The following is a homily by Fr. Tim Shillcox, O. Praem., preached at Vespers of the Dead for Fr. Conrad Kratz, O. Praem.
"To God, whose power now at work in us,
can do infinitely more than we ask or imagine,
to God be glory
through Christ Jesus, and in the Church
for all generations, forever and ever! Amen!" – Ephesians 3:14-21
When Conrad finally settled on a major – abandoning Philosophy after failing Logic (duh!), trying French, but quickly moving on to Accounting (what was he thinking?) for an even briefer stint – it seemed like Drama was a good fit for him – in the classroom and with his lively personality!
He would be kidded through the years, though, about having become a composite of various dramatic characters: Lucille Ball, pleading, "Welll…" after getting caught by Ricky in another ‘harebrained scheme' with Ethel Mertz; or the bosom-clutching Carol Burnett after yet another family crisis in "As the Stomach Turns" segment of her variety show; Jerry Turba spotted Conrad immediately in the histrionic, about-to-be-upstaged operatic diva, Carlotta in Phantom of the Opera!
But (maybe because of his Aunt, Rose Coppens) it was the 1957 title role Auntie Mame, played Rosalind Russell, that captured him best! He gave me her autobiography at Easter, 1979: Life is a Banquet is drawn from Auntie Mame's great line:
"Life is a banquet; and most poor suckers are starving to death!"
Like Mame, Conrad would cast folks as 'Little Patrick,' although it felt more like Agnes Gooch, the personal assistant and ‘sponge' at times!
Like Mame, Conrad would drive the Mr. Babcock's of his world, the Church or our Order ‘nuts' with such a joyful, outrageous, extravagant, mischievous, reckless style.
But Conrad knew – he trusted – at least, he wanted to trust – and, in the end, he ‘risked it all' – that such reckless abandon, such outrageous joy, such extravagant undeserved care and grace were not only the hallmarks of a fictitious drama queen, but also the hallmarks of God Almighty and His prodigal, reckless love for us in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead!
Conrad is in agreement with St. Paul, writing to the Ephesian Church, where Timothy was pastor. Paul extols the height and length and breadth and depth of God's love, able to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine! Conrad sure tried…to imagine, to accept and to share such love. Three examples representative of how he succeeded(it's a wake, we gotta have stories!):
+ Teaching sophomore English at Prémontré, a student was failing the spring term. David asked to see Conrad; and as they visited in the priory garden he pleaded with him: "Can't you just give me a D-, Father Kratz, so I don't have to take Sophomore English as a Junior?" To his surprise Conrad told him: "David, I'm going to give you an A!" The stunned student admitted: "But Father, I don't deserve an A!" "I know." Conrad responded, "But you don't deserve a D- either. If I'm going to give you a gift, then it's going to be a generous one!"
"Sounds like God!" John Bostwick quipped when I shared the story on Saturday. It is! And David has returned to visit Conrad several times since his stroke! The more important lesson learned - and outrageously taught!
+ When our pastoral hero, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, died in 1996, Conrad, Jim Baraniak and I went down for the wake. A great night to be a Catholic priest in Chicago! "In town for the Cardinal, boys?" police officers asked! "You bet!" Even a two-hour snowy wait was well worth it.
But when they closed off the line just 6 people before we got in, we were crestfallen! Not Conrad though. He noticed an old lady, also just missing the cut; he befriended her, chided security and explained that she needed to use the restroom.
With her, he got into the Cathedral rectory to find a restroom and they ended up in the second row/center in the Cathedral for Vespers, while Jim and I drowned our frustrations with a couple pints at Harper's Irish Pub, watching the Packer/Viking game on Monday Night Football! Outrageously and with typical concern and style, he took care of her, and rode her coat tails in as well!
+ Thirdly, here at Our Lady of Lourdes, Conrad's trust in the outrageous power of God's love allowed him to envision a church united, where all are welcome…no exceptions! None!
He had seen it work in his own family – Jesus' hope "That all may be one!" (John 17) – as Milton and Kathryn Kratz did, in their love and respect for each other and their and faith in Jesus, what Martin Luther's 95 Theses or the Council of Trent couldn't do: Heal the Reformation rift between Christians! He believed such unity and harmony could happen here, too!
And so, built from two noble predecessor parishes, and any newcomers who wanted to be along, he trusted we could be more like Christ, more faithful, more joyful together, than what had been before! "Continuing conversion" Norbertines call it! He convinced you who were here then to dare to trust that all could be made welcome in this place, because all, all, all – no exceptions – are welcome in God's love and mercy and the reckless abandon and outrageous care and redemption with which God desires to bless us!
It rattles us, myself included, who are more timid, more straight-laced, who would prefer the scales of justice to be more balanced, more ‘fair,' predictable and conventional. But Conrad was outrageous enough to trust the vision…and here we are! Amazing, unfair, unexpected, against the odds, reckless, senseless…and yet, ‘of God'!
In the Order we say: "You can't give what you don't have." And a corollary: "That what you most desperately desire and need, you can get very good at giving to others."
I think Conrad's animated, outrageous, tenacious, even ridiculous efforts to convince us of the height and length, the breadth and depth of God's all-inclusive love were also what he needed to help convince himself!
Maybe at times, he was afraid that there were limits, boundaries, conditions, retribution and narrow justice which might scuttle the vision and exclude him? Maybe – as with us all – he was haunted with a nagging doubt or a temptation to define God in small, exclusive, legalistic, joyless terms? A temptation understandable enough, for us all at times, right?
But Jesus says that the one whose love is great has been forgiven much (Luke 7:47ff). Certainly, for our dear Conrad, his love has been great – for God, for his family, for God's Good People, for the Norbertine Community and particularly for this parish family, which he helped to convene and animate!
We pray fervently this night and dare to trust, that he now knows firsthand what we know better because of him: in the amazing love God has for us and the Eternal Banquet of Life which is waiting for those who risk to trust that this love is real!
To God, Who power now at work in us
(and wonderfully at work in Conrad)
can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine,
to God be glory through Christ Jesus
and in the Church – of Saint Norbert Abbey, of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish Family, in the Roman Catholic Communion and the Church Universal –
to God be glory, unto endless ages, forever and ever!
We love you, Conrad; oh yes, we do!