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There is a reason why much of Chicago stopped to acknowledge the death May 19 of Msgr. Jack Egan and why more than a thousand people, including bishops, leaders of other faiths, labor leaders and all manner of activists showed up for his funeral. Jack Egan was a good priest.

In an era when priests living faithful lives of remarkable service get shoved from view by scandal and a culture that places less value than it once did on religious vocations, Egan stood for all of those less-known who take up the daunting task of priestly ministry.

One of the mourners who paid respects to Egan May 21, Mary Louise Kurey, told a Chicago Tribune reporter that she had moved to Chicago four months ago and was overwhelmed by the city’s size and its social problems. Overwhelmed, that is, until she heard Egan one Sunday urging parishioners to make their faith active.

She was so inspired, in the words of reporter Kevin Lynch, that she began tutoring a fourth-grader at St. Joseph School.

Of Egan, she said, “He made me feel very much at home … and inspired me to reach out like he did in his life.”

Egan did not shy from the tough stories about the church. As a member of the NCR board, he was a staunch advocate of unvarnished reporting on the church. Nor did he shy from controversy. The pursuit of justice -- in areas of race, housing, the payday loan industry, equal rights for all -- brought him into conflict with some powerful people. That’s where his priesthood took him.

His life was a seamless connection between the structures and rituals of the institutional church and the outreach vital to his life as a priest. The connections built up over a lifetime, the enormous community that he had inspired, were well-represented at his funeral. It was fitting, too, that the celebrant, Bishop Timothy J. Lyne, recognized Egan’s administrative assistant, Peggy Roach, whom he described as Egan’s “co-minister” for 35 years.

A few days before he died Egan sent me a letter attached to what he called his “Last Testament,” which appears on page 7. He wanted to talk about it, but most of all he wanted it published. I never got to discuss it with him. I learned of his death while on the road.

It is telling, however, that a man who spent his life in battles for justice and equality in the wider culture would take up as his final impassioned cause equal treatment of women within the church he loved. It may be the most difficult cause he’d ever take up. He said in his letter that he expected to be “criticized severely for saying this.” I hope he isn’t. He was a good priest. And the church ought to listen, now and then, to its good priests.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2001