By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
INDEPENDENCE — Impossible. Couldn’t be done.
How could anyone celebrate the life of Father Thomas Jerome Ward without some laughs?
The sharp wit of Father Ward, who died Nov. 4 at the Little Sisters of the Poor St. Jeanne Jugan Center, brought thousands of the people to laughter in his 80 years, both as a U.S. Navy chaplain and as pastor of eight parishes in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and his hand-chosen funeral homilist wasn’t about to let a congregation of hundreds forget that.
“He was referred to as Jerry and Uncle Jerry in his family, but I usually called him Tom when we were on good speaking terms,” Father Lloyd Opoka, pastor of St. Matthew Apostle Parish, told the congregation that packed Father Ward’s home church at St. Mary Parish in Independence for the Nov. 8 Mass of Christian Burial.
“About five years ago, we had lunch together. He asked me if I would do the homily at his funeral,” Father Opoka said.
“I said, ‘Well, if you tell me what to say,’” Father Opoka said. “He told me once again of the three rules of public speaking: Stand up. Speak up. Shut up.”
And in that vein, Father Ward continued with a story about a bishop and friend of the priest who, after a rather lengthy speech, asked Father Ward for his opinion.
“I told him,” Father Ward said to Father Opoka, “that two out of three wasn’t bad.”
His advice to the young Father Opoka about giving the “money talk” to a parish was equally succinct and to the point, particularly his advice to avoid the minute details of parish finance.
“He said that people don’t care how many light bulbs we use. Tell them, ‘You gave it, we spent it, now give some more,’” Father Opoka said.
“He had a whole bunch of ‘Wardisms.’ He may not have made them up himself, but he added his own touch,” Father Opoka said.
“He told me about the three biggest lies in the world: The check is in the mail. I’ll respect you in the morning. And I’m from the chancery and I’m going to help you,” Father Opoka said.
But Father Ward also told him, while he was dying, that the third one was not a lie. He received a lot of comfort from the visits of Katy Crabtree, a registered nurse and the diocese’s Priest Wellness coordinator.
Father Ward also enjoyed long visits with Bishop Robert W. Finn, who came to his bedside frequently.
“He told me that Bishop Finn visited him several times, and would spend a whole hour with him,” Father Opoka said. “He also said that he offered the bishop a lot of advice, but that the bishop wasn’t taking notes.”
Father Opoka said that Father Ward had two things left on his “bucket list” before he died — celebrating the 50th anniversary of his ordination, and celebrating his 80th birthday. He celebrated both this year, months before his death.
“Because of those, he became acutely aware of God’s love for him, and the appreciation and love people had for him,” Father Opoka said.
Father Opoka said he was an underclassman at Conception Seminary College when the newly graduated future Father Ward addressed the seminarians, as was the custom of all new graduates about to be ordained.
Usually, the new graduates would tell the seminarians that the days spent at Conception were the best days of their lives. Not Father Tom.
“I remember Tom getting up and saying, ‘No, not these days. I expect the best days of my life to be as a priest, and the best view of this seminary to be in my rear view mirror,” Father Opoka said.
Father Opoka repeated Father Ward’s story of how he had no choice but to be a priest. His mother gave birth to him in the backseat of a 1930 Dodge, and prayed to Mary that if her baby son survived, she would turn his life over to the Mother of God.
“He said, ‘There I was, five minutes old, and already under contract,’” Father Opoka said. “I believe Father Ward fulfilled that contract very well.”
In his homily at the Oct. 13 rosary and procession at St. Patrick Parish that opened the universal Year of Faith in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Bishop Finn told the 1,300 in attendance of speaking to a dying priest.
This priest, the bishop said, told him that God must truly love those whom he chooses to bear particular suffering.
“He reminded me that the Holy Spirit is still in charge. God loves us a lot, he insisted. I listened,” the bishop said that night. “In the midst of his suffering, this dying priest clearly believed this. With all my heart, I believe it, too.”
Following the Mass of Christian Burial on Nov. 8, Bishop Finn confirmed that the dying priest he had listened to was Father Thomas Jerome Ward.