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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

Father Ralph Drendel, SJ - R.I.P.

On December 2, God called home a good and faithful servant, and today, at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, we had a special mass for Father Ralph J. Drendel, S.J. The celebrant and homilist for the liturgy was, Father Jim Thermos, one of the priests whom he formed in the spiritual life when Father Drendel worked as our spiritual director from 2000 to 2008. It was a beautiful moment of thanksgiving for the life of a man who dedicated himself to the service of the Lord. A lion in the pulpit but a lamb in the confessional, Father Drendel introduced many to the boundless mercy of God throughout his nearly sixty years of priesthood. He lived to see the Catholic faith become more part of the cultural mainstream through the fifties and he lived to see our culture completely lose itself in the 60s. By the time I met him, he has cultivated a profound confidence in the power of the Cross to confront not on the evils that one must deal with in own heart, but also the social dangers that threaten the Church and humanity. He was of the opinion that ongoing and deep conversion to Christ was the medicine both the Church and the soul most needs -- and it is to give this medicine that he dedicated himself in his priestly ministry.

He was a man of peace and helped many seminarians overcome some of the insecurities that often haunt men preparing for the priesthood. He could be challenging in the pulpit, especially when it came to half-heartedness, complaining, and any failure to teach the truth to the faithful. If he demanded a lot, it was because he believed in what God was doing in the new generation of young men who felt called to the priesthood - the John Paul II generation, perhaps because like John Paul II he saw them as living signs of hope. In fact, he saw our seminary as a place for the renewal of the priesthood, a renewal that could only happen through a disciplined life rooted in love for the truth and devotion to the Lord.

On the other hand, in the confessional, he always had great compassion and conveyed great confidence in God's mercy. He even saw the penances that he assigned as acts of love he would share with the penitent, and I suspect he carried the greater part of that effort, more than his penitents might suspect. He was constantly praying for souls who had poured out their hearts to him, and constantly taking up the most menial chores, especially the one's everyone else wanted to avoid. The old Jesuit also gave lots of retreats and offered spiritual direction to many religious and lay faithful. He was especially popular with various lay Carmelite groups. To this end, I helped give a retreat with him. I provided the conferences and he, Mass and Confession. He was so encouraging to work with and so humble about how the Lord was working through him.

Whatever he did, whether in a homily or in private conversation, what he offered was heart-piercing. You could tell by the tears his penitents shed and the silence after his preaching. I think this is because everything he did in his priestly ministry only magnified the love of God - and he had a way of making people confident in that love no matter what they were struggling with. In 2008, the rapid progress of Parkinson's compelled him to return to a Jesuit retirement community in Los Gatos. Years before, he had been Novice Master at the same location when it served as the Jesuit Novitiate. I looked in on him on occasion in the last few years. It was difficult to see the lion weighed down by an earthly tent that was falling apart. His gentle eyes could betray a fierceness even as they hid behind a gentle smile. I had the sense that something in him was straining for what lies ahead even as he humbly accepted the debilitating effects of his disease and age. The hope that lived in his heart was no longer commensurate with what this earthly existence could sustain. And so, the Lord brought him through the veil where an even greater love awaits us. Father Thermos pointed out that Father Drendel would end every homily with the same three words, and so I end this reflection about this holy priest, good religious, and prayerful man with the same prayer for him with which he would bless all of us,

"God love you."

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