When I learned Father Jack Gentleman had died, I realized I would miss our long and productive relationship, which ended even before I knew it. For it was quite by accident that I came across the news that he had died earlier this year. But then, our acquaintance had been somewhat accidental from the start.
The first time I arrived at Holy Family Parish in Amesbury, Massachusetts in October 2002, I expected to meet with the late Father Tom Buckley. It was Tom who had invited me to present a series of talks for Lent 2003, but the planning committee was meeting with me on his day off. So his co-pastor greeted me at the door. I had neither met nor heard of Father Gentleman before, but before that meeting ended I was glad I had.
Our agenda was to establish a series of topics for the Fridays of Lent, when Holy Family offered an annual program that combined evening Mass with a soup and chowder supper and a visiting speaker. For 2003, for the first time, they were replacing a parade of speakers with a series of talks by one invited guest—me.
We decided to call it “The Anchor Program,” and to present fundamental elements of Catholic tradition that we felt people found timely but difficult. The planning went until I proposed an evening on “War and Peace,” and specifically proposed contrasting Catholic Just War theory with the conventional standards of U.S. foreign policy.
The committee members were not comfortable with this. Wasn’t this topic too controversial? Wasn’t it odd for a spiritual season like Lent? I replied that if the U.S. invaded Iraq in the next 6 months, talking about the Catholic perspective would not seem odd at all.
But they were unconvinced, and then Father Jack spoke up. I was prepared for the worst; over my years in parish work, pastors often took the “safe” tack to placate their flock. But this man took up my line instead. “Our faith is not just about personal goodness,” he reminded them. “It is also about justice and the common good. How do we get peace on earth if we never talk about it?”
Father Jack’s words sealed the deal. And so it was that I spoke about the Catholic view of war and peace on Friday March 21--only 2 days after our nation invaded Iraq. No one on the committee regretted our decision.
After that session I joined Fr. Jack back at the rectory for snacks and chat. This became a regular habit, not just in Lent 2003 but in three more years when I was invited back to Holy Family for more presentations.
I soon learned that Jack was waging a serious medical battle of his own. Three years before we met he had been diagnosed with a rare disease (Alpha 1 anti-trytpsin disease) that compromised his liver. Between 2002 and 2008 he was admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital 15 times--and each time he returned to Holy Family needing extensive bed rest. Often I arrived for a Lenten evening to find he could not attend. Sometimes he managed to join us at the rectory afterward. We all knew he was waiting for a liver transplant, and hoping it would arrive before it was too late.
In the summer of 2005 I hosted three priests from Paris for a pastoral visit to the Archdiocese of Boston. Our first full day was a trip to Newburyport and Amesbury. After we toured Immaculate Conception church and school with Fr. Paul Berube, Jack joined us for lunch (the Parisians had lobster!) followed by a walking tour of downtown Newburyport. We then drove to Amesbury to tour Holy Family. My guests were impressed with the facilities and programs at both parishes, but they were especially impressed by the generous hospitality they receive from Fr. Jack.
Shortly after that visit I asked Jack if he’d be willing to proofread my CrossCurrents column. (Since I generally dictate my blog posts from handwritten drafts, Spellcheck is useless: speech recognition software never misspells words, it just types the wrong words. I needed a human checker). Jack readily agreed. For the next 10 years my emailed draft would return corrected, complete with feedback (both suggestions and words of praise), within a day or two. He was still generously sending my drafts back until shortly before his death.
In 2006 Jack finally got his liver transplant, and I learned that his health improved dramatically.
But I did not see him much until the fall of 2013, when he invited me to speak on “The Francis Effect” at his new parishes in Manchester-by-the-sea and Essex.
We met for lunch, planned a program, and he hosted me for two weekly sessions. We also spoke of bringing me back to work with the parish pastoral council, which needed to develop a future plan, but his time came before that project could be launched.
Seeing Jack again in 2013 was such a pleasant surprise! He looked years younger, he was trimmer, his color was good, and he moved with an energy I had never seen. For years he had been pairing with a Boston marathon runner to raise money for the American Liver Foundation. His aim was to help others who were suffering as he had suffered. And now he was able to function as a full-time priest.
Over the years I had been able to observe Jack with his people. His soft-spoken humor and quiet warmth gave him the kind of disarming personality that many Catholics have rarely encountered in their pastors. His charm was totally without affectation, and people found it easy to like “Jack” as a person even while respecting “Father Gentleman” as a pastor. The knowledge that he had suffered so long only reinforced their affection and admiration.
In 1892, the longtime Heavyweight Champion of the World, Boston’s own John L. Sullivan, was finally dethroned by “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. Corbett had earned his nickname because of his gentle demeanor and cultivated style. As the website Eyewitness to History.com explains it:
Jim Corbett represented the new age of boxing. He had learned his craft not on the street but from a coach. He had attended college and worked as a bank clerk before turning to the sport. He began his career in 1886 and had fought all of his matches wearing gloves and under Queensberry rules. Because he wore his hair in a full-grown pompadour, dressed smartly and used excellent grammar when he spoke, he became known as "Gentleman Jim.”
But the sporting public knew--and his 21-round triumph over Sullivan proved--that he was also a fearless fighter. Thus the irony of the nickname “Gentleman Jim.”
The same was true of “Gentleman Jack” Gentleman. No one who knew him doubted that Jack was a complex man who combined the gentle soul his friends and his flock were so fond of with the fearless fighter who never gave up his battle for life.
Jack Gentleman could say, like St. Paul, “I have fought the good fight”--and now he has his reward. I feel privileged to be among those who are missing him.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015