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.   

“Run, Ashley, Run!”

ashley-judd

So Mitch McConnell and his staff think Ashley Judd’s bouts with depression and her understandings of Christianity are hilarious. That’s the impression emerging from a meeting of the senator with his staff as recently reported in Mother Jones.

Perhaps instead their hilarity should make us rethink Mitch himself and his fitness for holding public office. Let’s hope it convinces Ms. Judd to rethink her decision about opposing McConnell in 2014. Here’s what I mean . . . .

Until recently film star Ashley Judd had considered running against ole Mitch for his Senate seat. So his staff was huddling about how to discredit this well-known movie star who also happens to be a graduate of Harvard’s J.F. Kennedy School of Government. Apparently, however one staff member was a mole.

Whatever happened, someone recorded the conversation and later released it to Mother Jones. An article based on the transcript showed the McConnell team as a rowdy bunch of “good old boys” having a great time yucking it up about mental illness, environmentalists and of understandings of faith actually daring to differ from their own.

As her autobiography makes clear, Ms. Judd brings those issues together in ways that might appeal to constituents actually living in the twenty-first century, rather than with Mitch, his staff, and the best minds of the Civil War South.

Evidently, those minds have a hard time wrapping themselves around issues that really impact people’s lives such as poverty, climate change and coal’s relationship to global warming. They have difficulty understanding the concept of patriarchy and its impact on women (and men and children!), and that Christianity might not be synonymous with their own Bible-thumping fundamentalism.

So the boys had some good laughs talking over Ms. Judd’s well-known bouts with depression which she has documented in her autobiography. They seemed to agree that far from evincing a rather high degree of maturity, facing up to mental illness, writing about it, and helping others with similar problems make anyone permanently unfit to hold public office. Instead, they implied those who consider mental illnesses laughable are best fit to lead.

The boys also strategized about painting Ms. Judd as an unstable carpetbagger – because of her residence in Tennessee (though she spent the majority of her early years in Kentucky). Furthermore, she takes climate chaos seriously and so could be painted as “anti-coal.”

But above all, staffers gloated, she has these crazy ideas about Christianity! Yeah, she thinks it’s played into the hands of the “patriarchy.” How crazy is that? She actually thinks that God is much bigger than the concepts of male and female. She has this insane idea that the church is too male-dominated and might benefit from women pastors and preaching and who knows what else?

And “Get this,” one of them guffawed, “Judd actually wrote

I still choose the God of my understanding as the God of my childhood. I have to expand my God concept from time to time, and you know particularly I enjoy native faith practices, and have a very nature-based God concept. I’d like to think I’m like St. Francis in that way. Brother Donkey, Sister Bird.”

Evidently, that last line was just too much for everyone. The laughter got even more out of control. Apparently laughing through his tears, one meeting participant managed to get out “Brother Donkey, Sister Bird! That’s my favorite line so far. Absolute favorite one so far!” Ha, ha, ha!

Imagine a person actually taking seriously someone like Francis of Assisi, the 13th century spiritual father of the environmental movement. That particular nut once preached a sermon to birds—”my little sisters”— and referred to his own body as the “Brother Donkey.” How crazy was that?

And imagine a person needing to rethink her concept of God on a regular basis! Ha, ha, ha!

Ashley, you are what Kentucky needs. It’s time for us to ditch Mitch. He’s so 1862!

Run, Ashley, run!