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Father Rooney & The Thornbirds
I got the following text from my BFF of fifty years, Lorie, this morning.
I received this message late last night:
“Hello all. Please keep Fr. Bob Rooney in your prayers. I learned a few hours ago that he is non-responsive and won't be alive much longer. Apparently he fell recently and was bruised up. He has required 24/7 care for quite some time now. He lives at Madonna here in Lincoln. He was 85 last November. I did manage to get a quote from him a few weeks ago when I visited. I will share it with you in June. God bless you all and thank you. I will truly miss him.”
I met Father Rooney at Lorie’s wedding, where I was a bridesmaid and had to wear a pink turban in the wedding which should show you my commitment to our friendship. It was the mid seventies and I was in college at the University of Nebraska. He was a parish priest in Alliance Nebraska.
I’d just finished reading The Thorn Birds, and Father Rooney was even better looking than Richard Chamberlain, so I was determined to have his baby after consummating our love in some Nebraska hayloft. I would raise the daughter, and he would be tortured with his love for me and his child, but I would be okay in the end.
Anyway, while it didn’t go as I planned, Father Rooney and I have had a tumultuous fifty-year friendship. He once told me that God put me on this earth to drive him crazy. I felt that was close enough to the sweet, savage passion I wanted, and was satisfied.
Twenty some years ago, Father Rooney had a bike accident involving a garbage truck, and he has never been the same since then. He was retired by the church because his ‘filter’ was gone and he had started saying things as he saw them rather than sticking to church doctrine. Frankly, I like him a lot better without the filter.
Nebraska is short on priests, and a few years after the accident they had him do a mass for Ash Wednesday. Apparently he got up and said that for forty years he’d diligently given up popcorn for Lent, and he still got hit by a garbage truck and what was the point of it all anyway? Why would God want us to give up something? After all, he loves us.
So then they put him in the confession booth (is it called a booth?), and when Father Torpe came by he saw a very long line waiting to get into confession. Turns out Fr. Bob was telling the story of his accident and his own confession needs rather than dealing with the needs of the flock. Enough about them. He’d given forty years.
Before the accident, when the towers fell on 911 and I watched it unfold from New York City where we felt it so very deeply, I called Father Rooney. I finally had the goods on why there is no God. I screamed at him on the phone and he listened quietly. Then I asked him why, if there was a God and he loved us all, would he allow this to happen. He quietly answered, “Sometimes there is no answer. There is no reason. And at this moment, I can’t make you feel better through his love. I am so sorry.” That was the only time, in my opinion, he won the God argument with me.
After the accident, Father Rooney, Lorie and I went to Cape Cod for a week. We laughed without the cloak of his priestliness holding him back. He was unveiled, smart, kind, and without the burden of how he was supposed to behave keeping him just a little distant. He rode a go-cart around and around and afterward said he wasn’t allowed to drive anymore, and that the go cart was the best ride of his life.
Toward the end of the week we started to discuss the future. Fr. Rooney was a great homilist. He would call me on Friday nights after I was divorced, and read me his homily for the weekend services. I was always in awe of the succinct, poignant way he would make his point. And, they were points worth pondering.
We decided I would publish a book of his homilies and he would then be able to use the money for his new life. Priests don’t get a large stipend once they no longer herd a flock and are on their own. “What shall we call it?” I asked. Without missing one beat, and with a mind that was foggy from the damage, he answered, “Slices from God’s Bread of Life.” And, so it was.
As the years passed after the accident, we stopped speaking. Not worth going into the why. So, for me, he has been gone a long, long time. But he was a huge part of the wallpaper of my life, one I will always mark with grateful awe. I have letters he wrote, many letters, and I will read them this weekend and see what I can glean that I have forgotten or missed. I loved you Father Rooney. Not in the Thornbirds way, but in the way you love the tree you hope is always there to sit beneath when you are trying to find the why of something. Thank you for your service to me and to so many others.