My priest taught me about living and dying

In a guest column, a parishioner mourns Monsignor Henry Gracz, who died Monday, Feb. 5. He was the pastor at the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta since June 2001. (Michael Alexander/The Georgia Bulletin)

Credit: "Georgia Bulletin Photo By Micha

Credit: "Georgia Bulletin Photo By Micha

In a guest column, a parishioner mourns Monsignor Henry Gracz, who died Monday, Feb. 5. He was the pastor at the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta since June 2001. (Michael Alexander/The Georgia Bulletin)

Several years ago I told my husband I wanted to attend St. Philip’s Cathedral instead of our Catholic church. The problem for my husband is that St. Philip’s is Episcopalian not Catholic, and my husband is a cradle Catholic who very much wanted to remain Catholic and attend Catholic church. I, on the other hand, was a grumpy converted Catholic disillusioned by rhetoric and rules that I felt kept people out of the church and away from God.

That’s the rub with organized religion – it’s run by us messed-up, venal, petty humans and we are bound to distort, twist and often do the opposite of what God wants us to do.

I was hanging on by a thread and, frankly, I wanted out.

The first time we went to the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Atlanta, I was struck by a feeling, one I still struggle to describe. The only thing I can come up with sounds trite but it’s true – love lives here. The other feeling was that the Shrine was different from everywhere else I had ever been on my journey as a Catholic.

Jaye Watson

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

We are a motley lot – every color, every age, lots of languages – from 45 different zip codes. Some of us have been hurt by the church. Some of us have been hurt by life. This is the place we come to experience love and community, and Monsignor Henry Gracz was the beating heart at the center of our church.

When I met Father Henry, I was the 5-year-old seeing Santa in person for the first time. He had the white hair, beard, twinkly blue eyes and ever-present smile, as if he were ready for a knee slapping laugh. (Fun fact – you know how Google photos groups people according to name? Google grouped Father Henry with our Santa photos).

He radiated love. When we would walk in the door for Mass, there Father Henry would be, beaming at us, like a delighted parent whose children had returned home to visit. I believe he did this for us, so that we would feel seen and know we were cherished. He filled us up even before we made it to our pew.

Last week Father Henry learned he was going to die and almost immediately wrote a letter to all of us at the church saying just that. He began with such honest words, “I received surprising news from my doctor.”

We knew Father Henry had a leg wound that wasn’t healing. He finally had surgery, and it went well and at Mass that week they said he would be resting and doing rehab and back in six weeks. We were all relieved. The music director for the Shrine even joked it was good for him to have to be still, to slow down.

Just a few days later, doctors would tell Father Henry that scans showed cancer throughout his body and his brain. He wrote, “The prognosis is terminal and my doctor estimates I may have about 12 more weeks on this earth. I am sorry to share this news so starkly with you, but I believe that sharing the truth is rooted in love. You are my family and family deserves to know.”

Always ministering to us.

Five days after that letter, Monday, Feb. 5, Father Henry passed away in his home, surrounded by people who love him.

Henry spent each week teaching us how to live. His final gift was teaching us how to die. As a friend who was with him shared, he was surrounded by love. He was ready. He went peacefully.

It’s a mystery and a miracle to me how we are born, then how we manage to make our way – sometimes circuitously and excruciatingly – through this astounding yet relentless human experience. To me, Father Henry is what you get when love is manifested in human form. The love he gave so freely changed countless lives and hearts.

While there is beauty and grace in Henry’s last days, I’m heartbroken. My husband Kenny and I cried ourselves out. Henry was not only the best priest we’ve ever had, he was also a father to all of us. Whatever we did or did not do, he loved us despite us. Church friends have told me he got them through the darkest times in their life. Others have said he is why they became Catholic. I can say he is a big reason I remained Catholic.

He challenged us to love first always – and to extend that love to the poor and the homeless and the marginalized.

He gave everything he had for the good of others. He served until he could serve no more.

I will end by sharing the final words Father Henry wrote us:

‘I ask our loving God to lead me and guide me.. It’s a new journey – one I have never been on, but one we must all take at some point in our earthly lives. I love you and trust that you are holding me close. As Jesus taught us, death is never the ending – only the beginning.’

We love you, Father Henry.

Thank you for loving us back.

A parishioner of the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Jaye Watson is the co-executive producer and host of “Your Fantastic Mind” on PBS. She was at 11Alive (WXIA-TV) for 18 years.

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