Despite only knowing him for a brief time, one man made such an impression on me that my first thought when I learned of his death was “Well, now my mother has great company in Heaven.”
That person is Father Joe Corley, who was a monsignor and entitled to all the honorifics and accoutrements of his elevated rank but who, in his profound and natural humility, greeted the world simply as Father Joe.
Father Joe was the pastor of Blessed Virgin Mary in Darby, Pa., a parish I had never visited during the first five decades of my life. He also happened to be an avid newspaper reader, and began to write me on a regular basis (becoming one of the few people who usually agreed with me). I know he wouldn’t mind me sharing some of his ruminations with you:
On Aug. 10, 2012, responding to a column I’d written about the unfair, and unconstitutional treatment of Monsignor William Lynn, a man who was the sacrificial lamb for those who wanted some “church scandal scalps,” Father Joe wrote: “Christine, thank you for your latest article on Monsignor Lynn. Many folks in my church agree with you, as do priests that I know. I think the priests have remained quiet for fear of being called naive or unsympathetic towards the victims.”
On Feb. 14, 2016, responding to one of the many columns I wrote about former Pa. Attorney General Kathleen Kane (who just got sprung from the Big House last week,) Father Joe wrote: “Christine, thanks for your article today... Don’t you sometimes think Kathleen is a Sandra Bullock wannabee?”
On Dec. 16, 2016, responding to a column about the tragedy in Aleppo, Syria, where a Catholic priest was murdered, Father Joe wrote: “Your article was outstanding. Bob Dylan and the Prophet, Amos, would be proud of you.”
The last email I got from him was this May, when he responded to the column I wrote about anti-Catholic bigot Brian Sims: “Congratulations on your article about Sims. Saw it on Real Politics, and the Delco Times (of course.) Wonder how much he is being paid?”
And in between all the emails, only a few of which I’ve printed here, Father reached out and asked if I would do him a favor. Anything, I said.
He wanted to know if I would come and talk to his parishioners one night, giving them some counsel on immigration. Father’s parish had become a majority minority parish where many of the worshippers were immigrants from Africa. They’d settled into Darby, many of them refugees from war-torn places like Sierra Leone and Liberia and Burundi, and were active participants in the life of the church.
Father told me that they were, in so many ways, more the image of the church than the comfortable, well-off parishioners in other places who took their faith and their comfortable privilege for granted. He wanted me to come and talk to these Catholic men and women, and see if they could be helped from an immigration perspective.
For months after that, I would get phone calls from people I had met at the church, people who would say “Father Joe said I should call you because you can help.”
We weren’t always able to help, but I was always ready to see someone who came because Father Joe asked.
Father Joe Corley was not the type of man who asked for himself. He asked for others, only for others. His life was spent in service to others, and in some ways he reminded me of Father Damian, the Belgian priest who was sent to the Island of Molokai, the Leper Colony, to minister to the “least of these,” the ones no one really cared about.
I know the worshipers at Blessed Virgin Mary feel his absence. They must, because I only really knew him through this long and loving thread of emails, a sort of electronic friendship. And I mourn him, deeply.
But this email gives me a slightly different perspective. On Aug. 10, 2014, just a few short days after my mother passed away and I wrote about her in this column, he reached out in the briefest, sweetest way and said “God bless Lucy, and all who love her. Father Joe.”
The thing that got me about the email was that he didn’t write about my mother in the past tense - he said “love” her, letting me know that she was still here, with me. It was subtle, but it was a very strong message from a man who knew that death is not final.
That email, and that sentiment, give me comfort. Father Joe is still here, in his words, and in his spirit. And now, like my mother, he’s following me from Heaven, until we meet again.
Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and can be reached at email@example.com.