It is no secret that my Catholic Church has suffered – continues to suffer – through an enormous leadership crisis. The Church’s child sexual abuse scandal remains an open wound largely because too many top leaders continue to treat it as a public relations problem rather than a profound moral failing of an entirely male dominated organization. And don’t get me started on the silly fight that the bishops of the Church have picked with the nuns, those saints on earth who in many many cases remain closer to the folks in the pews than any bishop.
All this makes the passing last week of Father Donald Riffle, a retired priest in the Diocese of Boise all the sadder. Father Riffle was there is no other way to put it, a remarkable fellow – pastoral, principled a man with a message and a wicked sense of humor who profoundly influenced so many folks fortunate enough to stumble into his path.
Riffle died January 3, 2013 while in Hawaii, a place I think he considered a bit of heaven on earth. Before his health began to slip he would joke about his regular pilgrimages to the land of sun and balmy breezes to play golf. For many years in an around his beloved golf he took good care of the faithful at Boise’s St. John’s Cathedral. Most Catholics considered Riffle’s homilies better – and his jokes spicier – than they had any right to expect from a Church that places a premium on doctrine often at the expense of a coherent message to its people. Riffle always had a message. I never saw him use a note, an index card or a script. He’d walk down from his chair at the appointed time, place his glasses gently on the alter and talk directly to me and to the several hundred folks who it often seemed came mostly to hear him preach. The guy was a remarkable communicator and one of the best speakers I have ever heard. After a Riffle homily, I’ve often thought that the Church should have set him up as a homily coach for young priests. Father Don was the best.
Father Riffle also had a remarkable facility for remembering names and after a service he would stand at the door shaking hands, hugging and calling everyone – everyone – by their first names. I remember when our oldest son was in grade school and would accompany us to Mass, Riffle would thank him for bringing the old folks to Church. He had a soft heart for Bishop Kelly High School and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. He was known to cut the Mass short if an important football game might conflict with an overly long service.
It’s worth a confession to admit that a major reason I converted to the Catholic faith many years ago is because of Don Riffle. He was skeptical at first that I was serious and I think always harbored a little doubt that a former Methodist could really make it. Yet his was a warm, but challenging kind of faith. The kind of faith that acknowledged that for most of us every day is a struggle but that you must keep trying.
Don Riffle also taught me an enduring lesson about the power of the Catholic bureaucracy. Over breakfast many, many years ago, I was lamenting how some now forgotten issue was being handle in the dim and mysterious recesses of that bureaucracy. He smiled and essentially said to forget about trying to change such worldly things in a mammoth and often out of touch organization. Your job, he said, was to attend to the little things we can impact like an envelope in the collection basket, a box of groceries for a family down on its luck at Thanksgiving and our own daily interaction with all the other souls we come across who are, like us, struggling quietly along. The Catholic Church, a mirror to the rest of our society perhaps, is a flawed and all too human institution. It disappoints as well as elevates but at its best it bestows upon the believers a sense that we were put here for reasons bigger and more important than ourselves. Don Riffle’s life as a priest gives us reason to believe that God can do wonders here on earth and Riffle would remind us to be open to the possibilities.
There is a golf game somewhere today where every drive ends in the fairway. All the birdie putts drop and the temperature never demands a sweater. Bets are being placed on the Irish-Alabama game and no one will lose. People are smiling and the libations are tasty. I haven’t a clue what heaven is like, but I’m confident the quality of the humor and the level of the conversation is a whole lot better there today.