By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — “He was my best friend.”
It was said repeatedly, by young and old, as the priests of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph gathered to commend the body of Father Robert M. Cameron to rest, and his soul to the mercy of a loving God.
Though he never pastored a large parish, never held a lofty church office, Father Bob Cameron’s “best friends” packed St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, north, on June 30 for his Mass of Christian Burial.
Father Justin Hoye, pastor of St. Patrick, and many years younger than the priest of 56 years, remembered vividly the first time he met Father Cameron.
Father Hoye was still a seminarian, still figuring out his vocation, when Father Cameron invited him to dinner.
“That evening as we left the restaurant,” Father Hoye said in the funeral homily, “Father Cameron entrusted to me the remnants of our meal — half a loaf of bread, and the corked remainder of the red wine we shared in fellowship.
“It was not lost on me that evening what a symbolic offering that was for a man discerning priesthood to receive from a seasoned man of the cloth, the elements by which Jesus the priest enables true communion,” Father Hoye said.
That’s how Father Cameron treated his fellow priests and even priests still in formation — like a best friend.
Not that he didn’t possess an acerbic wit and a sharp tongue, Father Hoye pointed out.
“In many ways, Father Cameron was the greatest equalizer in our presbyterate,” he said. “No honored cleric was left unfelled from his post and no simple priest was beyond an elevation to a loftier, tongue-in-cheek position.”
Father Hoye recalled Father Cameron referring to American cardinals as “Timmy” and “Billy” while designating the humbler, simpler priests — especially the younger ones — as “Monsignor.”
To Father Cameron, all priests were the same — “best friends.”
“Robert Cameron truly was a champion of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and the commission Our Lord entrusted to his disciples — to hear the truth, to be embraced in communion, to never be abandoned,” Father Hoye said.
He held many posts in his 56 years as a priest, but none closer to his heart than that of director of the diocesan Society for the Propagation of Faith, raising money in this diocese for more than three decades to support the church’s struggling missions around the world, truly following Christ’s commission to preach the Gospel to the people of all nations.
“Bob proudly noted that because of his ministry, he had preached in every parish in these 27 counties of western Missouri,” Father Hoye said.
“No corner of our diocese was deprived of the Good News that in Jesus Christ, death has been destroyed, delivered with Father’s impeccable precision,” Father Hoye said.
Father Cameron himself was a missionary, Father Hoye said.
Born in the Bronx and raised just 10 blocks from Yankee Stadium, Father Cameron served 6 a.m. Mass as a boy for a cloistered community of Carmelite nuns.
“These sisters prayed for Bob and his vocation with an intensity that was not lost on him,” Father Hoye said. Nor was it ever forgotten.
“His relationship with the community existed until his death as Father Cameron sought to return at least annually around the time of his March anniversary (of ordination) for a private retreat with the sisters in New York who prayed so aggressively for his vocation to the priesthood,” Father Hoye said.
“Those same sisters considered Bob as a brother to their community, and are praying for him now as we celebrate his funeral,” he said.
Father Cameron did receive the call to the priesthood, and he eagerly responded.
“Bob approached the Jesuits at Fordham University with an interest in the priesthood,” Father Hoye said.
“The rector told him that there was a great need for priests out west, and that he knew of a bishop who might take him,” he said.
Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop John P. Cody sent him to St. Bernard Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, where he quickly ran into a language barrier.
“After just three weeks in Iowa, his rector called him in to inform Bob that no one in Kansas City would be able to understand him with the Bronx accent he had dragged into the Midwest, and some elocution courses would be in order,” Father Hoye said.
“Bob acquiesced and for anyone who ever encountered him, his diction the last half-century rarely belied his Bronx roots,” he said.
Father Hoye said that Father Cameron left “very explicit instructions” concerning his own funeral homily.
“These instructions included directives to make sure this homily focused on the priesthood,” Father Hoye said.
The Gospel that Father Cameron chose? The “Great Commission” from Matthew.
“This commission is one which every member of the clergy accepts and embraces because contained within Jesus’ explicit instructions are the truths that a Christian professes as liberating to everyone who receives them — to experience that another believes you are so valuable that nothing less than the truth should be expressed to you, to hear that one wants you to experience perfect communion with them, and to know that the one who loves you is always with you, even until the end of the age,” Father Hoye said.
Father Cameron loved both deeply and broadly, Father Hoye said.
“I think I can speak for many of us here in believing that we each, individually or within our families, had a monopoly on his allegiances, and yet these days have revealed that he had an affection for each of us that showed depth in his love and breadth in its application,” Father Hoye said.
“It is hard then not to believe that we experienced a manifestation of the Great Commission in his care for each of us,” he said.
“He shared what he believed to be a true appraisal of the moment, he desired to be with us, and he offered us implicit assurances that in his eyes, we were not forgotten.”