Prior General Emeritus
Your Excellency, Most Reverend Edward Slattery, Bishop of Tulsa;
Very Reverend Father Bernard Scianna, Prior Provincial of the Augustinians of the Midwest Province,
Monsignors and My brothers in the priesthood,
My brother Augustinians,
Members of the consecrated life,
Dear members of the family of Father Tack,
Brothers and sisters, to all of you who have come here today to honor the life and to be united in prayer as we commemorate the passing of our dear brother, spiritual guide, friend, Father Ted Tack.
Before going any further, I would like to express, on behalf of the whole Order of St. Augustine, our deepest sympathy to the family, and especially to you, Sue, and to all those who loved Father Tack. The sense of loss that we all experience is great, because we have lost the presence in this life of a great man, a deeply committed priest and religious, a person who was humble and profoundly human, and yet one whose life truly inspired, as it exemplifies what it means to respond fully to the call to holiness that we all receive in our baptism.
I was blessed to be at Ted’s side on Sunday, along with Father Bernie Scianna and Father Marty Laird, when he died. It was a profound moment, understood best through the eyes of faith, an experience which was deeply moving. As we heard in the Second Reading: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep… Console one another with these words.”
Ted was truly a humble, warm, and generous human being. And the sense of loss we feel at losing someone we love, who has been called from this life, is deeply felt. But we come to acceptance, and even understanding through the eyes of faith. And today being Ash Wednesday, we have a clear and powerful reminder in the liturgical prayer of the Church that we do not have a lasting home in this world. “Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
We have indeed lost a great man. Mother Theresa once said “we cannot do great things in life. Only small things with great love.” This may or may not be true, but we have certainly had the privilege of seeing some great things in the life of Father Ted Tack. He was a man who was greatly loved and who loved greatly, with the consequence that the loss that so many feel is also great. So the words of St. Augustine are indeed a consolation to us today: “Of necessity, we are sorrowful when those whom we love leave us in death. Our weakness bears us down, but our faith bears us up. We sorrow over the human condition, but find our healing in the divine promise.” (St. Augustine, Sermon 172).
If I even began to share with you some of the wonderful testimonies I have received in the past few days from Augustinians around the world, expressions of the affection and loyalty and appreciation that so many have for Father Ted Tack, and the gratitude and admiration for all that he did as an Augustinian, we would be here for a very long time this morning. . People have written about everything from heartfelt gratitude for the leadership given by Father Ted to the whole Order to his playing basketball or tennis with seminarians as he would visit different houses of formation. But first and foremost, it is my suggestion that we do nothing more and nothing less than Ted would himself want: that we reflect together on the Word of God, and look, with eyes of faith, to the true source of Life and Love. There we will indeed find our consolation.
The first reading was from the Book of Wisdom. I willingly acknowledge that one reason for choosing this reading is found in my profound conviction that Father Tack was truly blessed with the gift of wisdom. When the Lord said to Solomon “Ask for whatever gift you wish”, and Solomon replied “I am so young… so give your servant a discerning heart so as to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong” – the Lord gave Solomon that gift which we call wisdom: the ability to discern; the sense to know what is truly right and good; the will to live and to act justly. When Father Tack was elected prior general of the Order, he was only 44 years old. He had never been prior even of a local community. And yet the Augustinians at the General Chapter in 1971, guided I believe by the Holy Spirit, chose that young man to take on the task of leading the Order at a particularly difficult time, after the Second Vatican Council, after the radical changes of “1968”, and there is no doubt that God gave Ted the gift of wisdom. He truly took up the challenge of governing the Order – a task done by leading, by inspiring, by teaching with words and even more by his example, what it meant, what it means to be an Augustinian in the world today. And so when we pray “The souls of the just are in the hands of God”, echoing the words of Scripture, in this case, we are indeed praying for the soul of a man who was just, because he was truly wise. “As gold in the furnace, God proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself. Those who trust in him shall understand truth, and the faithful shall abide with him in love.” To understand Truth – this was Augustine’s journey; this was Ted’s deep desire and search. And here too, we are strengthened as we hear God’s Word, and trust in the words “They are at peace.”
Many of you knew Father Tack as a teacher. Before he became Prior General, he taught moral theology in Rome. After concluding his second term of office in Rome, he returned to the Midwest Province, and was eventually assigned here to the monastery of Cascia Hall. He was headmaster, and even after retiring from that difficult and challenging job, he continued to teach, right up until the academic year of 2011-2012, when his health no longer allowed him to keep up the service he so much loved. In addition, Father Tack taught the novices, both in the United States and in Peru. He was also frequently committed to preaching retreats, and giving courses to adults on different aspects of the life and spirituality of St. Augustine. Simply put, Father Tack was a true teacher. Now listen for a moment to the words of Father Tack – as he describes himself in his role of teaching St. Augustine.
