In Memoriam Rev. John Rausch (1945-2020)

Peggy and I were shocked Sunday night when we received the stunning news that Fr. John Rausch, a very dear friend of ours, had died suddenly earlier in the day. John was a Glenmary priest whom we had known for years. He was 75 years old.

At one point, John lived in a log cabin below our property in Berea, Kentucky. So, we often found ourselves having supper with him there or up at our place. John was a gourmet cook. And part of having meals with him always involved watching his kitchen wizardry while imbibing Manhattans and catching up on news – personal, local, national, and international. Everything was always interspersed with jokes and laughter.

That’s the kind of man John was. He was a citizen of the world, an economist, environmentalist, prolific author, raconteur, and social justice warrior. But above all, John was a great priest and an even better human being full of joy, love, hope, fun, and optimism.

Yes, it was as a priest that John excelled. Everyone who knew him, especially in the progressive wing of the Catholic Church, would agree to that. Ordained in 1972 [just seven years after the closure Vatican II (1962-’65)] John never wavered in his embrace of the Church’s change of direction represented by the Council’s reforms.

According to the spirit of Vatican II, the Church was to open its windows to the world, to adopt a servant’s position, and to recognize Jesus’ preferential option for the poor.  John loved that. He was especially fervent in endorsing Pope Francis’ extension of the option for the poor to include defense of the natural environment as explained in the pope’s eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’. (To get a sense of John’s concept of priesthood and care for the earth, watch this al-Jazeera interview that appeared on cable TV five years ago.)

His progressive theology delighted John’s audiences who accepted the fact that Vatican II remains the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. So, as two successive reactionary popes (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) subtly attempted to reverse conciliar reforms, and as the restorationist priests and bishops they cultivated tried mightily to turn back the clock, John’s insistence on the new orthodoxy was entirely refreshing.

I remember greatly admiring the shape of John’s homilies that (in the spirit of Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium) were always well-prepared and followed the same pattern:

  1. He’d begin with two or three seemingly unrelated vignettes involving ordinary people with names and usually living in impoverished Appalachian contexts.
  2. For the moment, he’d leave those word-pictures hanging in the air. (We were left wondering: “What does all that have to do with today’s readings?”)
  3. Then, on their own terms, John would explain the day’s liturgical readings inevitably related to the vignettes, since Jesus always addressed his teachings to the poor like those in John’s little stories.
  4. Finally, John would relieve his audience’s anxiety about connections by perfectly bringing the vignettes and the readings together – always ending with a pointed challenge to everyone present.

The result was invariably riveting, thought-provoking and inspiring. It was always a special day whenever Fr. John Rausch celebrated Mass in our church in Berea, Kentucky.

Nevertheless, John’s social justice orientation often did not resonate with those Catholics out-of-step with official church teaching. These often included the already mentioned restorationist priests and bishops who harkened back to the good old days before the 1960s. Restorationist parishioners sometimes reported Fr. Rausch to church authorities as “too political.”

But Fr. Rausch’s defense was impregnable. He was always able to appeal to what he called “the best-kept secret of the Catholic Church.” That was the way he described the radical social encyclicals of popes from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) through Pius XII’s Quadragesima Anno (1931), Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (1965), and Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ (2015).

John was fond of pointing out that all of those documents plus a host of others were consistently critical of capitalism. They favored the demands of working classes, including living wages, the right to form labor unions, and to go out on strike. Other documents were critical of arms races, nuclear weapons, and modern warfare in general. “You can’t get more political than that!” John would say with his broad smile.

All that perseverance on John’s part finally paid off when his local very conservative bishop was at length replaced by a Franciscan friar whom I’ve described elsewhere as “channeling Pope Francis.” I’m referring to John Stowe whose brown-robe heritage had evidently shielded him from the counter-reforms of the two reactionary popes previously mentioned.

When Bishop Stowe assumed office, he evidently recognized John as a kindred spirit. He respected his knowledge of Appalachia and his desire to connect Church social teachings with that context.  So, the new bishop asked John to take him on an introductory tour of the area. John was delighted to oblige. He gave Bishop Stowe the tour John himself had annually led for years. It included coal mines, the Red River Gorge, local businesses, co-ops, social service agencies, local churches, and much more. John became Bishop Stowe’s go-to man on issues involving those represented by the experience.

But none of that – not John’s firm grounding in church social teaching, not his success as a liturgist and homilist, not his acclaimed workshops on economics and social justice, not his long list of publications, nor his advisory position with Bishop Stowe – went to John’s head.

He never took himself that seriously. He was always quick with the self-deprecating joke or story.

In fact, he loved to tell the one about his short-lived movie career. (I’m not kidding.)  It included what he described as his “bedroom scene” with actress Ashley Judd. It occurred in the film, “Big Stone Gap.” I don’t remember how, but in some way, the film’s director needed a priest for a scene where Ms. Judd was so deathly ill that they needed to summon a member of the clergy. John was somehow handy. So, he fulfilled the cameo role playing himself at the bedside of Ashley Judd. (See for yourself here. You’ll find John credited as playing himself.) Right now, I find myself grinning as I recall John’s telling the tale. It always got a big laugh.

Other recollections of John Rausch include the facts that:

  • For a time, he directed the Catholic Committee on Appalachia.
  • He also worked with Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center (AMERC) introducing seminarians to the Appalachian context and its unique culture.
  • He published frequently in Catholic magazines and authored many editorials in the Lexington Herald-Leader. John’s regular syndicated columns reached more than a million people across the country. 
  • He had a strong hand in the authorship of the Appalachian bishops’ pastoral letter “At Home in the Web of Life.”
  • He led annual pilgrimages to what he called “the holy land” of Appalachia as well as similar experiences exploring the culture and history of the Cherokee Nation.
  • He was working on his autobiography when he died. (I was so looking forward to reading it!)

More Personally:

  • He graciously read, advised, and encouraged me on my own book about Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’.
  • I have fond memories of one Sunday afternoon when he invited me to a meeting in his living room with other local writers. We were to read a favorite selection from something each of us was working on.
  • John often came to my social justice related classes at Berea College to speak to students about Appalachia its problems, heroines and heroes. (Of course, to my mind, John ranked prominently among them.)
  • He gave a memorable presentation along those lines in the last class I taught in 2014. John was a splendid engaging teacher.

Peggy and I are still reeling from the unexpected news of this wonderful human being’s death. For the last day we’ve been sharing memories of John that are full of admiration, reverence, sadness – and smiles. It’s all a reminder of our own mortality and of the blessing of a quick, even sudden demise.

Along those lines, one strange thought that, for some reason, keeps recurring to me is that John’s passing (along with that of another dear friend last month) somehow gives me (and John’s other friends) permission to die.

I don’t know what to make of that. It might simply be that the two men in question (like Jesus himself) have gone before us and shown the way leading to a new fuller form of life. Somehow, that very fact makes the prospect of leaving easier. Don’t ask me to explain why or how.

Thank you, John.   

Showdown in Buffalo Holler (Personal Reflections Pt. IV)

Holiness

As I said last week, while Peggy, our growing family and I were “homesteading” in Appalachia, I learned a lot from our neighbors who lived in a small trailer on a lot next to ours that used to be a garbage dump. Neither Jimmy Lee nor Letty got beyond sophomore status in high school. But they were in many ways far ahead of us. They could build a house as they did together from recycled lumber. Jimmy Lee could do plumbing, electrical work, roofing and auto repair including bodywork and painting. (He was roughly my age.) Family income came from all that, but also from disability checks, food stamps, and welfare payments.

Those neighbors and what I was learning from teaching “Issues and Values” at Berea College influenced us in more ways than I can tell. Our neighbors were very kind and tolerant of us stupid college professors who didn’t know nothin’.

At the time, “Issues and Values” had us reading Silent Spring, Limits to Growth, Small is Beautiful, The No-Growth Economy, Food First, World Hunger: Twelve Myths, Blaming the Victim, and Diet for a Small Planet. Peggy and I also read Mother Earth News every month, and the National Catholic Reporter every week. All of that radically changed our way of thinking and made us want to simplify our lives.

So we dug our own well, because there was no “city water” where we lived. We heated our house entirely from a “Baby Bear” wood stove. That had me spending a lot of time cutting wood, stacking it and splitting it to keep the house warm.  It also meant that our water pipes would freeze periodically. So winter had me crawling in the dirt under the house with torch and solder, repairing our pipes. (It took me a while to learn how to do that without leaving drips.) Inevitably, when we had guests from either side of our family, our water would run out and we’d end up hauling water from a nearby pond to flush toilets. (Our families thought we were completely nuts.)

We also built a solar addition to our house. It was South-facing; with its entire wall in that direction made from recycled sliding glass doors. The floors in the two new rooms were brick (to absorb and store heat). The brick came from the torn-down Sears Building on Berea’s campus. We had gathered it and hauled it home in our old red Ford truck. In front of the windows we stationed eight 50 gallon barrels filled with water – again to store and radiate solar heat. (The barrels by the way came from a nearby ice cream factory. They had been filled with chocolate. So at the bottom of each was a large circle of covering for Eskimo Pies. Of course we broke all of that out and stored it in our refrigerator. That kept us in chocolate for years it seemed.) Our addition also featured a solar chimney to keep the room cool in the summer.

