The Most Heroic Thing I Have Ever Witnessed
On January 11, 2009, we went to Noon Mass at Blessed Sacrament parish in Seattle. It was being celebrated by our visiting priest, but after he processed up to the altar, we were astonished to see that Fr. Tom Kraft had taken a seat beside him.
Fr. Tom is one of the sweetest and holiest men I have ever known. A thoroughly priestly man with a profound sense of his vocation, a deep love for the poor, a beautiful humility and just a sheer radiant goodness that shines out of him.
He is also dying of esophageal cancer that has metastasized. We've been praying for him for months, but God has made it clear that he picks the fruit when it is ripe. So Fr. Tom ended his chemo-therapy some weeks back, went to Spokane to say goodbye to his loved ones, and returned to us at Blessed Sacrament to spend his last days surrounded by brother priests in the rectory, cared for by Jesson Mata, our valiant liturgy guy—and to say goodbye to all of us.
After the homily, Fr. Daniel Syverstad, our pastor, had to give a brief report on finance matters, but then he gave (as he had done at all the previous Masses) a report on Fr. Tom. He was as astonished and moved as the rest of us to see Fr. Tom there, so much so that his normally dry and imperturbable Norwegian demeanor was shaken, as were we all. His voice trembled a couple of times and he said the beautiful truth about Fr. Tom: that he was one of the finest and most beloved priests Blessed Sacrament has ever had (which is saying a lot, because we've been blessed with extraordinary men, some of whom I believe will be canonized someday). Fr. Tom, with typical humility, cried as the people spontaneously applauded him. Well done, thou good and faithful!
But that was not all. This supremely loving man who could barely sit up through the Mass actually stood and assisted at the consecration. You could barely hear his voice: a thin, papery whisper that demanded everything of him (the cancer has metastasized to his lungs). But he did it, gripping a chair to keep his balance and then leaning on the altar itself.
"Through him, with him, in him". I've never seen the meaning of the priesthood so clearly incarnated before my eyes before. Alter Christus. Priest. Victim. Sacrifice. This man and his Lord were standing so close together it was hard to tell them apart, especially from my seat up in the Nosebleed Section of the Human Race, so very far from that kind of sanctity.
They made it through the consecration and Jesson hurried to Fr. Tom's side to help him. I thought to myself, "For the love of God, go sit down, Fr. Tom. You've done enough."
But instead, this great man insisted on coming down with the Body of his Lord and distributing communion to us. He gave every last bit of himself out of love for God and for us. I was very tempted to change communion lines and receive from him (and I know others who actually did) because I knew I was looking at a saint. But instead, I just went up in my line, bawling, grieving, moved and grateful beyond words for what I was witnessing.
After it was all over, Fr. Tom processed out and even stood on the steps of the Church in the January cold, greeting people, blessing them, giving (as much as any soldier at Gettysburg or Normandy) "the last full measure of devotion". I had the great honor shaking his hand and squeezing his bony arm, thanking him (and telling him he should really go lie down and rest). He said, "This gives me energy." Later, I'm told, he asked the Dominicans to take him for a car ride around town. They marveled--and complied.
My eyes blur with tears as I write this. My wife said afterwards that she thought of Henry V's speech, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers." I felt so privileged and honored to be able to witness what I saw that day. A friend of mine said, "I have been to Mass at the Garden of Gethsemane. I have prayed at the tomb of Christ and celebrated Holy Week in Jerusalem. But I have never been as moved by a Mass as I was by what I saw today."
Father, thanks be to God for your holy servant, Tom. We know he has to go soon, but we also know he will be happy with you. Grant him the grace of a happy death through out Lord Jesus Christ.
God bless you, Fr. Tom, for your beautiful gift of your heart and your life. We love you.
Copyright 2009 - Mark P. Shea