which leads to recognition.  

“Ten were healed but only one returned,” we heard today.  What’s with that?  Perhaps nine of them showed their gratitude to God by returning to their families, their businesses, their previous, precious lives that they thought were lost forever but is now regained.  Nine people who are now grateful for Christ’s healing touch and show it by returning to their previous lives.  But there’s that one, darn guy.  (“Why doesn’t he just go home,” probably says one of the apostles.  “We’re done here.  Let’s get to the next village.  Jesus just healed ten people, he’s tired!”)  

Here’s this one guy who returns to the Healer to thank him personally.  What would he have said to Jesus? “Thanks for acknowledging that I exist?” “Thanks for including me in your healing?” “No one has extended a healing hand to me before, thank you.”  “Did you mean that healing for someone else and I just got in the way?” “Thanks for the healing but where do I go now, my family’s turned me away and my friends won’t talk to me, to whom can do I turn?” “Can I really be healed?”

“One in ten!” That’s society’s statistic about these nameless people.  All ten were healed but one needed a special remembrance because of past wounds.  All ten were healed but one especially needed to make special mention of that healing to the Healer.

The Church’s reversal of this childhood game taught us from the earliest of ages that “those people” just didn’t exist.  Even saying the word “homosexual” in 2014 can cause good Christians to shrink and wince.  And if you’re a minister and elongate the word “homosexual” it only illustrates your religious disdain for them.  Our first name for this unnamed group was a “bag of sticks,” the kind used to burn witches centuries before us and then the second unnamed word became a synonym for “weird.”  

“Isn’t there a new name those people could use?  Something with a happier tone to it?  Let’s see, let’s see, what’s another word for ‘happy’?” Ummmmm.  

The Church first said, “They’re just a very small minority;” “they’re just weird,” was the second response, it then devolved using shotty theology into “they’re sick,” and finally “they’re morally disordered” was the official Vatican pronouncement.  Yewww.  It’s finally settled, they still don’t have a name but at least now they have a description.  (Such harsh language heaped upon almost a tenth of the population.)  Then AIDS came and then “they,” of course, were the cause and continue to be today in most people’s minds.

But the Vatican’s finally pronouncement was years later after Bob and Jeannine began a ministry called “new ways” that was really about “very old Christian, old ways.”  The words we use today that Bob Nugent used over 40 years ago was difficult for many people to say toward “these people,” “dignity, compassion, inclusion, honesty, invitation, holism.”  How was this accomplished through “new ways?”  It was done through education, more education and then after that more education.  Catholic Church teaching integrated along with personal experiences so that the two (Catholic and homosexuality) were no longer two but one.  Integration.  

Rome still believing the childhood game is best played the opposite way played it their way.  “Just don’t look at them and they’re eventually go away,” Rome seemed to be saying to Bob and Jeannine while the two of them waited years to eventually hear what they suspected they’d hear; that Rome silenced them.  Like a frustrated, immature friend when confronted with blinded eyes says to you, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”  And that’s supposed to end a meaningful conversation.

(Silence, just listen to silence….)

To teach is to educate.  To educate is to inform.  To inform is to empower.  To empower is to cause change.  To change, in Rome’s eyes, is well, “weird and just more weird!”

Silenced.  Silenced.  Bob was silenced by the Church’s most powerful and soon to become even more powerful as her pope.  The same Church to which he dearly loved and dedicated his life snuffed out the simply lit candle of education and inclusion.  We Salvatorians all mourned with Bob but we knew that it was a losing battle.  Or was it?  

Bob continues on with his life and finds it both enriching and challenging in pastoral and writing ministries.  I saw him at a Salvatorian gathering and asked him how he could give up his “new ways” work and he confided to me that he never did.  He tried to influence the group’s work and direction “under the radar.”  I was not to tell anyone but I guess that I just did.  I’m sure those of you who knew Bob would have guessed that anyway.  It’s not easy to silence or stop a prophet.  

Bob would laugh at the title of “prophet,” even in his coffin.  He wasn’t a prophet.  He just a priest.  He just wanted to play this childhood game of hide and seek fairly – and inclusively.

(“Christ Has No Body” begins to play in the background)
How do you silence one of the most articulate Salvatorians I have known?  How do you silence Bob Nugent, whose words ebbed and flowed so easily from his vast reading and experiences?  And if you were to get him to be quiet, you’d receive a look from him so you’d want him to start talking again.  Was Bob radical?  Some may say “yes.”  Was he an outsider?  Some might say “yes,” but I know of no Salvatorian who would say that.   The shunned, the alienated, the nameless are the people Bob dedicated his life to; and to include them in a Church that Bob loved and served faithfully without regret even in the midst of regret was the only way to play the game “peek-a-boo” fairly.  
(Fr. Joe Rodrigues, SDS sings the song softly)

I’ve only known Bob as a Salvatorian.  His commitment to us was strong and fearless.  He chose the right religious congregation because he knew he’d find support and encouragement in our ranks.  And, he was right.  He walked an edge that many of us think about doing but rarely achieve.  After all, an edge is “edgy” and sometimes you may fall.  Bob never fell because his “‘peek-a-boo” game of opening our hands and our eyes never stopped within and was always within the teachings of the Catholic Church.  

Stubborn or persistent?  Who are we to judge?  He told me years later that “New Ways” was now more political than it was originally meant to be and he was disappointed by that.  That happens.  Bob wanted to educated and then educate and then guess what?  Educate again.

Education is equivalent to information.  Information equals empowerment.  Empowerment causes change.  Change prompts a renewal of this Christian faith of ours.

Bob.  Faithful priest.  Unconditional friend.  Dedicated follower of Jesus.  Priest, educator, author – a true Salvatorian.
“Peek-a-boo,” we see you Bob – and we thank you.  And I’m confident that “one-in-ten” thank you far, far more than any of us could.

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About Rev. Joe Jagodensky, SDS.

A Roman Catholic priest since 1980 and a member of the Society of the Divine Savior (Salvatorians). www.Salvatorians.com. He is associate pastor of partnering parishes, Christ King and St. Bernard parishes in Wauwatosa, WI.
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