Father Paul Marx, OSB, founder of Human Life International and the Population Research Institute passed away this morning (March 20). I feel blessed to have been able to call him a friend.
Over the years, during his time at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn. my family and I were fortunate to be his guests for Mass in the infirmary, and for lunch and dinner in the college dining hall.
Always quick with a joke, my family and I will greatly miss his pro-life witness, his generosity, and his sense of humor.
“When are you coming for dinner?” he would always ask. “I’ll cook. Bring the family.”
My children would be treated to the college’s smorgasbord of dining options, while Father Marx regaled us with stories about his large family, and growing up on a farm in central Minnesota.
I was always impressed by Father Marx’s lucidity. Even though a stroke had impacted his short-term memory, so that he might ask you the same question several times during the course of a conversation, he could often recite statistics and birth rates from countries around the world.
Invariably, at the end of each visit, he would wheel his wheelchair into the kitchen and bring out a loaf of bread, and sometimes a banana or apple for us to take home. I always saw it as part of his Benedictine hospitality. He didn’t want us to go home empty-handed.
Father Marx was relentless about spreading the pro-life message. Even in his last years, he read voraciously and would often send letters to various publications, defending life. He retired to the Abbey in 1999.
I once asked him if he felt like an exile there.
“Yes,” he admitted, with tears in his eyes.
His support of the Church’s teaching on contraception and abortion, his zeal, and his frankness didn’t make him popular, even among his brother priests. He often told me how he and his own Benedictine priest brother didn’t see eye-to-eye on the Church’s teaching on contraception.
I recall how he had once been nominated for a pro-life award. Yet, politics prevented his nomination from moving forward.
“Father Marx has no need of the award,” said someone in response.
To my way of thinking, need had little to do with it. It was a question of merit.
I can think of no other priest so deserving of a pro-life award. He spent his entire life promoting the Culture of Life. He received death threats for his support of life at all stages, and Planned Parenthood once described him as “public enemy #1.” Pope John Paul II called him “The Apostle of Life.”
Over the course of his life, he wrote 13 books, and visited over 90 countries defending life. Although he didn’t like to travel, he was willing to bring the Gospel of Life to the remotest village in China or elsewhere, if invited. I recall being in his presence once when he addressed a Filipino group that had come to visit him. They gave him a hero’s reception, akin to how teenagers would receive a rock star.
Without fail, when he would see my family he would say, “Five children, that’s a good start. Have a few more.”
Our last visit with him was the week before Christmas, but it is my family’s first visit with him that will always remain in my memory. Father Marx had invited us to attend Mass with him in the Abbey’s infirmary chapel. I wrote about it here in 2006. Here’s an excerpt:
We followed the elderly priest, dressed in a T-shirt and pushing his walker, to a chapel on the monastery’s third floor. There we found a dozen or so retired and infirm priests and brothers in silent pre-Mass prayer. One of the priests, we would later find out, was 106. Another was 99; a third, 86. Lack of seating forced us to sit apart from one another. Mary sat with the two youngest on one side. Our three oldest sat a row ahead of me, and I was situated in the last row between two priests.
As the Liturgy of the Word started, I sensed not only that we were celebrating Mass, but that were part of something truly special — something that few others are privy to on a regular basis, if ever.
“Lord, use this opportunity to reveal what it is that you want to reveal to me,” I silently prayed.
At the Liturgy of the Eucharist, all of the priests, each wearing a stole, uttered the words of consecration. Most, too weak to walk, stand or kneel, prayed around us from their chairs and wheelchairs.
There, in that moment, whatever might have separated these men — worldviews, philosophies, styles, ideologies, devotions, hobbies — was gone. At this moment they were all one in Christ. United. Concelebrating.
During the Our Father, my eyes welled up and my voice cracked. I was unable to continue the prayer audibly. During Communion, as the priest brought Jesus in the Eucharist to each of the aging priests, I glanced over at my wife. She, too, was crying.
The words from Psalm 109, verse 4, came to mind: “Thou art a priest forever.”
Even if they no longer have their parishes, their schools or their hospital chaplaincies, priests never cease to be priests. Nor is the badge removed when they are aging, unable to walk, ill or dying. Even death cannot take the priestly mark away from a priest’s soul.
“We haven’t had a death all year,” Father Paul gleefully remarked afterwards, as we shared dinner with him. For any one of the priests, I thought, that Mass could very well have been their last. Well, their last Mass on earth, anyway. Something far more glorious awaits each of them in heaven.
That’s more true now than when I wrote it four years ago. May Father Paul Marx rest in peace.