By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — He chose the wrong church for his funeral Mass.
The parking lots at St. Bernadette Church, the last parish where Msgr. Henry Bauer served as pastor, could only hold a few hundred cars. The church itself could seat only about 500 mourners or so. Nearly 10 percent of that space taken up by Msgr. Bauer’s brother priests concelebrating with Bishop Robert W. Finn, among them, his Kenrick Seminary classmates Father Robert Burger of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, and Father Maynard Brothersen of the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa.
But as surprised as he was when a throng showed up earlier this year to celebrate his 90th birthday, Msgr. Bauer would have been just as surprised to see a packed church at his funeral.
Such was the humility of Msgr. Bauer, said his funeral homilist, Msgr. Bradley Offutt, vicar general of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
And so it goes with priests who are simply unforgettable, even 21 years after they have retired from parish ministry. Sixty-three years of priesthood in 10 parishes are impossible to forget. Nor was his 23 years as director of Catholic cemeteries for the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and his six years as president of the National Catholic Cemetery Conference.
Msgr. Offutt even remembered the first time he met Msgr. Bauer, nearly 50 years ago when Msgr. Offutt was a boy attending Mass with his grandparents at Nativity of Mary Parish in Independence.
It was after Mass, and “I was sitting with my siblings in the back of my grandparents’ Cadillac Coupe de Ville. He had in his hand a full sack which I found out was that day’s collection. He stopped to speak to my grandparents and to us, and then we went on our way,” Msgr. Offutt said.
“I thought, ‘Wow! I like that guy,” he said. “It was very hard not to like Msgr. Bauer.”
Fast forward 20 years. The young Bradley Offutt was about to be ordained himself and was concerned about his first assignment as a priest.
“We had some crusty old codgers (of pastors) whose favorite form of psychotherapy was berating their young associates,” Msgr. Offutt said. “I was at my grandparents’ home washing a car when my grandfather stuck his head out the door and told me I had a call.”
It was Father Michael Coleman, informing the young priest-to-be that his first assignment would be with Msgr. Bauer at St. Bernadette Parish.
“I felt a great sense of relief, a relief that was well-placed,” Msgr. Offutt said.
Msgr. Offutt said he will always be grateful for the opportunity to learn from mentor who was complete at peace in his own skin.
“I learned how to confront people, always gently and they would always part as friends,” he said. “He could turn the most mundane moment into a teaching moment, and he always remained with his people, never above them.
“He always had his Bible or his breviary tucked under his right arm, but he didn’t wear his religion like a flag on a pole blowing in the wind,” Msgr. Offutt said. “He wore it inside.”
But perhaps the most important lesson taught to a young priest who was throwing himself into his work was balance. As in Ecclesiastes, Msgr. Bauer taught that there was a time for everything, especially taking care of one’s own well-being, which meant a time to rest.
Msgr. Offutt recalled himself frantically trying to complete the day’s work in the parish offices below the priests’ living quarters.
“I’d hear the unique sound of his La-Z-Boy (reclining chair) going up at 4:30 every day without fail,” he said.
“It was time for a drink and for (the TV game show) ‘Jeopardy,’” Msgr. Offutt said.
The young priest admitted some resentment about that then, and about the fact that “he took two vacation days for every one of mine,” Msgr. Offutt said.
“Only later in life did I learn he was right,” he said. “I have come to learn that he was much more of a man for it.”
Msgr. Bauer didn’t need to impress anyone with workaholic habits.
“He knew how to work and how to rest. He knew how to pray and how to play,” Msgr. Offutt said.
“He was so comfortable in his own skin that he didn’t have to prove anything to anyone. People knew he was a wise man, and you can’t fake wisdom,” he said.
“He could say what needed to be said, but he was humble enough to hear what needed to be heard,” Msgr. Offutt said.
“He showed people Jesus Christ, and he inspired us to find Jesus in ourselves,” he said.
Still, the young priest, so eager to please his first pastor, worked hard for months without receiving a word, critical or in praise, from the pastor so comfortable in his own skin.
Finally, the young priest had to know how he was doing.
“I went into his office and put the question to him,” Msgr. Offutt said.
“He said, “Brad, it’s been great having you here,’” Msgr. Offutt said.
Then Msgr. Bauer added his own wisdom: “It can’t always be great,” he told the young priest. “But it can always be good.”
That’s what he told his classmates years later at from the Kenrick Seminary Class of 1948, as the surviving members gathered in 2008 to celebrate their six decades as priests, Msgr. Offutt said.
Reading from his remarks that Msgr. Bauer asked his former associate pastor to read as his funeral: “Life has its share of pleasure and pain, successes and failures, for me more than I care about. How greatful I am to our Heavenly Father for all of them. How grateful I am to my triune God.”
“Monsignor died on Saturday, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a most fitting day for a priest to die,” Msgr. Offutt said.
“He couldn’t speak that day, but he could the day before. On that day before he died, he said to me, ‘Brad, remember to say a prayer for me.’
“I ask for your prayers for him,” Msgr. Offutt told the hundreds gathered at St. Bernadette Parish to mourn Msgr. Bauer’s death and to celebrate his life, “that he may live in us, and that Jesus Christ may live in us.”
In addition to St. Bernadette and Nativity of Mary parishes, Msgr. Bauer also served as pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Raytown and at Vistation Parish in Kansas City, and as administrator of the now closed Holy Family Parish in Kansas City’s Leeds district.
He also served as assistant pastor at St. Agnes Parish in Springfield and at St. Lawrence Parish in Monett before those parishes became part of the new Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, and also at Sacred Heart Parish in Kansas City and St. Mary Parish in Independence.
In his retirement, Msgr. Bauer became a leading advocate for the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, speaking in parishes to invite parishioners to sponsor a child or elderly person in the Third World.