The full text of the homily at the funeral Mass in Odell for Msgr. William Watson
EDITOR’S NOTE: Following is the full text of the homily at the May 3 funeral Mass at St. Paul Church in Odell for Msgr. William Watson. (See obituary here.) The homilist was Father Thomas Taylor, who served with Msgr. Watson at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Peoria Heights for 12 years. An archived video of the funeral Mass is available here.
Catherine, John, Joe, Jim, family and friends,
I’m going to begin this homily by giving God thanks for the gift of life. Whenever we commend someone we love to our Father, we are reminded how great a gift it is. So we offer our prayers for Father Watson today, we ask that they give peace and comfort to his family and loved ones. We know that his example of faith in living out his vocation to the priesthood, has helped so many of us as we strive to live lives worthy of the Kingdom.
Nine years ago, Father Bill asked me to preach his 50th anniversary Mass. At that time, he insisted that I speak on the priesthood, rather than tell Father Watson stories for an hour and a half. For the most part I honored his request.
This time, although he had asked that I preach his funeral, he made no such requests on its content. So . . . despite the temptation to tell Father Watson stories for an hour and a half, my heart wouldn’t let me. I know if he were here, he would want me to speak about the theme of resurrection (that he now shares in) and the call to holiness we have been given. Since these were the hallmarks of his priesthood and preaching, he will be a frequent example.
RAISED IN ODELL
Bill was born March 9, 1931, the oldest son of Jarlath and Lucille Watson. He was baptized right here at St. Paul’s in Odell and he began his lifelong appreciation of Catholic education in his years at St. Paul’s Grade School and High School. His father was the funeral director in town, as well as operating a furniture store.
There are certain occupations that have somewhat of a connection to priesthood. When a loved one dies, the two people that are called are the priest and the funeral director. Both are leaned on heavily in a time of great sorrow. Bill watched as over the years his father provided this service for 1,000 families. When Jarlath got to 1,000, he figured he had buried the whole town and retired.
When Bill was in high school, he was helping in various ways with the funerals. One day, his dad wanted to see if he might want to take over the business at one point. So he took him down into the basement to watch as he did an embalming. When Bill fainted, his dad realized he was probably destined for something else.
Those who know Father Watson from his years at St. Thomas might be surprised to know that in his early years he was quiet – almost to the point of shyness. After spending two years at St. Bede, he was at first intimidated when the bishop sent him up to Mundelein to continue his seminary studies. His classmates had already had two years of philosophy together, and it felt like he was starting way behind. But his faith, his winning personality, and his ability to adapt saw him through.
When it was time for him to return to the diocese to get ordained, his family came up to help him move things. The best vehicle they had for that purpose was the hearse. In a small town like Odell, everything has more than one purpose. The hearse also doubled as the town’s ambulance. So to let everyone at Mundelein know that Watson had been there, he drove it around the lake a couple of times with the siren blowing.
FIRST ASSIGNMENT IN ROCK ISLAND
At this point Father Bill would be saying, “Tom, you are supposed to be talking about resurrection and our common call to holiness.”
So let’s turn our attention to the first reading the family selected. The Wisdom reading is one of the more beautiful descriptions of resurrection in the Old Testament. In it we are reminded that the souls of the just are in the hand of God. What the world sees as dead will have hope of immortality through Christ. It also speaks of our earthly journey as being similar to the proving of gold in a furnace. Gold represents how precious we are to our heavenly Father. The testing is where we experience the presence of the Holy Spirit. It allows us to overcome everything the world may throw at us.
Which brings us to Father Watson’s first priestly assignment. When a priest is ordained, he is immediately qualified to do everything, but doesn’t really know how to do anything. This was especially true in the year he was ordained, 1962, four months before the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. Everything was about to change.
Father Watson was assigned to St. Joseph’s in Rock Island. His new pastor was Father Casey, who knew Bill because he had served here in Odell for a few years and had requested him personally. St. Joseph’s had two assistants, and each year they rotated an assistant out and got a new one. But for seven years it was always the other assistant who moved. In his seven years at the parish, he furthered his love for Catholic education through his teaching at Alleman High School. He also helped Father Casey adjust to the changes of the council while at the same time providing mentoring to the succession of associates.
Towards the end of his time in Rock Island, a parish came open that Father Bill and Father Bill and one of his classmates thought they would like to take on as co-pastors. When they presented the idea to Bishop Franz, they were a little disappointed in his reply. He told them it would be like giving the keys to the store to a couple of kids.
OK, I have to get back on topic.
SECOND ASSIGNMENT: NEWMAN CENTER AT U OF I
Whenever I hear the reading from St. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, I get the feeling that this church must have just suffered the loss of some well-loved members of the community. Paul always looked upon the churches he started as his children and was writing to comfort them. His words reminded them that the same resurrection of Christ – which we have been celebrating for the last month – gives hope to all generations of Christians.
One of the things that attracted people to Father Watson was his accepting nature. He knew we were all sinners and in need of Christ’s mercy and forgiveness. But he always chose to look for the best in people, and help them to use their strengths for the benefit of the whole community.
This was evident in his second assignment as a chaplain at the Newman Center at the University of Illinois with Msgr. Duncan. He enjoyed the vibrancy of working with the students. And again, his love of Catholic education continued as he was able to teach marriage courses. For years afterwards, he would get requests to officiate at their weddings. As much as he enjoyed this ministry – which, incidentally, may have turned him into a night owl (all the work at the parish seemed to take place late into the evenings) – one challenge that was still out there was to be a pastor.