One Saturday a study group from nearby Appalachia Science in the Public Interest came by to examine our “model home.” That was about 1980 – just before the Reagan administration came into office and worked so hard to combat, reverse and defeat the environmental movement.

Besides the solar addition, I also dug a basement for our entire house. It started out as a root cellar (like the one our neighbors had). But then (using a mattock, wheel barrow, and shovel) I just kept expanding the excavation till we had an entire basement. From time to time friends would come by and help me dig. Then we had a carpenter-friend from our church pour a floor, and finish the thing. So we ended up nearly doubling the size of our house. We now had an additional large bedroom, another bathroom and a family room. And besides, all of that kept me from getting fat on Peggy’s gourmet cooking.

We had the only phone in Buffalo Holler. So our neighbors were often in our kitchen making calls. At Thanksgiving and Christmas we celebrated in each other’s home. Jimmy Lee and Letty were the Appalachians Berea College was teaching me about.  That meant they had inherited a rich culture. It included music, food, language (with expressions directly from Shakespeare’s England) and Holiness religion. Jimmy Lee played the guitar.

Several times Letty invited Peggy and me to Holiness Church Saturday evening worship. It took place in a shack not 15 feet from a railroad track located about two miles from where we lived. When trains went by, the entire place shivered as if the Holy Spirit were descending upon us all. There was hymn singing, spiritual gyrating, speaking in tongues, and preaching that went on and on — no snake handling though. At one meeting Peggy and I were prayed over and anointed.

None of this is to idealize our neighbors or neighborhood. The road in front of our house was unpaved. So there were waves of dust in the summer time and mud that wouldn’t end in the winter. On those cold days we had to back up a hundred yards to “get a run” at the hill just to get out of the holler and drive to the college. Inevitably before the hill’s peak, the car would balk, struggle and swerve back and forth in the mud or snow and sometimes not make it. So it was back to the bottom of the hill; get another run going and try again. You should have seen the deep ruts in the mud near that hilltop.

One day we woke up to find our car up on blocks in front of our house with all of the wheels gone. On another occasion, during a snow storm (and to avoid the morning struggles up that hill), we parked our little Subaru at the bottom of the hill about a half-mile from our home. When we returned the next morning, the car was on its head. Evidently, some of “the boys” had come by and decided to play us a trick. They picked the car up and flipped it over. We never again left the car like that out of our sight.

There was lots of alcoholism in the holler. Cars would race up and down the unpaved road in front of our house raising waves of dust in the process. One day, when Patrick was still a baby, Peggy had enough of it. She went down to Letty and Jimmy Lee’s to complain. They agreed to do something about it.

Next morning, about 6:00 their son, Billy Jim did. He was in his early twenties at the time and had already been in and out of jail for burglaries and drugs.  On this particular occasion, Billy Jim had been “a-drinkin’” as his father always put it.

Billy Jim wanted to fight me. “Mock,” he called from the road.  “Mock, get your ass out here!”

I went out on the road still in my pajamas and slippers. “Mock,” Billy Jim slurred, “Yesterday, your woman come down to our trailer – on our property, mind you! And her a-complainin’ about me makin’ noise and raisin’ dust. I don’t like that! Who does she think she is? Now you and me can have it out here with guns or knives or bare fists. What’ll it be?”

Now at this point I realized the conversation was going to end badly.  I hadn’t thrown a punch at anyone since grade school. But thankfully, about then our six-month old Patrick started crying from inside our house.  I said, “Billy Jim, listen. Peggy was worried about our kids, and especially about the baby crying there. Do you hear him? You understand I’m sure: she’s a mother; she’s worried about her baby.”

At that, Billy Jim got more thoughtful. “Well, yeah . . .” he muttered after a moment or two; “I guess you’re right.”

“And anyway,” I continued, “I wouldn’t like to see you lose your driver’s license.”

That was exactly the wrong thing to say.

“What?!” Billy Jim shouted. “You gonna call the Law on me? You gonna call the Law on me!! You do that and I swear I’ll take my car and run right over the top of your’n – and you in it! Y’ear me?!”

I don’t remember what I said to that. But eventually things quieted down. We talked some more and parted “friends” – I guess.

In the midst of all that, Peggy finished her graduate studies. She received her doctorate in Education at UK and wrote an award-winning dissertation on Paulo Freire – the great Brazilian educator whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed had influenced literacy programs throughout the Third World. The American Education Research Association identified Peggy’s work as the “Outstanding Dissertation Award for Conceptual Research.” I was so proud of her! That was in 1986.

Freire’s method of teaching and learning was central to the methodology of liberation theology, which had increasingly seized my attention since I first encountered it in 1969. It also had connections with Letty and Jimmy Lee who had in some ways — I’m sure you can see — had become our teachers. (More about that next week . . .)