“I am an amateur in the root meaning of that word, that is a lover of Augustine's teachings without making any pretensions of being an expert.
“Over 20 years teaching Augustine's Confessions and I remain constantly fascinated at how both adults and our senior students respond to Augustine's odyssey, his message, and his approach to the Christian life. It is true that they initially come to this class with quite a bit of skepticism, asking themselves "what can this guy, who has been dead for 16 centuries possibly have to say to me with my problems? But often within two to three weeks a change begins to take place and they begin to identify with him in a very realistic way.”
I have no doubt in saying that one of the reasons that Ted loved to teach Augustine, to read and study Augustine’s writings, is that it is in St. Augustine that one can really understand the depth and breadth and height of human experience – experience within which we can ultimately find the presence of God. “Augustine understood” writes Ted, and offers valuable insights “into ourselves and others regarding the constant struggle in our hearts between good and evil, the hidden motivations that frequently prompt us to act, the pride which often destroys the good we seek to accomplish, the insatiable thirst for true happiness – for God, that is – and our great difficulty in achieving this happiness; the power of passion to assert its control over our lives, if we don’t assert ourselves in an opposite direction; the destructive force of division, as well as the beauty of friendship and living in harmony with others who share common interests.” “Augustine was able to pair his understanding of human nature with deep insights into the teachings of Jesus. And that is essentially why he can still be a guide for all Christians today: because he teaches Jesus to us in a very human way.” Would I be far from the mark if I say this morning that the same thing is true of Father Ted Tack? He indeed did teach Jesus to us, in a very human way.
In the Gospel that was proclaimed this morning, we listened to a passage of Chapter Six of St. John, where we hear Jesus teaching his followers the meaning of his life and death, and explaining the great gift we too have received in the Body and Blood of Christ. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
This is where Ted found his life and nourishment. His life had meaning in and through his vocation to ministry as an Augustinian and as a priest. And he was indeed strengthened in the Eucharist. And as great as some of us may want to consider him, Ted never lost that gift of humility, understanding that it was not his preaching, it was not his intellectual capacities or his personal efforts that made the difference. All those qualities were there, because Ted recognized that God is the source of all that is good. And for him, the celebration of Eucharist was a vital source of life. This is one of the many notes that Ted saved: “Something not well understood today is the need priests and the world have for the daily celebration of the Eucharist…. This is the defining or essential moment of their day.” Father Tack found life, the very life and love that he shared with so many of us, in and through the gift of the Eucharist. He knew these words to be true: “Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”
There are so many other things that could be said this morning: The struggles and sacrifices taken on by Ted to promote unity, and community, within the Order and in the Church. The very faith that guided and nourished Ted’s life; his love for the Church; his willingness to serve as spiritual director for many people; his friendship; his sense of the vow of poverty and the simplicity with which he lived.
But perhaps everything could be summed up in what we might call, what he understood to be, the ultimate meaning of life. Once again, Ted himself becomes the teacher for us. I share with you two little clippings that were pinned to the wall of his room.
The first is from a Kairos talk – from the retreats with young people that were also important in Ted’s life. This is the quote: “God is the candle in our life. Do we accept the light of Christ in our lives? It is time to come home to God forever. For he takes us to places we could never find.”
And the second is a poem, that expresses so well what Ted himself told some of you in the days leading up to his death. These words truly describe the deep inner longing, the “Augustinian desire for unity with God”, that Ted had sought, and was finally ready for, as he approached the end of his earthly life.
The poem is called “Safely Home”, and these words, which Ted certainly treasured, can be a source of consolation for all of us:
I am home in heaven, dear ones;
Oh, so happy and so bright!
There is perfect joy and beauty
In this everlasting light.
All the pain and grief is over,
Every restless tossing passed;
I am now at peace forever,
Safely home in heaven at last.
Jesus came to meet me
In that way so hard to tread;
And with Jesus’ arm to lean on,
Could I have one doubt or dread?
Then you must not grieve so sorely,
For I love you dearly still:
Try to look beyond earth’s shadows,
Pray to trust our Father’s will.
There is work still waiting for you,
So you must not idly stand;
Do it now, while life remaineth –
You shall rest in Jesus’ land.
When that work is completed,
He will gently call you home;
Oh, the rapture of that meeting,
Oh the joy to see you home.
The last words that Ted Tack spoke on Sunday, while Father Marty Laird held him in his arms, were “Lord, have mercy on me.” We place all our trust in God, and pray that God will indeed have mercy on the soul of Theodore Tack, and that God will lead him gently home.