Monday, August 27, 2007

A Life Well-Lived

One of my favorite priests, Monsignor Bernard Gerhardt, died recently. The Washington Post gave him a beautiful and fitting obit, including a perfect final line.

Monsignor Gerhardt, who had lived at the rectory of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle since 1958, said the 7 a.m. Mass at the downtown church for many of those years. A practical man of regular habits, he was known among his friends and colleagues for his thoughtfulness, willingness to listen and reluctance to rush to judgment.

That trait was useful in his position on the Archdiocesan Tribunal, a type of church court where Catholics apply for annulments of marriage, where priests seeking to leave the ministry come before a judge and where issues of canon law are addressed and interpreted. His standard response was " 'Let me think about that,' " said the Rev. George Stuart, who worked with him.

Monsignor Gerhardt served on the tribunal for 37 years, holding a variety of positions including chief judge. . . .

Susan Gibbs, director of communications for the archdiocese, said that Monsignor Gerhardt would always handle the "weird" calls that she received, especially those following the 1973 release of the movie "The Exorcist," when some young women were convinced they were possessed and needed an exorcism.

"He had a way of listening to people and making them feel better," Gibbs said. When distressed people approached him on the street, he would instruct them on how to feel better: Go into a Catholic Church, make the sign of the cross with holy water and quietly say a couple of the prayers that he provided. And if it didn't work, they should call him. . . .

Asked which was the most memorable of all the communicants he has served, Monsignor Gerhardt replied, "Brooke Shields."

A native Washingtonian, Monsignor Gerhardt graduated from Gonzaga College High School. He spent two years in the Army Air Forces near the end of World War II, training as a gunner after officials determined that his eyesight was too poor for pilot's duties.

After serving in postwar Europe, he entered the seminary at St. Charles College in Catonsville, Md., and graduated from St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore in 1949. He completed his theology studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome and was ordained a priest in 1953. . . .

In 1970, he received the papal honor, chaplain to his holiness, which gave him the title of monsignor. In 1978, he was named a prelate of honor and in 2002, he was named a protonotary apostolic, a rare honor and the highest non-bishop rank possible for a priest in a diocese.

"There was no arrogance about him," said Monsignor Thomas Duffy, his friend since seminary days. "He dealt with people who had broken marriages, broken dreams really, and he just showed a great deal of compassion and understanding. . . . He was not looking to find people guilty of something but trying to help them out." . . .

During his long residency at the St. Matthew rectory, Monsignor Gerhardt kept a schedule so regular that it amazed his friends. He rose at the same time each day, arrived at the office the same time and left at the same time. He ate the same breakfast -- cereal, two poached eggs on toast -- six days a week, and he once calculated he had eaten 44,000 eggs. On the seventh day, he had waffles.

He was a wonderful man. Kudos to the reporter, Patricia Sullivan, for doing him justice.

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