by Abbot James Albers
As well as I was able to get to know Fr. Albert, him serving so many years in the parishes, I came to know him as a gentle man, yet a discerning one. He knew his mind and knew where he stood on things; however, he would communicate what he knew and understood in the most calm and unassuming way, almost to the point that if we landed on a decision on something, you just didn’t know if you came to a mutual agreement, or whether you got duped.
During my first of many visits to him at the Life Care Center in Seneca, where he went for rehab following the amputation of his right leg, I asked him how he was doing not having access to his tobacco pipe both at the hospital he had come from and at the Life Care Center, both being tobacco free facilities.
He told me, “Not very well. Open that drawer there.” I did as I was told, and there was a pipe and a pouch of tobacco. Father Albert said, “One of the parishioners from Axtell brought that in, and I plan to have a discussion with someone here.”
Don’t we all wish we could have been privy to that discussion.
On my next visit, it was a nice day, so Fr. Albert said, “Let’s go outside and sit for a while.” Once we were situated Fr. Albert reached into his pocket, pulled out his pipe, lit it, and took a puff. Was there a mutual agreement, or did someone get duped?
In speaking with Fr. Albert’s sister, Mary, she told me that Fr. Albert knew from his ninth-grade year in school that he wanted to be a priest. And like many before him, and many after, the influence of the Benedictines in Fr. Albert’s life directed that call.
Having grown up in St. John’s Parish, in Burlington, Iowa – a river town – a parish we staffed from 1890 to 1990, Fr. Albert ended up in this river town of Atchison in his encounter with Christ. He was in a class here in the Abbey that we could say were among some of the giants, as he professed vows with Bishop Herbert, Father Emeric, and Fr. Blaine.
Fr. Albert had told me that it was always his thought for his vocation to be here at the Abbey and work in the educational apostolates, never having a great desire to be out in the parish. But a chance need and opportunity changed that course for him.
Abbot Thomas called him into his office – at the time Fr. Albert was working as registrar at the College – and Abbot Thomas told Fr. Albert that they were in a little bit of a pinch. One of the monks out in the parish had to be brought back to the Abbey for health reasons, and Abbot Thomas needed Fr. Albert to “pinch-hit” for nine months until the new assignments were given out the following year, at which time Fr. Albert would come back to the Abbey.
In the end, Fr. Albert’s unassuming way of discerning led to fifty years of pastoral ministry in the parish.
Father Albert did finally make it back here to the Abbey a week and a half ago for a few days before complications from the cancer with which he had recently been diagnosed proved to be too much. Father Albert’s act of obedience to Abbot Thomas led him into a world of ministry he could not have before imagined.
“Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all,” St. Benedict writes, “not only to the abbot but also to one another as brothers, since we know that it is by this way of obedience that we go to God” (RB 71:1-2).
This love, or mutual obedience is directly tied to listening, and if it is not, that obedience will struggle, falter, and sputter out, it will become a weight we cannot bear. And it is important here that we understand that St. Benedict is pointing to the effectiveness of mutual obedience, because it can be difficult to listen for God’s will by ourselves.
In fact, the vulnerability of mutual obedience is necessary to truly know God’s will.
Consider how this plays out in our lives; we need others as sounding boards, people with critical eyes and ears to tell us when we are fooling ourselves or turning a blind eye to what is really in front of us. We need others to help us understand the path toward Christ that will bring us joy in our service to community and one another.
God’s voice, of course we hear daily in our hearts, if we are listening with a discerning ear; however, God’s voice has been and always will be mediated through others, even if it comes to us by way of imperfect means. Thus the hard work of our obedience will happen in our relationships with each other as we ground ourselves in Christ.
Father Albert, I’m sure, experienced this with the numerous parish councils and school boards and finance councils he had to work with. He was the pastor at Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park when they built the addition to the school there – it is my understanding that he didn’t want the new gymnasium; the parish got their new gymnasium.
Fr. Albert was the pastor at St. Michael’s in Axtell when the very difficult decision had to be made to close the school; a beautiful community of about 25 students and handful of staff. He once said, “It is a waiting game to see which school will close first, the parish school or the public school.”
It is in community that our desires and preferences will be purified and developed into something that is grace-filled. And there lies the difficulty.
It is in turning ourselves over to the judgment of another, or others, making ourselves vulnerable, it is in that where our self-will puts up the biggest fight. It is only when we know from where our thoughts and desires spring forth that we truly understand ourselves and our motives, and in this way we become the instrument through which God’s will is administered, no matter how imperfect we might be.
If we are willing to pause and listen and hear the direction of others, that mutual obedience will prove to be an opportunity for our voice, and result in a satisfaction in Christ. When it came time for Fr. Albert to do rehab after the amputation of his leg, he really desired to go to the Life Care Center of Seneca; he knew the people out there.
As week passed and week passed, as the staff there at the Life Care Center really looked after him, especially in helping heal the wound from the amputation – a ministry that probably saved Fr. Albert from further amputation as they were able to fight off a serious infection that developed – I knew that he was coming to see his time there as a ministry.
So in one of my visits, I gently began that conversation about his rehab coming to an end and his possibly returning to the Abbey where I would ask him to help with the ministering to our students in the confessional. In his own gentle way, Fr. Albert explained the situation of what he indeed saw as a ministry there at the Life Care Center, being able to offer regular Sunday Mass and weekday Mass – a luxury for a nursing care center. Residents regularly knocking on his door asking that their confession be heard; the staff there coming to Fr. Albert as residents asked for anointing of the sick, or someone was dying and the needed to have last rites administered.
Maybe I was duped in our mutual discernment as I let him stay there, but I am confident that if so, it was the Lord who duped me, and not Fr. Albert, as I knew Fr. Albert was indeed offering the command of Jesus, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” This was the great commission for Fr. Albert’s monastic life and his priesthood, that he lived among his brothers at the Abbey, and among his flock in the parishes.
I mentioned before that Fr. Albert, as he discerned his vocation to the Benedictines, moved from one river town on the Grand Mississippi to another river town on the Wide Missouri. It may be a metaphor for our faith in baptism, but also for Fr. Albert’s monastic and priestly vocation. Father Albert found many generous ways to share Christ in the living waters. In conversation over a pipe, in a few strums of the guitar, in offering the sacraments, he helped others encounter Christ in a gentle and unassuming way.
He offered his life in such a manner as to give example of the great commission of Christ.
As we offer up Fr. Albert, our brother, let us examine our own manner in which we listen for God’s will and offer ourselves in his mission.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.