By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
INDEPENDENCE — “Have I made a difference?”
It’s the ultimate question. It was also the last question that Father John Patrick Eldringhoff, as he lay on his deathbed, asked his friend Father Jim Taranto.
St. Mark Parish, where Father Taranto is pastor, has one of the largest churches in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, easily seating 1,000 people.
It was large enough to hold the mourners at Father Eldringhoff’s funeral on Nov. 7. But not by much.
The living answer to Father Eldringhoff’s ultimate question, told to the congregation that easily numbered into the several hundreds, was inside the huge church at St. Mark Parish.
He had made a difference. To the hundreds there, and the hundreds who couldn’t come, whose lives the priest touched, and made even more remarkable by the fact that Father John Eldringhoff, in his 44 years as a priest, had never served as pastor at any of the diocese’s very largest parishes.
Yet they came in huge numbers — from St. Munchin Parish in Cameron, from St. Ann Parish in Independence, from Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Raytown, and from Father Eldringhoff’s home parish, Christ the King in Kansas City.
And in equally impressive numbers, Father Eldringhoff’s brother priests and deacons also came, nearly 50 strong, to concelebrate the Mass of Christian Burial with Father Taranto, and to pray with two bishops who came – Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert W. Finn, and Salina Bishop Emeritus George K. Fitzsimons, first ordained as a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph who had known Father Eldringhoff, who died Nov. 2 at the age of 77, through the priest’s entire career.
It was a scene that Father Eldringhoff would have relished, said another of his friends, Father Charles Tobin, his Conception Seminary roommate whom Father Eldringhoff personally asked to deliver his funeral Mass homily.
Upon his retirement from active ministry in 2000, Father Eldringhoff openly worried in a story in The Catholic Key that he had could have been “more patient, more understanding, less judgmental” as a priest.
But as Father Tobin told the huge congregation inside the huge church at St. Mark Parish, where Father Eldringhoff made his last home, friendship was important to this priest, as was hospitality, as was preparing his home as a place where his friends could feel welcome.
“What a wonderful man. What a wonderful priest. What a wonderful blessing he was for all of us,” Father Tobin said.
Father Tobin told the story how Father Eldringhoff invited his seminary roommate to come to his parents’ home in Kansas City for Thanksgiving, knowing that Father Tobin’s parents were deceased.
The Eldringhoffs made the young seminarian and stranger feel immediately welcome, and an instant member of their family. That characteristic, learned from his parents, would serve Father Eldringhoff for the rest of his life, Father Tobin said.
“John always loved his living space, and he always welcomed a guest,” Father Tobin said. “That was part of who John was, making his home a place where you are at peace,” Father Tobin said.
Father Eldringhoff spent his priestly career as a “good shepherd,” his friend said.
“He was concerned for the poor and the sick, for people who were alone,” Father Tobin said.
And he also had a special gift, not given to every person, for sharing the Word of God in his preaching, simply and unforgettably.
“There were always people in his congregation who thought he was speaking directly at them. John had that gift,” Father Tobin said.
Still, Father Eldringhoff worried as he was dying, his friend said. And, as Father Taranto, his own voice breaking with emotion, told the congregation he worried in their last conversation together whether his life made any difference at all.
Then, said Father Tobin, Father Eldringhoff would remember the words of Jesus: “I am going to prepare a place for you in my Father’s home.”
“John had a happy death,” Father Tobin said. “From the day of our baptism, we long to go home.
“You and I are also going home,” Father Tobin told the mourners. “May you and I both know that we may reunite with John at the gates, and he will again welcome us into his home.”