Funeral homily: Fr. Prendergast taught how to run the race of life

By: By Father Mark DeSutter

Editor’s note: Following is the full text of the homily given by Father Mark DeSutter at the Nov. 20 funeral Mass for Father Robert E. Prendergast. Father Prendergast died Nov. 13 at his home in Kewanee. His obituary is found here. Father DeSutter is pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Morton.

In one of the last conversations I had with Father Prendergast a couple of weeks ago he reminded me that he wanted to use the Epistle that we read today from Second Timothy (4:6-8) at his funeral. Truly it is a wonderful metaphor for what the Christian life is all about. For we are all running a race and we want to run it well.

One thing that we know about how a foot race transpired in the ancient world is how the course was laid out. Half way through the race the runners would come to a pole or a marker. At that point they would circle the pole to head for home. Anyone who has ever run knows the sensation of being tired but then getting a second wind. Somehow the whole tenor of the race changes at that moment of second wind, when turn to head for the finish.

The story of Jesus’ life is also divided into two halves. We see that in the Gospel of Mark. The whole Gospel is exactly 16 chapters. In first half of the Gospel story Jesus is actively involved in ministry. He is having success after success. And then he asks the climactic question of his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

Peter makes his confession of faith. Immediately after this Jesus reveals the doctrine of the cross. He points to his death. The second half of the Gospel Jesus is moving toward to Jerusalem his ultimate destiny. The tenor of the Gospel story begins to change. Jesus runs into opposition, suffering, and death. Yes, the eight chapter of Mark is the hinge that the Gospel story swings on.

Spiritual writers often talk about the fact that every person who lives in this world has two halves to their lives. In the first half of our life we build, we achieve, we dream, the possibilities are endless. In the second half of life we physically diminish. We accept limitations. All of this hinges on one fact that we come to know. We are destined to die. Many people live the second half of life with resentment, bitterness, resignation, anger. And then there are those unusual people who live that second half of life with hope, joy, and cheerful acquiescence.

The two halves of life are not neatly divided by counting a certain number of years. No, the second half begins when we realize we are going to die.

Father Bob Prendergast lived out this mystery of the two halves of life as we all do. His was an unusual life because the second half of his life started when he was only 30 years old. The first half of Bob Prendergast’s life was full of promise. As most of us know, he started his life living in Brooklyn. He played in the streets of New York. He lived in an innocent time when children could wander around the city unafraid. He went to Brooklyn Dodger games and fished in the ocean. He spent his summers on a dairy farm in upstate New York. He was an only child. His parents Ed and Nelly loved him dearly.

When he graduated from high school he began to feel the call to priesthood. He applied to the Brooklyn diocese, but because of the fact he had a damaged arm that he had broken in a bad fall he was turned away. He went to his parish priest who was an Irishman. Young Bob told him he had to find a bishop and a diocese. Bob’s pastor came up with an interesting method of choosing. The two men knelt on the floor in the rectory parlor to say a prayer to the Holy Ghost. With that they opened the Catholic directory (a big book with a listing of all the diocese in the nation) and it fell open to Peoria.

Bob wrote Bishop Schlarman who accepted him.

Bob went to seminary in Buffalo. He then began his first assignment at the Cathedral Parish in Peoria. He was extremely happy. When Bishop Schlarman assigned a man to St. Mary’s it meant he had his eye on him for higher things. The future looked bright.

But then the second half of life began. Bob had suffered a couple of skull fractures earlier in his life, one in a street car accident in New York. Little did he know there was a time bomb ticking in his head. One day in 1952 he suffered a massive stroke. Doctors at Mayo Clinic gave him a year to live.

When Bob recovered enough, Bishop Cousins offered Father Prendergast three hospital assignments where he could finish his career. He asked him which one he wanted. Father responded with his normal bluntness, “You choose, Bishop. If I do not like it then I blame you.” The Bishop picked Kewanee.

He began his life here (in Kewanee) with us — working in health care. Prendy had a unique way of dealing with the medical community, especially with doctors. When he arrived at St. Francis a young doctor came home from medical school at about the same time (Dr. Terry). Dr. Terry told Father that he had to undergo a physical. Father Prendergast told him to just look at the mountain of medical records he brought with him from Mayo Clinic, but Dr. Terry insisted.

So Father decided to make a point. Dr. Terry wanted a specimen. Doc handed him a plastic container telling him to bring it back in the morning. Father gave him an interesting liquid. In the plastic container he put whiskey, bacon grease, sugar and a variety of other things. Dr. Terry, after analyzing the results, brought him in to give him the bad news. Father, trying to keep from laughing, finally told Dr. Terry what he had done.

Dr. Terry told Father that he would never give him an unwanted test again. He and Doctor Terry became fast friends.

Father did not like pomposity in anyone. And he often commented that he buried every doctor that told him he was going to die.

Father Prendergast stayed in health care until he had to retire because of heart issues. He was only 52. He came back here to Kewanee from St. Mary Hospital in Galesburg.

For a lot of people life would have been over, but for Father Prendergast it seemed that life was just beginning. How did he live so long?

One day the secret was revealed to me. I remember as a seminarian taking a winter ride with Father and his mother who we all knew as Mama. The joy at getting out in the cold air on a sunny day was palpable. We went out to feed the ducks at Johnson Lake. We then were coming home. Father Prendergast pointed out to Mama the children who were sliding down a snow covered hill. He was so joy-filled at the fun they were having.

Little things delighted him. I was able to see that what kept Father alive was his ability to rejoice in the small things of life; fishing for blue gill in a pond, playing the slots, competing in a Yahtzee game, eating a good meal, building a model train set up, collecting coins . . . .he found joy in the simple things.

The second thing that kept him alive was cheerful acquiescence. So many people fight their limitations. Father did not. He rejoiced in what he could do, not what he could not do. How does someone live 18 years with Parkinson’s? By acquiescing to the crosses that one has in life with an abiding trust in the goodness of God.

Father Prendergast ran the two halves of the race of life well. He came to Kewanee 60 years ago to die. Ironically, he taught us all how to live a long life. His was a sacramental life. He said many a Mass, heard many a confession, anointed our dying friends and relatives. The church teaches that a sacrament points at a reality beyond itself. Father Prendergast’s day to day life was a sacrament because pointed to a reality beyond itself. The reality was the delightful goodness of God.

Father made us feel terrific about life. What a grace for us all!

Prendy told me to do two things with this homily. Make it funny and make it short. I apologize to him. I myself had one goal: to make it inspirational because Father Robert Prendergast offered inspiration to us all. He was a priest who made it easy to fall in love with God. If every priest, if every Catholic did that what a wonderful church we would have. I am sure I speak for all of us today when I say, “Thank you Fr. Prendergast for teaching us how to run the race of life.”

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