By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Blame their father for the compassion of Father Norman Rotert.
Just before the Dec. 22 Mass of Christian Burial for the priest, pastor, vicar general and lifelong activist for justice, Father Rotert’s younger brother Philip told this story to the congregation that packed Visitation Parish.
In the middle of a wintry December night some six decades ago, an African-American man knocked on the farmhouse door of Clem and Freda Rotert outside of Montrose.
The man and his expectant wife were driving along Highway 52 when they ran out of gasoline.
Clem Rotert didn’t hesitate. He was never one to hesitate when any person asked for help. He quickly dressed, put on his coat, and drove the man to the Rotert Brothers Garage in town, where they got the gasoline.
Then, after driving the man back to his car, Clem Rotert saw the woman inside shivering.
“The lady must have been very cold, because Dad gave her his coat,” Philip Rotert said.
Flash forward some 50 years. Father Norman Rotert had just completed celebrating a Sunday Mass, when a middle-aged African-American woman introduced herself and asked if he knew Clem Rotert.
“Norm said, ‘Yes, he’s my Dad.’ It turned out that the lady was the baby in her mother’s womb that long ago December night,” Philip said.
“Justice and caring is really part of our DNA,” he said.
On Dec. 17 at approximately 1 p.m. and after carrying the cross of a long illness, the brilliant mind finally went dark, the prophetic voice stilled. At age 83, Father Norman went home to the Lord.
At the prayer vigil the evening before Father Rotert’s funeral Mass, Father Gerald Waris didn’t need to look at the Gospel reading — Matthew 25: 31-46. He recited it from his heart: “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink . . . Whatever you do for these, the least of my brothers, you do unto me.”
“We thank God for Norman,” Father Waris said, before yielding the floor to more people for more memories of a man who not only helped shape the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in vision of the Second Vatican Council, but also the city of Kansas City, and even the world beyond.
“He inspired us to dream and to imagine that which seemed so impossible in the eyes and hearts of many become true and real,” Father Waris said.
“The reading tonight is one of our favorites,” he said. “It is a lesson about the ultimate, the final litmus test: Are you worthy of the Kingdom, and if so, you will have served me in the poor.
“Norm not only shared his table with people from all walks of life, we also feasted on his wisdom, his word and knowledge that imparted to all of us a deeper meaning of life and living,” Father Waris said.
Alvin Brooks, the African-American Catholic activist frequently called “the conscience of Kansas City” as he founded and led the Ad Hoc Group against Crime, recalled the “kitchen cabinet” that Father Rotert pulled together as associate pastor of Annunciation Parish.
It included the brightest minds from Kansas City’s African-American community — Brooks and his wife Carol, Rashey Moten who would lead Catholic Charities, Dr. Kermit Phelps, John Martinez, Marvin Mason, Elton Gumbel.
Father Rotert “conferred quite often” with that ad hoc committee, not to preach or teach, but to learn. And when he learned, he acted, Brooks said.
“Father Rotert not only talked the talk, he walked the walk,” Brooks said. “He was the one who spoke against racism and bigotry. He was the one who spoke out against the haves and the way they treated the have-nots. He was a 21st Century priest.”
Father Michael Gillgannon, his friend since their earliest high school days at St. John’s Seminary, said that Father Rotert was always a global thinker who acted locally, even then.
It was out of his deep love for Christ, expressed in both the Gospels and the documents of the Second Vatican Council, that compelled both priests to act out of love for humanity, said Father Gillgannon, who devoted nearly four decades of his own life to service as a priest in Bolivia.
Separated by thousands of miles, their friendship only grew stronger as did their shared vision of global justice and human dignity, Father Gillgannon said.
“Racism is bad for the country. The War in Vietnam was bad for the country. Our Cold War policies were bad for the country, and we made some mistakes that we are still paying for,” Father Gillgannon said.
“We saw it in the light of where the church of the Second Vatican Council was going in terms of collaboration and cooperation with all people. Then the Gospel makes sense: ‘When I was hungry, when I was thirsty, when I needed housing, then you saw me there,’” he said.
Myra Christopher, of the Center for Practical Bioethics, called herself a “positive agnostic” who once pressed Father Rotert about the meaning of faith by asking him exactly when he knew for certainty that his vocation was the priesthood.
Father Rotert, she said, gave her his biography — growing up in the household of two brothers and a sister with two strong Catholic parents; his march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.; his advocacy for decent, affordable housing and his founding of the Blue Hills Community Association around Kansas City’s St. Therese Little Flower Parish, his first assignment as pastor; his bringing community organizing to Kansas City in the organization that still thrives as Communities Creating Opportunities; his work on various civic boards and planning agencies that mapped the future of Kansas City.
Not good enough, Christopher told him.
“I asked him the exact moment he knew he had to be a priest,” she said.
“He paused, then said, ‘About three weeks ago,’” she recalled.
They shared the joke, but then Father Rotert turned serious.
“He said to me, ‘I didn’t need to know for certain because I had faith that it was what I was supposed to do,’” Christopher said.
It was that faith in stepping out without knowing the outcome, that made Father Rotert an “Advent prophet,” said Father Patrick Rush, who followed Father Rotert both as vicar general of the diocese and as pastor of Visitation Parish.
“Norman took seriously the Advent prophesies of a new social order devoid of injustice and oppression,” Father Rush said in his homily during the Mass of Christian Burial Dec. 22.
“Norm heard Isaiah proclaim that a time would come when lions and lambs would lay down together, when bears and cattle would be peaceful neighbors,” he said.
“Energized by his faith, he dedicated his life to eliminating the Troost Avenues that keep us divided, and the redlining that benefit some at the expense of others,” Father Rush said.
“He was a visionary and gifted leader whose life was guided by an Advent spirituality,” he said.
But Father Rotert’s faith led him to know that the Kingdom promised in Scriptures was possible.
“Advent hopes for the reshaping of our world in accord with God’s design, and Advent counsels faith-filled efforts to build a way to smooth the arrival of that design of God’s kingdom while, at the same time, patiently trusting God to fully accomplish it,” Father Rush said.
“The Advent prophecies don’t counsel utopianism or humanitarianism,” he said.
“Rather, they provide us with the hopeful vision that, with God in our lives, we can find the strength and hope not to be defeatist and discouraged, thinking that problems have no soluition,” he said.
“At the same time, the Advent prophecies clearly call us not to sit with our arms crossed in the face of injustices done to others, but to respond without hesitation and with mercy to right the wrongs that oppress them,” he said.
“Norman believed in those prophecies and lived that calling,” Father Rush said.
“We gather in these final days of the Advent Season to bury a modern Advent prophet, Norman Francis Rotert,” he said. “He witnessed for us what an Advent spirituality, a spirituality that longs for the coming of God’s kingdom, truly looks like.
“Norm’s prophesy won’t be proclaimed in our churches thousands of years from now as are the prophesies of Isaiah,” Father Rush said.
“But God willing, his Advent vision will be lived in our diocese for decades to come,” he said. “Be at peace, Norman.”