Somewhere in what we have come to call the cloud, a joyful ninety-two-year-old priest is blogging from the dead.
Father John Jay Hughes, who died June 3 after a brief illness, lived a remarkable life. Descended from John Jay (the first Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court) on his mother’s side and from two generations of Episcopalian priests on his father’s side, the native New Yorker was ordained an Anglican priest in 1954. Six years later, he entered the Catholic Church and began to undertake doctoral research that would ultimately change the way the Catholic Church understood the theology of ordination as it applied to Anglican priests. Among his professors was the young Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.
Through his research, Hughes was able to provide evidence that his Anglican ordination could be accepted as valid in the Catholic Church. Although his findings weren’t enough to give Church authorities absolute certainty of the validity of his Anglican orders, in 1968 he became the first Anglican priest in history to be conditionally ordained a Catholic priest—receiving ordination only “on the condition” his Anglican orders weren’t valid.
Eventually Hughes became a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, where he spent many years pastoring parishes as well as writing books and articles. In 2013, at the age of eighty-one, he started a blog, Proclaiming the Good News, where he would post daily homilies. He continued to do so even when age and infirmity prevented him from preaching publicly on a regular basis.
Father Hughes scheduled the online publication of his homilies in advance, uploading them ahead of time to ensure that each one would appear online a day early. Each morning, the next day’s homily would be posted automatically. It’s not clear how far in advance he uploaded them, but it must have been days if not weeks ahead.
And so it was that last Tuesday, as he lay ill at St. Louis’s Mercy Hospital, Hughes’s homily went online for June 3—the day he would go to the Lord. The homily’s title was “Life Beyond Death.” In it, Father Hughes reflected upon the day’s Gospel, Mark 12:18-27, where Jesus speaks of God as “not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” Commenting upon this promise of resurrection, he wrote,
The God whom Jesus reveals is our loving heavenly Father, who enters into a personal relationship with us—a relationship of love. This love relationship cannot be terminated by death, any more than God’s relationship of love with his Son was ended by Jesus’ death. I learned this very early, through my mother’s death when I was only six years old. A few days after my mother’s funeral, my father told me: “Our love for Mummy continues, and her love for us. We must continue to pray for her. She is with God. He is looking after her. Our prayers can help her.” That made sense to me when I was only six. It still makes sense to me eight decades later. I pray for my dear mother by name in every Mass I celebrate. I encourage you to pray for your own departed loved ones at the prayer for the dead in the prayer of consecration.
That, stunningly, is the end of Father Hughes’s homily for what would be the day of his own death. But even more amazingly, it is not the end of his blogging. He uploaded a homily for this very day, June 8, for which the Gospel at Mass is the Beatitudes (Matt 5:1-12). In it, he wrote,
The Beatitudes challenge us. They summon us to put God first in our lives. To the extent that we try to do that, and keep on trying despite our many failures and discouragement, we discover that a life centered on God is a happy life. It is a fulfilled life, and one that brings true peace. Why? Because God is the only source there is of true happiness, of fulfillment, and genuine peace. To all those who respond to this challenge, Jesus says: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”
Let us pray today for the grace to put God first in our lives. And let us pray too for the repose of the holy souls we knew and loved, who taught us what it means to live a fulfilled life in Christ and showed us what that looks like. Father Hughes would want it that way.
Dawn Eden Goldstein, S.Th.D., is the author of several books, including The Thrill of the Chaste and My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. She has taught at seminaries in the U.S., England, and India. Currently she is writing a biography of Father Edward Dowling, S.J., who was a spiritual adviser to Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson.