What Compels a Man?

I love that today, of all days, we feature the Gospel account of a man who was healed. And who experienced a beautiful reversal of fortune. The story features a man born blind who, after his encounter with Jesus, not only gained his physical sight, but who also found a deeper awareness and something far more valuable than physical sight. Contrast that to everyone else in the story. The man’s own family and neighbors smugly describe him at the beginning as: “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?” But by the end of the story, the man born blind understands just who it was who healed… and saved… him. He follows Jesus onward and toward eternity, yet his family and neighbors are now the ones left behind and in total and complete darkness. 

Fr. Joe McDermott knew a little something about healing, offering healing Masses on a regular basis here and elsewhere. Fr. Joe prayed with those who experienced great challenges, both visible and otherwise. I remember one such Mass, during which I assisted, and seeing in the faces of those in attendance what looked to me like great pain, anguish, and fear. I also observed Fr. Joe in that setting and how he interacted with everyone there and then at the end of Mass, curious to understand what made this man tick, how and why he felt this calling, I posed to him this question: “Fr. Joe… how did this become part of your ministry?” I’ll never forget his answer. It was brief and it was simple. He looked up at the people there, paused for a moment, and responded: “It’s good to be with them.”

“It’s good to be with them.”

January 15th of this year was a unique and special day, though I had no idea of that at the time. If you were in this church on that day at the 11:00 Mass, then I am sure that you didn’t know it either. It was Fr. Joe’s final public Mass, and I had the great honor of serving on the altar with him.

Joni Mitchell once sang: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone…” With Fr. Joe, I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what we got ’til it was gone. Reading his bio opened my eyes quite a bit. In a word: wow! It made me ask myself this question: “What compels a man to be so faithful, so giving, so other-oriented?

I’m not going to read to you his bio but let’s just say that it includes a lot of words and phrases that tell quite the story. These words include spiritual director, teacher, president, founder, chaplain, community organizer, priest, executive director, radio show host, clinical psychologist, writer, pastor, governor appointee… I could go on. Literally, I could go on… but you get the picture.

And if that’s not enough, every one of these things he did was entirely in the service of others.

What compels a man?

Then, at the age of 79, when many others would have long ago hung up their spurs, Fr. Joe started his next gig, right here in our community. He became our senior priest, friend, confessor, and confidant.

I always knew the man had style, clearly, but when I read his bio… I could not believe how much dedication, time and energy, and love Fr. Joe gave. And gave. And gave. And gave…

What compels a man?

…to devote an entire life to helping others see the bigger picture, as did the one who was healed in today’s Gospel?

Fr. Joe liked to narrate during Masses. He would explain, offer color commentary, point out the nuances of the readings all during the Mass. I’ll certainly always remember on Christmas Eve, as someone was placing the Baby Jesus into the manger, he would describe exactly what was happening in play-by-play fashion. It reminded me of the British Winnie the Pooh narrator. I always half expected Fr. Joe to describe a Gospel and then finish by saying “And that’s what Jesus meant… right there in the Hundred Acre Wood.”

I think at the very core of it and deep within of all those words and phrases that describe what Fr. Joe did… that he was a teacher. A man who felt that he had discovered a treasure worth sharing and because of his caring and compassion, he wanted others to share in that treasure too. A treasure that he felt deep within his bones, a treasure that drove him all the way through a priestly ministry that lasted over 60 years and which was only ever going to stop when it became impossible for him to continue.

I think… that’s what compels a man…

And for all of us here, who got to share in that treasure with him for the past decade, and about whom he once said: “It’s good to be with them”… we can say, with gratitude: “Fr. Joe, it was good to be with you.”


  1. I’m sorry I cannot be there today to share in the mass for Fr Joe and to hear this lovely tribute to him live. I greatly admired Fr Joe and was also graced to ” be with him.” One memory is the time a young man came rushing into Adoration one day when I was present. He asked did I know where Fr Joe was and it was clear he was in distress. I said I would take him to Fr Joe, praying in my heart that actually I could. I brought him over to the house next door where Fr Joe lived and explained the situation. The man was invited inside and I am sure he was listened to and taken care of. But what stuck with me was the obvious impact Fr Joe had had on this young man and my mind wondered as to where and how he may have met Fr Joe. But I also knew of all the ministries Fr Joe started and participated in, so it was not surprising.
    Fr Joe always had a hug and a smile for me and I will always be grateful.
    God Bless you Fr Joe for all you gave to us.
    Beth Brinkmann Cianci


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