The following is an excerpt from the homily delivered July 9, 2011, by the Reverend George Smiga at the funeral Mass for St. Catherine University Professor of Theology Russell B. Connors. Father Smiga is pastor of St. Noel Church in Willoughby Hills, Ohio.
Living, and Dying, With Hope
BY THE REVEREND GEORGE SMIGA
During the last months of his life, even as he struggled with cancer, Russ Connors continued to work as a moral theologian. In fact, he was developing an idea suggested by theologian William Spohn, who believed that one could use art and beauty to determine how to respond to God's grace, how to live a good life.
Some would propose that one lives a good life by keeping the rules, by obeying what someone else tells you to do. Russ deeply believed that it involved more than that. Russ respected and loved the Catholic tradition. But he argued that to be a follower of Jesus one had to know the commandments so well that he or she could hear them in a new way and use that insight to serve the Church.
Russ gave a presentation at the Society of Christian Ethics which addressed this very point. He began by playing the song "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" from the Broadway cast recording of Oklahoma: "Oh, what a beautiful morning! Oh, what a beautiful day. I've got a wonderful feeling, everything's going my way!" At the end Russ said, "Great song, right?" But then he played a version of the song by Ray Charles who improvised on the original, slowing it down here, speeding it up there, emphasizing different words. At the end Russ said, "Ray Charles knew this song so well and loved it so much that he could find meanings no one had found before. That is the task of the moral theologian — to improvise on the Catholic tradition."
Russ Connors had in abundance two qualities which everyone who would improvise must possess: the ability to listen and the skill of adding to what you have heard. He listened with his ears, but also with his eyes, his mind, his heart. "My dad could see goodness everywhere," his daughter, Elizabeth, said. He listened to life so deeply and embraced it so fully that he knew it was holy.
He saw the goodness of his parents, sisters, brother, nieces and nephews, his wife Patty's parents and family. He listened to the life, personality, hopes and struggles of each one. From the first time he met Patty, Russ found in their love a beauty so clear that he knew God was calling him to be a husband. He strove each day to keep that love strong.
His children were a true and powerful gift. He simply wanted to be in their presence: picking them up from school, attending a gymnastic event or playing catch in the backyard. He was not simply putting in parent time. He was grateful to the bone, Beta and Patrick, that he was your father.
As a priest, Russ was a profound preacher, because he told the gospel in such a way that people knew he had listened to their fears and doubts, their hopes and dreams. As a teacher, he listened not only to the questions but the students who were asking them. He did not simply instill information, he changed lives.
As Patty told me, "He seemed to know me better than I knew myself." He took the time to show his children how to change those things which were hurting them and how to build upon their strengths. He could impart such wisdom because he knew and loved them so well.
We believe that Russ is now with the Lord. We believe that Christ has welcomed him into his heavenly home. He is at peace, and that gives us some consolation.
Oh, what a terrible disease. Oh, what a tragic loss. Oh, what a beautiful morning. Oh, what a wonderful husband, father, brother, teacher, friend. Let us trust that God will take our pain, our grief, our thankfulness and in time improvise them into a new and beautiful melody.