Rev. Chris Johnson, R.I.P. – Pastor’s Reflection (July 2, 2017)
A life among the Preaching Brothers offers the constant marvel of a Friar taking the pulpit.
Even initial forays in the seminary reveal that a Brother enters that precinct not so much to give a talk or to make a presentation, although he does talk, and he does present. He probably wants to tell you about a scripture, a doctrine, or a saint, but not in a way you could google. Rather, the ambo serves as a place of distillation for you and for him. Here he gives voice to intensity that would overwhelm an encounter in the vestibule after Mass, or a moment in the kitchen over coffee. Here observations about the Prophet Jeremiah, or the Immaculate Conception, or St. Jerome, serve to manifest the inner life of a man who has been summoned to a place of loving solitude by His God.
Each Friar seems to find this solitary place as God reveals it to him and he speaks out of it as the Lord graces his personality, his interests, and his methods. He may use a text, or not: he may employ humor, or not, but in the end he will preach as himself, out of a life he otherwise may not speak of. This is why habitués of our churches will have noticed that our preaching has no unified style, but the bottom line might be remarkably consistent.
Chris Johnson was a preacher’s preacher because he showed us Friars the truth of ourselves in high definition. He lived to a singular degree the Dominican paradox of being a private person in public, a hermit on stage. Chris used the language and technique of theatre as he crafted the text and delivery of each preaching with exquisite care. But he never hid behind his art; he was never an actor playing a role. Rather, his sculpted words enabled him to share the fruits of his intimacy with God without compromising the profound exclusiveness of that intimacy. The result was that Chris’s preaching and pastoral care possessed evident power to help you even as he protected himself. Most of the time we think of love and distance as opposites. For Chris distance was a way of loving. From a step back he preserved the clarity of insight he shared with you and maintained an eagle’s eye view of you, your gifts, your foibles, and your challenges.
Chris can teach all of us, preacher and congregant alike, how to befriend our solitude and to find in it the one intimacy that orders all the others. He is the one who heard Jesus ask Peter, “Do you love me more than these,” and joined in the latter’s “yes” as we read in John 21, this exclusive love nourishes all the sheep.
As he struggled in his last years with the devastating ravages of cancer and diabetes, this core remained intact so that even his struggles gave a witness that strengthened others. In these times Chris grew from a preaching of words to a preaching of the whole of life. The weakening of his body laid bare the strength of soul God’s grace had crafted with his ongoing assent. He no longer needed to present himself through the medium of craft, because God’s craft had become so evident.
May he now behold that mystery he preached in power and in weakness.
These thoughts may be familiar to anyone who attended Chris’ funeral Mass on June 21 when on his 85th birthday we entrusted him to his God. Nevertheless, I would like make an essay of them for those who could not be free on that day.
May he rest in peace.