23 JANUARY, 2010

Fr. Gene Jakubek: nearly 70 years a Jesuit, more than 55 years a priest, 20 years
ministering from a wheelchair or a bed. Wow! One of the great religious men of
the last century, echoing the heroic sanctity of Pope John Paul II and Mother
Teresa, his contemporaries, both of whom Gene greatly admired. In 1995 I was
visiting Mother Teresa’s home for the dying in Calcutta and talking to a young
Jesuit who was working there. When I asked him if he had met Mother Teresa, he
said, ―Yes, but it wasn’t a very good meeting.‖ He had been jogging early one
morning (the only time there is room to run in Calcutta), when he saw her carrying
a dying man into the building. He ran up to her and asked, ―Mother Teresa, how
can I help you?‖ ―Get out of my way,‖ was her terse response. Fr. Gene too had
that single-minded ideal, and was often in a hurry to fulfill it.

Last night, as I watched ―Hope for Haiti Now,‖ I couldn’t help thinking about the
timeliness of Fr. Jakubek’s death. He died at the same time this nation, our world,
and our Church were reeling from the indescribable suffering of the stricken people
of Catholic Haiti. We now remember his life and legacy and celebrate his passing
even while tens of thousands of victims of the earthquake are being similarly
remembered and mourned, while tens of thousands of others – some still missing –
are trying to recover, to heal, to find homes, to keep up their spirits and their hopes.
So, while we think of Gene, we weep and pray for them, as he would be doing. As a
former rector and provincial of Fr. Jakubek, I can tell you he was one of the few
Jesuits who was not embarrassed to cry. He felt deeply the pain of others, as well as
his own, and he could not hide or hold in his tears.

And Fr. Gene knew something about loss and pain. This incredibly dynamic,
charismatic, and active man spent the last twenty years of his life without the use of
his legs, and the last few years with no legs at all! His death was extremely painful,
and he refused to lessen the pain with medication. And, let’s be honest about it, he
knew the suffering of exile. Yes, at times he complained and protested, but he never
gave up, he never threw in the towel, he never lost hope, and he never stopped
praying and devoting his life to God. ―Do you love me, Gene?‖ ―Yes, Lord, you
know that I love you!‖ was always his answer.

There was a time – the middle forty years of his life – when Fr. Jakubek not only
flourished, but was a super-star. Working for the Jesuit Seminary Guild with Fr.
Gus Giunta, he hauled in the money that enabled the Wisconsin Province to
generously assist Jesuit provinces and works all over the world. Fr. Gene’s HELP
was the largest and best known resource for the poor in Milwaukee. His
―Sweetheart‖ sessions enabled hundreds of couples to renew their marriages, and
his preached retreats touched the hearts of thousands. As chaplain of the
Milwaukee Bucks, he was known and admired and contacted by major sports
figures – and not just in the Milwaukee area. He was, arguably, the best known
Catholic priest in the Midwest. ―The Answer Is Love,‖ his TV program, brought
the Gospel of Love to tens of thousands. He carried on, with great fruitfulness, the
ministry of reconciliation and consolation St. Paul describes in the first reading.

Unlike Mother Teresa, Gene was a big man – bigger than life, in some ways.
Everything he did was big, including his faults! Everything was out there for the
whole world to see. But the biggest thing about him was his heart – which
sometimes got him into trouble, but enabled him his whole life to do exactly what
Jesus asked St. Peter – and all of us –to do: ―Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my
sheep.‖ Gene never stopped doing that, never stopped being a pastor, a shepherd, a

When he heard that invitation of God seventy years ago, ―Son, give me your heart,‖
he gave it totally and never took it back. For that, we honor him today and give
thanks to God for him and with him. I’m sure he knows better than anyone here,
―Yes, the answer really is love.‖

In that beautiful scene in John’s Gospel where Peter is asked three times by Jesus,
―Do you love me?‖ and three times is given the grace to confess and protest his love
–thus making up for his threefold denial – we have an image of what we all hope for
at the end of our lives: that our longing to love and serve God will completely
outshine and cancel out our negligence and failures.

I can’t help marveling how totally relevant to the life of Gene are the words of Jesus
addressed to Peter: ―When you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go
where you wanted; but, when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and
someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go…follow me.‖

We, your fellow Jesuits, your family, friends and fans, say. ―Thank you, Fr. Gene,
for embracing and loving the cross you were given, for following Christ where you
did not want to go, for teaching us – big-time—that the answer really is love.‖ Now,
we pray, hear those other words of your Master and Lord, ―Well done, good and
faithful servant, blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom, the Eternal Banquet
prepared for you from the foundation of the world.‖

- Bert Thelen, S.J.

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