San Damiano Chapel
Mass, Oct. 17, 2010
Msgr. Bernard McGarty
Thomas Maurice O'Neill, priest of God. Biography is a study of the forces that shape the person. Marie LeFevre, of French, Scottish ancestry, gives birth to Thomas on March 7, 1948, Council Bluffs, Iowa. The proud father, T. Maurice O'Neill, of Irish ancestry, local funeral director, bequeaths his first, second, and third name to his son. Is the baby named for the skeptic apostle or the brilliant philosopher? Either model will fit the newborn. In the first November of Tom’s life, Truman upsets Dewey. Is that the beginning of his democratic tilt?
Nancy, Colleen, and Kathleen are added to the O'Neill household. The girls teach Tom it is not just a man's world, as they establish their time in the bathroom. First Communion in 1955, at St. Francis Xavier Parish, Tom learns of the Jesuit Missionary to Asia, and the wonder of the body and blood of Christ. Pat, Jim, and Tim take their place at the O’Neill table. The bumps and bruises of brothers and sisters polish Tom’s personality. When Tom is 10, and a mass server, Pope Pius XII dies. Unexpectedly, John XXIII is elevated to Peter’s chair. A new mood permeates the church and the world.
At 14 Tom's good marks qualify him to cross the Missouri River and enter Creighton High, learning what S.J. means. Latin, Greek, and French enlarge Tom’s vocabulary. Dan, Steve, and Matt round out the children to 10. Wit, laughter, and debate flavor the dinner table. Imagine the electricity! You best have your facts right for Tom. He did not suffer fools gladly. John Kennedy is assassinated. Vatican II is concluded; Paul VI and LBJ are in the headlines. Tom graduates high school and enters the Jesuits at 18. Two years of novitiate immerse the candidate in the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola.
College is at St. Louis University, St. Louis. Tom studies Thomism and existentialism. Vietnam, Watergate are painful words. Nixon resigns. Tom earns a bachelor’s degree, cum laude, majoring in English Literature and Philosophy, age 24. At Marquette High in Milwaukee, teaching English, Tom’s shoes sample Wisconsin turf. At 27 Tom begins the study of Theology at Berkley, Calif., the city of the flower children, protests, and pot. Tom earns a master’s degree in Cannon Law. At 30 Tom is ordained a Catholic priest in Omaha, Neb., by Bishop Daniel Sheen. His first Mass is at St. Peters, Council Bluffs.
Ronald Reagan is president, John Paul I, the smiling pope, and then Polish pope is in the Vatican. Tom becomes a professor at Creighton University, then at prestigious Georgetown, the flagship university of the Jesuits in the U.S. Fr. Avery Dulles is a housemate. In 1986, at age 38, Tom resigns from the Jesuits to do parish work in the Diocese of Winona (Minn.). In Rochester Tom serves St. Francis of Assisi Parish and teaches at Lourdes High, then at St. Mary’s University in Winona. The Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall collapse. Bill Clinton is president, to Tom’s delight.
In 1993, Bill Medland is president of Viterbo. Fr. Tom Finucan, previous Viterbo president suggests Bill recruit Fr. Tom O'Neill as chaplain and professor. Tom accepts at age 46, then is incardinated as a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse. In St. Rose Chapel, celebrating for and burying FSPA sisters, in San Damiano Chapel, leading worship for students and citizens, counseling, announcing basketball games, leading trips to Europe and New York, teaching ethics, absolving sinners, riding in police cars, earning a Fulbright to Australia, and Irish citizenship. This community leader, Tom finds his Shangri-La. He is at home, at peace. Great friend Earl Madary dies; a huge loss. Tom buries his father, T. Maurice O’Neill, a Loras classmate of retired Bishop John Paul.
For 15 years, Tom—this cleric with an IQ off the charts, a rapier wit, master of the three-minute homily—is a servant with a heart the size of a watermelon. All the time Tom disguises his inner feelings, his emotions, with something of a cryptic exterior. We are only allowed inside Tom’s persona through a revelation by Bishop Jerome Listecki. Suffering terminal cancer, Listecki offers Tom anything he wants to do in his last months: a trip to Rome, Council Bluffs with his mother, visit to friends and family, anything! Tom says: "No, I want to stay at Viterbo and serve the people I love."
Rick Artman leads Viterbo, Benedict XVI leads the church, Obama is elected, giving Tom happiness. A gallant life ends on Sept. 2, 2009. Fr. Tom is 61 years of age.
From Shakespeare's, Romeo and Juliet, may I apply these words to Tom:
"When he shall die, take him and cut him into little stars, and
he will make the face of heaven so fine, that all the world will be
in love with night, and pay no worship to the garish sun."
In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, the words of Mark Antony over the bier of Brutus, the Idealist, apply to Tom: “His life was gentle, and the humors so mingled in him, that nature could cry out to all the world, this was a man!”