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Buts infused every moment with meaning


A memorial card hangs on a bulletin board in my study at home. It’s got a picture of James M. Butler, a wonderful Irish mug with a nose that appeared to have been in some past battle, outsized black-rim glasses and a thin line of a smile.

He was a monsignor, but the honorific more embarrassed than honored him, and he made it clear he preferred Father.

Butler died last December, and for the past year I have looked at that photo. I’ve scrambled through boxes trying to find the scraps of thoughts that I had written about him, an old interview I had done for another publication.

I wanted to write something about Butler (actually everyone, when talking about him, called him “Buts,” including his best friend, Fr. John McNamara, who did so throughout the funeral homily) because he was one of those remarkable people who, in even the simplest of circumstances, the most ordinary of encounters, elevate life to a new level.

With no apparent special effort, but with an accent and a shrug that more than hinted at his Brooklyn roots, he infused every moment with rich meaning and remarkable understanding.

Some of the vitals: Msgr. James Butler was a priest of the diocese of Allentown, Pa. For the last 28 years of his life, he was pastor of one of the poorest parishes in the diocese -- Holy Infancy on the South Side of Bethlehem, once the most Irish of places and now largely Hispanic. He was light years ahead of the institutional side of church in so many ways and yet absolutely loyal to it; he saw immediately through pretense and bluster and yet never took advantage of ample opportunities to embarrass anyone.

He undoubtedly gave the chancery-types fits and nightsweats at times (he knew how to exploit the rules with the best of them). The worst punishment would have been to send him to one of the parishes seen as more desirable, but those in charge would never waste one of the good places on Buts. He seemed pretty well protected because he was thoroughly dispossessed -- he lived simply and drove ratty old cars.

If he allowed himself a luxury it was books, and they were stacked high and wide on a long, thick wooden table in his second floor living room. And there he would sit, chain-smoking unfiltered Pall Malls -- until his last five years -- and making notes in the margin and jotting down thoughts on legal pads. Later, the big thinkers would make it into his homilies, his conversations with friends, in the most concrete and accessible way. He had an amazing gift.

His friends have taken charge of his personal library -- G.K. Chesterton, Yves Congar, Charles Curran, Dorothy Day, Avery Dulles, Hans Küng, John L. McKenzie, Eugene Kennedy, Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, Henri Nouwen, Bernard Häring and so on. They give a phone number in case anyone wants to borrow some books. Buts would love it.

I never found the notes I was looking for. But his friends in Bethlehem put together a booklet, and someone sent me a copy. A local newspaper column included in the booklet recounts a story that helps explain what Buts was like.

During an early Sunday Mass, a local homeless character came stumbling into the church, apparently drunk and causing a bit of a disturbance. Buts stopped what he was doing at the altar, walked down and quietly talked to the man, escorted him through the sanctuary and sacristy, back through a passageway to the rectory, where he made sure the guy got some breakfast. And then Buts returned to the church and finished Mass.

The parish school, always operating on a frayed shoestring, was a center of parish life. It was there, he said, that kids would be Christianized -- and he would do anything to keep it open. Yet he once refused a generous amount of state money, part of a special government program, because, he explained, he never wanted to be in the position where some state agency might come in and tell him he had to take the crucifixes off the walls. He was assured that wouldn’t happen, but he said “no thanks” anyway.

Buts loved elaborately, and his people knew it. He didn’t give sermons, he told his people why this faith, this Jesus, made sense to him. He could say more in seven minutes than most managed in a half hour.

And he was always exploring his faith. Reading and forever conducting small study groups. I had the privilege to get in on one of those for a few years in the early 80s. If you sat in on some of those sessions, you began to pick up the Butlerisms, like, “As Christians, we’ve just begun to climb down from the trees.” His friends who put together the booklet combed his books and papers, notes in the margins, notes on those yellow sheets, their own memories and came up with a wonderful list of Butlerisms, some spoken, others written. For example:

“God isn’t just or fair. That’s how we try to be. God is total giving, total generosity, total forgiveness.”

And I remember him saying, when someone he knew died: “Now they’ve got all the answers.” And so do you, now, Buts.

But I’d lay serious money that even with all the answers, he’s got a mug of black coffee in hand and one heck of a discussion going wherever heaven is.

Tom Roberts is NCR managing editor. His E-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 20, 1998