Fr. John Baran, our pastor, and my dear friend died on Saturday. He was only 59.
As I mentioned back in December, when I asked for you to pray with me for Fr. John, this good priest was among the first of many I met here in the Diocese of Bridgeport. When I first moved to town, people asked where I would be going to Mass. Everyone who asked recommended St. Anthony of Padua. The pastor, they said, was the best homilist in the diocese. They were right. Like you, I have heard my fair share of good homilies and, like you, there have been many Sundays where I sat and wondered, “Where in the world is he going?” That was never the case with Fr. John. You looked forward to his preaching and it carried you all week long.
I asked once how he learned to connect the readings to the lives of the faithful so well and he laughed and told the story of his homiletics professor in seminary who encouraged the class with the instructions, “Never preach longer than you are interesting.” Then, after a long pause, added, “And remember, gentleman, you are not that interesting.”
When I first met Fr. John, he welcomed me with tea and cake in his rectory. We shared stories of favorite authors, prayers that moved us, and I learned then what a great gift he was to our Church. In time, I came to experience first-hand what a great gift Fr. John was to our family. My children can quote his stories and would go to Mass as much to see Fr. John as to worship. I can quote his homily following the shootings in Orlando last year – or at least retell it – and it marks the first time in my life that a homily was followed by spontaneous and sustained applause. But that was not the only time Fr. John got such a reaction (though it was never, ever what he sought).
It was Fr. John who sat with me to tell the children that Maureen’s father had died. It was Fr. John who gave Katie her First Communion (and second, and third…). It was Fr. John who would take Molly aside to talk about black holes and quantum physics and then mutter to her mother and me, “What in the world is she talking about?” It was Fr. John who prayed with us, laughed with us, invited Maureen and me over for drinks, and gave out more Halloween candy than anyone (275 pieces last year) – and not those cheap little pieces, but giant, full-sized candy bars. Many, including us, would drive across town to see Fr. John, wish him well, show off the costumes, and pick up some candy.
Diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy some time ago, Fr. John occasionally struggled to manage the steps to the altar or the walk to the rectory, but I doubt anyone ever heard him complain. When the metastatic melanoma settled in and immunotherapy began, John never whined. Instead, he longed to come back to parish life and be with his people. He would join us on special occasions, twirling around in his scooter before Mass, though you could tell the real pain came from his lack of energy to celebrate the Eucharist with us.
Fr. John was the kind of priest that every parish wants, and every diocese needs by the dozens. He welcomed everyone not because it frustrated those who were unwelcoming, but because it was, like it or not, exactly what Jesus instructed. He did not judge. He did not gloat. He recognized that we are all sinners – himself included. Plain and simple, he preached the Gospel better than anyone I have ever met. But he not only preached it. He lived it.
In the end, I am told he was unafraid. I am not surprised. He kept his sense of humor about him, though he could barely move. He made those who visited him feel at home and smiled at the thought of using his long-stiff legs once more.
Perhaps our Katie put it best. As we gathered the children to tell them, pray the Rosary, and cry together, she seemed to echo what each of us was feeling. At age nine, she is often closer to the Truth than anyone. “I can just see it now,” she said, “Fr. John running into the arms of Jesus.”
That is how I want to remember my friend. Running. Dancing. Disease-free. Pain-free. Worry-free. Running into the arms of a Lord he served so well. And I know, if we had listened carefully Saturday morning just around 7:30, we could have heard the voice of Jesus praising John.
“Well done, my good and faithful servant. Rest. Be at home. Have a drink.”
May the choirs of angels, come to greet you, Fr. John. May they speed you to paradise. May the Lord enfold you in His mercy. May you find eternal life.