Full text of funeral homily for Father John J. Dietzen

EDITOR’S NOTE: Following is the full text of the homily at the March 31 funeral Mass at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Peoria for Father John Dietzen. The homilist was Msgr. Gerald Ward, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church of Merna Parish in Bloomington.

Father Dietzen, episcopal vicar for senior priests of the Diocese of Peoria, former pastor, Catholic Post associate editor, and longtime “Question Box” columnist, died March 27, 2011, in Peoria at age 83. His obituary appeared in the April 3 issue of The Catholic Post.


“Now they know that everything you gave me is from you, because the words you gave to me I have given to them. I pray for them. And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you.”

These words just proclaimed in our Gospel are words spoken by our Lord in prayer as He prepared to leave this world and they express the concluding days of John Dietzen’s life as his body died to this life and rose to a new life with Christ.

While the last weeks and days and then hours were very difficult for John and for those of us who knew him, particularly his family and close friends, they were grace-filled days in which the life of Father Dietzen unfolded and this prayer of Jesus was his prayer. In thinking back now, I wonder if he was not praying this laying in that hospital bed as his body slowly stopped functioning.

And as the news of his declining health spread, many people turned to prayer and this prayer of Jesus became a prayer that we offered to God for John, that he now be one with Jesus in the kingdom of heaven.

To you, Don, and to your wife Rita and to you, Sister John Margaret, we admire your courage and your strength in the decision that you had to make. Your brother knew you would be there for him and you were. To the nieces and nephews, the other family members, to his good and faithful friends, to the parishioners of St. Mark’s and Holy Trinity, to all the people touched by his ministry, to my brother priests, to the Religious Sisters and to all the many readers of his column — we are here today to celebrate the life of a man who touched us all and who helped us know the love of Christ in our lives.

We had the privilege of knowing a man who loved Jesus and who let the love of Christ shine forth through him in the way that he cared for others and ministered to others — whether it be in his family, his parishioners, his friends, or his readers.

And while this has already been said by others, but to his family in particular, thank you for sharing your brother with us, particularly in those times when he had to be away from his family to minister and to be with the people he served.

From the letter to the Romans: “Let love be sincere, hate what is evil, hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor.”

Is this not what John Dietzen embraced as he lived out his life and exercised the ministry of priesthood? His love was very sincere and his ability to help others realize the love of Christ in their lives was a gift that he used to help build up the Body of Christ.

He had a gift of leading and shepherding by treating others equally and with compassionate love. His ability to work with others by empowering them to use their gifts was the way in which he operated. He found his strength and enthusiasm in seeing others bring out their gifts and talents and being able to use them. Leadership was based on mutual affection and respect. Priesthood was not a position of dominance over people, but to be with his people where they are.

Again, from the letter to the Romans, “Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them.” That is what he taught to many though his own example and his ability to empower others.

While I say all this, I do want to be clear: From my experience of being an assistant with John for three years and then serving as a neighboring pastor for eight years, in talking about programs in the parish or situations in the schools or any area of ministry that he was in charge of ? he was in charge! I found out quickly that if I had an idea on how something should be done one way or another different than a way it was being done, I would have to work it out so that it was his idea. Then it got through very quickly. (Take note pastors: when you ask former assistants to give the homily at your funeral, there might be a little payback!)

Jesus prayed, “Now they know that everything you gave me is from you, because the words you gave to me I have given to them.” That prayer was lived out in John Dietzen’s life not only through his parish ministry but through his passion for reading, filling his mind and heart with knowledge of our faith and his sharing that knowledge and faith through his writings.

As so many have mentioned, his legacy will live on through the publications, books and articles he wrote that touch so many people’s lives and hopefully help deepen their belief and faith in God. He is remembered for the enthusiastic pursuit of researching answers to questions and challenging his readers to think. There was no question that was too difficult or too much of a challenge for him. His responses in his writing were well researched and written in a pastoral way, reflecting the teachings of the Church and in a historical perspective.

In the preface of his most recent book, “Doors of Hope,” he stated that the purpose of its pages “is not to re-live the past, but to examine what history can tell us about what is happening in the Catholic Church today.” In his writings and when he spoke in his homilies he always had an appreciation for where we have been and where we are today in living out our faith as a Church and as individuals. We will know where we are going best by where we have been and where we are today was a central theme of his work.

In a gentle but thorough way he was an excellent teacher. He taught through his writings, through his conversations, through his ministry, and through his example. If there was a situation or a problem that you came to him with, he would help you find the answer — have some article, some book or wome way to broaden yourself to handle the situation.

John had a way of listening to the problem or question, whether it be one-on-one or posed by a group or committee or a question in writing. He would offer suggestions, give some historical background, offer a book or article, but would not directly tell you the answer. You still had to use your brain, your gifts, to come to your solution.

I heard one story from a former priest of our diocese — Father George Wolf, who is now in Portland, Ore. Father Dietzen was his first pastor while at St. Mark’s. Father George and Sister Helen Carey, who was the pastoral associate, went to meet with Father Dietzen to talk about the programs in the parish and how they were being drawn in many different directions and that maybe they should look at the amount of programs in the parish and put a cap on them.

Father Dietzen listened very carefully and pastorally. About five hours after the appointment, Father George went into his office and on his desk chair were five books on time management!

The hope and goal of any priest — and this could be said for any Christian person and one who is committed in living out the Gospel and following the Lord Jesus in our lives — is that when we have completed our lives here on earth we will be remembered by those who came to know and love Jesus by our lives. John Dietzen fulfilled that goal and mission in countless ways. The hundreds and thousands of people who hopefully live out the Gospel better in their lives is what John was all about. His humility and dedication to service in the Church and promoting the Church’s mission and the Gospel of Jesus was his passion.

He loved being a priest and in particular a pastor. With his talents and abilities he probably could have taught at some university or seminary. I heard him say numerous times after a liturgy or some event in the parish, “Isn’t this a great life!” Serving as a pastor was where it was at for him, that is where he found his energy.

In these last years of retirement, or senior status as we call it, his ministry became even more effective and pastoral. Not only by helping on weekends and keeping contact with friends and former parishioners, but it was through his writings that will continue on for a long time. He will continue to minister to others by the columns that have yet to be published. His writings will continue to help the Church grow into the Church, the people of God.

I am going to conclude much the same as Father Mark DeSutter concluded last night in the homily at the wake service.

The death of a loved one and in particular the death of a giant like Father Dietzen — who was support, strength, and inspiration to many and a pillar in our diocese — leaves us to ask what are we to do now? The solution he would give is simple but it is still up to us. It comes from the words of St. Paul in the second reading.

“Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer.”

Thank you, John, for all you taught us and left for us. May you now be at peace, good and faithful servant!

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