THIRD ASSIGNMENT: PASTOR IN PEORIA HEIGHTS
After 12 years at the U of I, and 19 as a priest, he was named pastor of St. Thomas in Peoria Heights. He was replacing three co-pastors – Msgr. Rank, Father Campbell, and Father Bush. Msgr. Rank had been the founding pastor and had served the parish for 44 years, so getting a new pastor was kind of a new idea for the people.
The first thing he realized when he got to the parish was that the church was too small. There were seven Masses each weekend necessary to serve all the people — one on Saturday evening, five on Sunday morning, and another on Sunday evening. Most priests would have started calling architects for and looking for fundraising ideas. But Father Watson decided that before he could build the church, he had to build up the church. He encouraged everyone to place the gifts that they’d been given in the service of the community.
Over the years this led to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, JustFaith groups, many adult education opportunities, Bible studies, a charismatic prayer group, WATCH, the Carmelites’ prayer group, first Friday peace vigils, an active parish council, a food pantry serving the needs of the area, a health and wellness committee, Good Samaritans, the Martha group to serve funeral lunches, bereavement support, divorced ministry, sponsor couples, LifeTeen, a singles group, Men’s Club, the Women’s Guild, Senior Citizens Club, the Quilters, Marriage Enrichment, Parenting Classes, parish plays, and Legatus – as well as the education that was provided at St. Thomas School, CCD classes, and Peoria Notre Dame High School, which he also served as its president.
Also close to his heart were all the yearly pilgrimages that he led. In even numbered years, he would choose between destinations like Rome, the Marian shrines of France and Iberia, Israel and Catholic central Europe. Then, in the odd numbered years he would always take a group to the same place, the “Holy Land” – Ireland. Over the years he made 17 trips to the Emerald Isle and was rumored to be in line for citizenship on his next trip.
THE MASS: THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF HIS PREISTHOOD
After 18 years at the parish, this process of building the church was sufficiently under way that they were ready to build the new structure. Not willing to abandon the old worship space, it was decided to keep it as a daily Mass chapel and simply add on a completely new church. This entailed tearing down the rectory, renting a temporary residence, and then building a new one when the land became available.
Because of his tireless devotion to St. Thomas Parish for so many years, his family chose for our Gospel at our Mass today what I call the St. Thomas Funeral Gospel. Jesus is trying to prepare his apostles for his upcoming death and resurrection. He tells them he’s going to prepare a place for them and that where he’s going they know the way. At this moment you can almost see them looking at each other. “I didn’t get that memo.” Finally it’s St. Thomas who has the courage to question, “Master, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?”
Jesus’ answer is simple and direct and meant for all of us: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
If the way to the Kingdom is through Christ, and Jesus gave himself in the Eucharist to us at the Last Supper, and the Last Supper was the first Mass, then the Mass for Father Watson was the most important part of who he was as a priest. (This is the part where you may want to cover your ears for a minute, Bishop . . .)
St. Thomas always had a lot of Masses. There were two daily Masses. Even after building the new church, only one of the seven weekend Masses was eliminated. There were also two school Masses a week. Evening daily Masses were added during Advent and Lent. Monthly Masses were celebrated for the Carmelites and charismatics. Beginning with his Irish Masses and Msgr. Rank memorial Masses there were all kinds of special occasion Masses that were offered throughout the year.
In addition, there were at least 40 funeral Masses per year, as well as all the parishioners and former U of I students who wanted him to celebrate their wedding Masses. Father Bill loved proclaiming the Word — and loved being able to give the Lord in Eucharist to the people who had been entrusted to his care. In his mind, the need to give Christ to the people superseded any liturgical rules on the number of Masses a priest was limited to in a day.
FOURTH ASSIGNMENT: RETIREMENT
When I preached Father Watson’s 50th anniversary Mass, I mentioned that there are not many priests who only had three assignments. Today I need to talk about his fourth assignment: retirement. Father Bill really didn’t want to retire. He wanted to continue on. In some cases, his assignment to senior status was his most difficult. It took him about six months after he got here to Odell to realize that Bishop Jenky had been right and there was one more thing he needed to learn. Retirement forced him to accept being ministered to by others.
And so many people answered this call. He had been gone from Odell for more than 60 years, but and St. Paul’s Parish welcomed the son of their parish back with open arms. Whenever Monsignor was able to concelebrate the Mass, it had that much more meaning for them. All kinds of folks rallied around him. A local eatery delivered three evening meals a week – usually his favorite chicken dinners. During the school year, eighth graders were assigned to bring him a school lunch each day. Sometimes it took them 20 to 30 minutes to do so. They weren’t in any hurry to get back to class. But they probably learned more listening to his stories than they would have in class anyway. For his 85th birthday back in March, he received more than 300 cards.
For someone who had lived his life taking care of others, it was humbling at first. As I said, Bill was always able to adapt to any situation.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that his sister Catherine, who checked on him every evening and kept the house running smoothly. All of us who loved Father owe you a deep debt of gratitude.
ADDING OUR PRAYERS
This brings us to our final point. All of us who have gathered here today, and those who have joined us on the livestream, have wanted to have a personal share in one more Mass with Father Bill. We want to be able to add our prayers to his commendation to the Father that will occur at the end of Mass.
One definition of Church is “the people who pray to our Lord for one another.” The fact that so many people wanted to be here to offer prayers for Father Bill shows how successful he was at building the church at St. Thomas Parish and in all his assignments.
Today as we commend his care to the Lord, we ask that any sins he committed through human weakness be forgiven. We give thanks to the Father for all the people he has blessed us with in our lives. And we ask the Holy Spirit to continue to inspire young people to respond lovingly to the call to holiness that God gives to each of us.
Then we can be assured, just as we have been for the last 59 years, that the church will continue to be in good hands of gentle shepherds.