Celebrating Fr. Pat Howell, S.J.
As we finished Thanksgiving and moved into the season of Advent and Christmas, it's a time to celebrate in gratitude and to be open to the multitude of ways God works in our world. In our office this Thanksgiving, we were also met with grief. We received notice early one morning that our colleague and friend Fr. Pat Howell, S.J. had passed away. To most of us, this was a rapid progression of things, as he only had told us he was ill with serious lung cancer eight days before. This was not a case of late diagnosis, but of Pat choosing to not make his life about his illness.
Pat only joined us in August leaving Seattle U, where he had called home for 34 years. He came to work in Ignatian formation with our staff and faculty and bringing a full career of knowledge and experience to our team. In a season of gratitude, that was my overwhelming feeling when reflecting on getting to know Pat during his short time at Gonzaga. He was gift to all of us from the very start with a passion for the work and a tenacity for people that led him to jump headfirst into our community.
In the days and weeks following his death, Michelle Wheatley, Vice President for Mission and Ministry, heard from several people from various parts of the community about the impact Pat had on them during his time here. She shared:
“I keep hearing similar themes about Pat’s impact: that he made people feel seen and accepted exactly as they are; that he welcomed and empowered people to be strong lay mission leaders and collaborators; that he valued ecumenical and interreligious dialogue; that he was humble; that he was a wisdom figure who inspired and motivated.”
Aside from his engaging way of conversation, there a few things that really stick out in my mind as I pray in gratitude for Pat’s life and his time with us. First, he kept his illness to himself. Amazing in itself to approach his final stage in life without people knowing or able to support him, it demonstrates his true humility and dedication to the work he was involved in. Pat didn’t want people to feel bad for him or be distracted from the work that was being done here. He was fully present in his work, including having his latest project that still laid out on his desk, ready to start right where he left off. Someone shared with Dr. Wheatley, “Pat’s choice to navigate his illness in private meant that he could be fully immersed in the work here, that it kept the focus on the important mission objectives we’re working on as a community.”
The second thing that really sticks out in my mind about getting to share time with Pat is the perspective he had. When he spoke, I always thought he was speaking from the mind of a brilliant, talented, and experienced Jesuit with an amazing amount of wisdom to offer, which is all true, but what I didn’t realize was I was also hearing from someone reflecting back on his entire life and offering insight from someone in the twilight of his earthly pilgrimage. He spoke in one staff meeting about the beauty of the apple orchard he visited, noting how all the apples on the ground will never be harvested but instead help create and sustain new life. Looking back on it a few weeks after his death, it became so clear the depth at which he spoke not only about the natural beauty of the world but about the grandeur of God represented with the cycle of birth, death, and resurrection in a way I didn’t understand
In my short time of knowing Pat, every conversation we had could have been our last. In a world of over-stimulation and isolation from one another here was a man living truly, authentically, and lovingly savoring every moment he was gifted with. It also showed me how highly he thought of his vocation and the contributions he could have here at Gonzaga. In his last months of his life, he made the choice to keep living. He chose to move from his longtime home to this place to do this work. His presence was one of pure joy, patience, kindness, acceptance, and care and his impact is something I will continue to carry with me forever. Dr. Wheatley shared that one of the very last things Pat said to her before he died was to affirm that we have good people who are doing good work; we’re on the right path and to keep up the important work. When someone gifts their final months to a community in service of others, that is a privilege beyond words, but Pat did more than that. He gave it all freely without counting the cost. He served as a Jesuit for 58 years and gave God all his liberty, memory, understanding, and will, needing only the love and grace of God in return. It doesn’t get more special than that. Rest in peace, my friend. Thanks for being you. AMDG.