A Priestly Dream Realized Before Death

Forever: The Life of Father Eugene Hamilton

by Father Benedict Groeschel CFR

(Our Sunday Visitor Press, 1998, 206 pp., $9.95)

Forever: The Life of Father Eugene Hamilton could spark a renewal of priestly vocations. It surely will challenge the reader with thoughts of life, death, divine Providence, and the place of the priesthood in today's world.

Father Hamilton was a 25-year-old New York seminarian ordained on his deathbed by special permission of the Pope. But to say this is to get far ahead of the story—which is about the heart of a young man meeting the heart of the Church and revealing the heart of Jesus the High Priest, broken, burning with love, and rich in mercy.

It is a story of joys amid pain, of hope amid dark days and draining doubts, of a young man of talent and high spirits dying, fighting and accepting death. It is a family story, of the firm-faithed Hamiltons and the family of the Church, forming one loving body as the son of both, Eugene Jr., grows to maturity and enters the seminary at the same time he encounters the shock of advanced cancer.

The tumor in his chest was diagnosed in September 1995, weeks after he started the spirituality program for St. Joseph's Seminary, the New York archdiocese's 100-year-old priestly training ground. Through 17 months, which found him in the hospital as much as in the seminary, Hamilton never surrendered and rarely showed signs of discomfort or discouragement, though his heart was dislocated and his chest rent from within.

More strikingly, he never gave up on the hope of being a priest, bearing a bafflingly serene conviction that he would be ordained even as his solid frame became wasted and his thinning neck failed to fill his proudly worn seminarian's Roman collar. Months after his one operation, he received news of the cancer's spread with the simple words, “Am I going to die?” He told only his family, the seminary priests who advised him and two close friends of the death sentence. To each he expressed a certainty that somehow in God's Providence he would be a priest. The fifth chapter of his book of reflections is titled, “Preparation For Priesthood; Preparation For Death.”

Father Benedict Groeschel, spiritual director and psychologist for the archdiocese, relates with admirable reserve a story that could easily give way to sticky sentiment or maudlin detail. He quotes extensively from the autobiography the seminarian started soon after learning of his cancer, and calls his effort “a book within a book.”

The unfinished autobiography, stored on Hamilton's computer, reaches into wells of emotion, intellect, and spiritual wisdom. It is titled “Servant, Victim, Brother, Listener, Friend,” the description of the priesthood given by Cardinal Terence Cooke, archbishop of New York when he died of cancer in 1983. Hamilton had a devotion to the cardinal even before the onset of his own cancer. His prayers for Cardinal Cooke's intercession increased with his own illness. It was at this point he contacted Father Groeschel, the vice postulator for Cardinal Cooke's canonization cause. At one point, Father Groeschel told the dying seminarian that by quietly insisting he would be ordained, he was praying for a miracle—he either would be cured or be ordained well before finishing his seminary studies, by special intervention.

Father Groeschel reveals the young man's deeply Catholic view of life and death—a subtle mixture of sadness and sense of defeat that comes with the realization that death is a punishment for sin, and a gentle joy that accompanies a hope in the resurrection and eternal life. Hamilton paced out the stations of the cross in the corridor of the cancer ward during his last Lent, yet stopped in each room to offer his fellow patients comfort and words of hope. In an age when so many young men do not hear a priestly call because of the preponderance of cynical noises in the culture, he was a “gentle sign of contradiction,” who maintained traditional piety and theology without anger or accusation.

In August 1996 Hamilton was given the ministry of candidacy by seminary rector Bishop Edwin O'Brien (now archbishop of the military archdiocese), and bravely began his year of theology studies under a death sentence. In November, he took a private vow of celibacy as an act of religious piety. He did not know at the time that this vow would facilitate his death-bed ordination two months later, when Bishop O'Brien would rush to Hamilton's parent's home, with holy oils and ordination ritual in hand, to confer on the barely breathing Hamilton first the diaconate and then the priesthood.

Permission to do so had come days earlier from Pope John Paul II through the request of New York's Cardinal John O'Connor. Assured that Hamilton intended to complete his studies if possible, the Holy Father gave his blessing toto corde, with full heart.

Father Groeschel devotes an addendum to the meaning of the priesthood and the reason for conferring ordination on a young man who would die less than three hours later without celebrating Mass. Affirming the Church's teaching that ordination effects a permanent interior (ontological) change, and conforms a man to Christ in a unique way, the author challenges revisionist theologians such as Hans K¸ng and Edward Schillebeeckx, who see priesthood in purely functional terms. Father Eugene Hamilton was made a priest, the author says, because God's hand was upon him: his last hours of suffering were sacrificial and redemptive, and he remains a priest in eternity, more closely united with the High Priest.

This book is for every seminarian suffering doubts or mid-semester blues, every priest who seeks a deeper understanding of the sacrament he irrevocably received, and every Christian in need of hope. They will be lifted by the story of a young man who lived just long enough to see his dream fulfilled, and died with the sacred oils on his hands.

Brian Caulfield writes from New York.

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