In the face of recent revelations of Theodore McCarrick and the ongoing saga of the sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, it’s easy as a faithful layman to become discouraged and disenchanted with one’s faith. But my immediate response to these events has been consistent and reassuring to my mind and heart with regards to the hierarchy of the Church.
It’s not the man who makes the office, but rather the office that makes the man. I will defend the divine institution of the papacy and holy orders until the day I die, but I refuse to defend the immoral actions of any individual who has held those offices over the past 2,000 years (Isaiah 22:19-25; Matthew 16:16-18; Matthew 18:15-18). These recent scandals say more about the moral corruption of the individuals themselves than they do about the truth of the teachings of the Catholic Church.
More often than not, our priests are holy men of God who answered his call to a life of service. Father Overton Joseph Breaux’s life and service to others for over 50 years as a priest in the Diocese of Lafayette exemplifies this.
Like any apologist in the face of misrepresentations of the faith, I would have to make the familiar distinction concerning the difference between his life as a man and the office he held as a priest. Despite this reality, when it came to Father Joe Breaux, it wasn’t the man who made the office, or the office that made the man. It was both.
I met Father Joe when I began a life-changing journey at St. Thomas More Catholic High School in August 2005. We were placed in the same small group at a retreat my first day as a member of the faculty. His smile was as inviting as it was sincere. It was the first time I directly experienced his ministry of “presence” that made him an icon, and it was instantaneously at work in my soul. As our friendship continued to grow, he shared an observation that I have never forgotten: “Chad, you do not know the capacity you have to love!”
That prophetic statement manifested itself in a tangible way in September 2008 when my wife and I received a crushing prenatal diagnosis for our second child. Our child’s projected quality of life based on modern medical science confirmed a preexisting condition that should have rendered him severely mentally disabled, afflicted him with ongoing health issues and made him a life-long paraplegic. In that moment when it was too difficult for me to stand, I was able to fall into Father Joe’s arms for support. His reassuring presence made the reality of selfless love possible in the face of the most impossible circumstance.
It happened about a year after my son Eli was born. Father Joe and I were together in my classroom alone, and he was hearing my confession. I had buried some frustration and anger for the difficulty of having to be the parent of a special needs child with a healthy older brother, a husband to my wife, and the teacher I knew I had been called to be. He said, “Are you mad at God? If you are, you can tell him.” When I was finally able to verbalize that reality, I came to realize that God didn't send Eli so I could take care of him, but rather Eli was sent so God could take care of me. This was a revelation I would have never come to without his ministry in my life.
Father Joe was the master of cultivating personal relationships that were a reflection of the intimacy God desires with each person he has created. The number of people he touched in his many years at St. Thomas More and other parishes are truly immeasurable.
Countless times while he was battling terminal cancer, I witnessed his selfless availability to students and faculty for counseling and confession, his opening each school day by offering Mass in the chapel with faculty and students, and his decision to attend a playoff basketball game at school the night he decided to receive hospice care for the remainder of his life. His life and love were the students and faculty of St. Thomas More and the tree of his ministry there is laden with fruit (Matthew 7:16-19).
Reflecting on the depth of our friendship, I’ve come to realize it is just one narrative among many others in the story of one humble servant’s life.
Father Joe’s willingness to share his own brokenness as the key to the redemption of his humanity made redemption in my brokenness and humanity a reality for me as well. He pastored me from spiritual infancy into spiritual adulthood. Whether it was as a member of a men’s prayer group or as my spiritual director during my formation to lead retreats for high school students, I came to understand that what I did wasn’t the key to defining who I was.
In 1994 Walt Disney released their classic animated film, The Lion King. The movie’s central character is Simba, the son of King Mufasa. His ambitious and diabolical Uncle Scar is set on becoming king after Mufasa’s sudden death but knows that Simba is the rightful heir to the throne. In a spirit of deceit and manipulation Scar tricks Simba into forgetting his identity. He wanders into the wilderness and begins to associate with all the other animals who are nothing like him. Simba is deeply confused and conflicted about what to do and where to go.
As the plot reaches an important turning point, Simba encounters Rafiki, a baboon whose character symbolizes the priesthood. He had anointed Simba at birth, leaving a permanent mark that identified him as an heir to a kingdom, and he has now found Simba at the weakest and most crucial moment of his life. Filled with truth and mercy, Rafiki quickly guides Simba to a pool of shallow water where he sees his father Mufasa’s image staring back at him. There in a moment of clarity, Simba finally realizes his father is not dead but instead lives on within him. He was the son of a king and an heir to his father’s kingdom. The cub who was lost is now the lion who is found. He is now ready to face himself and claim his rightful place on the throne to become who he had been created to be.
There isn’t a better analogy for the way Father Joe served his parishioners or the faculty, staff, students and parents of St. Thomas More Catholic High School than this. He helped each person unlock the personal desire to be loved, find worth and belong to something greater, and identify the gifts God had bestowed that were as unique to that individual as they were irreplaceable. His shared wisdom was a catalyst of radical self-awareness leading one down a path of surrender to interior change and participation in a divine love that would transform the individual and the world. This is the gift his friendship gave me in the 14 years I was able to journey with him and the gift I was blessed to receive. A gift I promised to give away in this life until we see each other again in the next.
Not a day has gone by since his death that I have not pondered one of the many significant moments we shared in our friendship. Moments that were building blocks God used to draw me closer to himself and make his presence and work in my life more visible to me. Those who knew Father Joe intimately were aware of his personal fears of abandonment and being deemed insignificant when in his sickness he could no longer serve the way he once did in health.
However, the shadow of his love and the imprint it left on others will never be forgotten (see Matthew 7:16-19). Although the next generation of students at St. Thomas More will encounter Father Joe indirectly, they will never get to experience the man behind the image that is memorialized on its walls. This is a bittersweet tragedy amid the beauty of the legacy his priesthood and life left behind.
For Father Overton Joseph Breaux the office of the priesthood did indeed define the man, but his willingness to cooperate with God’s grace within the limitations of his humanity also defined his office. His 50 years of service and love embodied an authentic vocation to the priesthood and the gift of himself to others is the reflection of what Christ intended the priesthood to be. In surrendering to God’s will in his battle against cancer, he didn’t just teach others how to live — he taught them how to die.
Rest in peace, my Rafiki. I love you.
Chad Judice is director of the Office of Catechetics for the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana.