In my final tribute to my friend Jeff Gros I would like to tell you more about what made him such a singular influence on the lives of so many and how he was remembered by many of his friends at his funeral service of August 17.
Jeff had a long-standing commitment to Christ and the faith. The Lasallian Brothers have an affirmation that expresses personal faith and their understanding of their own order. It goes like this: “Long live Jesus in our hearts, forever!” This legacy was expressed by the brothers who gathered at Jeff’s funeral. When the words were spoken they responded in unison: “Forever!” If ever I knew a man who desired for Jesus to live in his heart with love it was Jeff Gros. Jeff was pre-eminently a man of intelligent, deep faith who always pursued a sense of profound wonder. He could be amazed at the most simple and beautiful things. In fact, as the eulogist said of him at his funeral, “He nurtured them.” A surprisingly shy man Jeff was filled with “tenacious hope” as well. He was a man of large heart and true charity. I have found that great leaders in ecumenism, at least real leaders, are filled with such hope and charity. Jeff lived this faith until the end.
But where did he first learn this kind of faith? The eulogist told us that Jeff first began to explore ecumenism in Memphis, Tennessee, as a young thirteen year-old Catholic boy. He visited the hospital with his priest and saw him giving communion to every patient who desired it, whether Baptist or Methodist, black or white. Jeff was quite amazed. (Remember, this was 1951, long before Vatican II opened the door for ecumenism more formally.) He asked the monsignor about his practice and was told that he offered the eucharist to all because all were in great need and because their intentions before God were right if they truly wanted to receive it. He even said, and I wonder if there was a twinkle in his eye when he taught this to young Jeff, “You know, if they die in the hospital it will have been good to have given them the bread and wine and if they leave the hospital who knows, they just might become Catholic.” This made a deep impression on Jeff, living as he was in the South among Baptists and other conservative non-Catholics.
I found this story so suggestive of my own experience. When I was but fifteen my Southern Baptist pastor took me on visitation to homes. I watched as he listened carefully and prayed for all, Christian or not. He loved everyone and it showed. (He was not a great preacher but I saw something very different in him with people one-to-one.) This experience gave me an expansive love for non-Baptists. In addition, I only knew one Catholic in my small Tennessee town and the two of us discussed our faith freely and respectfully. I was taught by both my parents to love all, to respect all and to honor the dignity of all men and women. My non-racist parents never ceased to amaze me, especially at a time when most of my peers, and their parents, were possessed by an entirely different spirit. Jeff and I experienced this same hope in the South at a time when there was so little of it in our respective Christian cultures. We both lived to see major change and that change shaped us as men, indeed as ecumenists.
When Jeff completed an M.A. degree at Marquette University in 1965 the title of his thesis was: “Ministry and Orders in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.” He was twenty-seven years old and his direction was shaped in such a way that he wanted to study the faith and practice of Christians who were not Catholic. He lived the rest of his life seeking to understand others, always with the purpose of pursuing oneness in Christ’s love. This is why Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, the Orthodox, and (all) others, spoke about his love for them at his funeral. It is also emblematic of his long journey in ecumenism that in 1993 he led a tour into the former East Germany to see the most important Luther sites from the Reformation era. Jeff knew Reformation history well and never spoke falsely or slanderously about Protestant beliefs, at least from anything I have read or heard. At his death he was writing on the famous Council of Trent because he felt both Catholics and Protestants did not properly understand and appreciate it. The way to deep ecumenism, for Jeff, was to engage with the past in a Christ-centered way. Honesty drove him to keep learning and to teach, both formally and informally.
His goal in all of this was to help fellow believers get beyond conflicts and turmoil. He was a peacemaker. But he was not a compromiser of what was true, right and just. I believe he rightly understood that it was not what another person affirms that is the real problem in finding unity in our midst but rather in what they do not affirm, or in what they deny. This same thinking has helped me to navigate so much of my ever-growing world the last fifteen years I’ve spent in ecumenism.
The homilist at Jeff’s funeral read a poem by Mary Oliver that moved me deeply. Mary Oliver (born September 10, 1935) is an American poet who has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times has described her as “far and away, [America's] best-selling poet.” Here is the poem Jeff loved that was read.
When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Jeff Gros did not simply “visit this world.” He ended his life the same way that he had lived it for so many years – not “sighing and frightened” or “full of argument,” but having made of his days something that was “particular, and real.” I long for the same legacy in my life thus I thank God for the life of my dear friend who taught me so much. I left Jeff’s funeral on Saturday praying that God would grant me an even greater opportunity to serve and love as a true missional-ecumenist. I was touched by the life of this remarkable man and look forward to seeing him again in the heavenly kingdom where we both will be worshiping at the feet of our Lord Jesus Christ, not as Catholic and Protestant but as followers of the Lamb that we Tennesseans both love so deeply.