Several years ago I shared the story of how I met Fr. Joseph F. Girzone (1930-2015). I had read Joe’s wonderful book, Jesus: A New Understanding of God’s Son (New York: Doubleday, 2009). I simply loved it. Frankly, it changed my life in many profound ways. I wrote my first ever review on Amazon and as a result someone showed it to Joe who then reached out to get to know me. Since this is the kind of thing I would do, and it is rarely done to me, I had an immediate desire to know this lovely man. Well, we began to chat on the phone and by email. The man who wrote the huge best-selling novel, Joshua (1983), was a friend. What a pleasant and divinely-orchestrated surprise. When I first encountered Joshua in the days of its immense popularity in the early 1980s I was so profoundly influenced by Puritanism that I considered a novel about Jesus a virtual sacrilege. (So much for a mind that was open!) So getting to know this unusual priest became an unexpected delight. I could tell you all the things about Joe that I came to love but this would be a full-blown tribute if I did.
It is safe to say that if you met Joe you almost instantly have liked him. He was gentle and kind. He was supportive and encouraging. But he could grow angry if he felt an injustice was done in the name of Jesus! He served as a parish priest for several decades and then in his fifties his physician told him his constitution could not handle the pressure. If he did not step back he would soon die. Joe took this as “a warning from God” and he stepped back. His bishop did not agree. Joe ended up, for a season at least, in a homeless condition. But God had a strange and loving plan. He showed Joe more of Jesus whom he dearly loved and this would frame his life and writing as time went by in the years that followed. When he finally wrote Joshua, which also became a popular film, he was able to make the Jesus of the ancient text come alive without compromising anything essential or orthodox. (Many critics felt otherwise but Joe knew his doctrine and history and remained orthodox in all the essential ways.) Joe’s larger ministry became the Joshua Foundation, which he established in 1995 as “an organization dedicated to making Jesus better known throughout the world.”
Joe and I eventually decided to meet in person. I flew into Albany, New York. He picked me up and took me out into the country where he had a large home on a mountain, appropriately called Joshua Mountain. There he still worked every day serving and answering mail and writing. While I was there he spoke to people in different parts of the world and continued to serve as a pastor to his “flock.” I spent three lovely days with him which truly bound us together as dear friends. When we exchanged notes they were always filled with love and encouragement.
In June of 2014, when I received the Luminosa Award for my work in Christian unity, given by the Focolare Movement at their center in Hyde Park, New York, Joe phoned the center that weekend to ask me to forgive him for not attending. He said, “John I can not drive anymore.” I said, “Joe, if I had known we would have gotten you here to be with me.” We exchanged emails but that was our last actual verbal conversation. Joe passed beyond the veil into the presence of Jesus on Sunday afternoon, November 29.
Today I went to my library and pulled down several of Joe’s books that I have kept. There was my copy of Jesus: A New Understanding of God’s Son. Joe inscribed the following in the front of my book:
To my dear friend John Armstrong,
May you continue to radiate the beauty of Jesus that shines through you. What a joy and privilege it has been for me to be your host at Joshua.
Love, Joe Girzone.
That says it as well as anything I have right now. I look forward to seeing Joe again at the feet of the Lord we both dearly love. RIP my dear friend. I miss you already. I believe He will say, “Well done Joe, good and faithful servant.”