“Old friends become more and more precious to us as the years pass. They can look at us for who we once were and who we are now, appreciating the difficulties we have overcome, the abilities we have acquired, and the ways we have stayed true to ourselves.” ~ Wendy Lustbader
The past week has been filled with memories for me. Last week, I learned of the death of Msgr. Richard Zollinger. Some people called him Monsignor. Some called him Dick. Me? I — and many others I know — simply called him Z.
Z was a great influence to me and to what would become my priesthood. He was an associate pastor at St. Mary’s in Griffith where I grew up. After the pastor, Msgr. Hildebrandt, retired, Z became the pastor. He was also the vocation director for the Diocese of Gary and it was thus that my relationship with him transitioned from parishioner to seminarian.
He guided me in my discernment process before priesthood. Even when I left college seminary after the first two years to join the Franciscans and go to their college, Z was supportive of my doing my best to figure out what God was calling me to do.
When I left the Franciscans after graduating college and while in the novitiate before first vows, Z was supportive and asked me if I wanted to come back to the diocese. I told him that I wanted to think about it and took a year off from studies. I got a job at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Crown Point as an orderly and used the year off to discern.
When I was ready to commit, I sought him out and he got me into major seminary at St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein. We spent many of my days at home on vacation talking about priesthood and looking ahead. He was jubilant when this parish son was ordained to the priesthood and he sponsored the banquet after my First Mass.
Several years into ordination and after my spiritual director, Fr. Tim Benante, passed away, I asked Z if he would be comfortable becoming my spiritual director. We had many sessions together and I always felt supported as well as challenged. He always knew what to say to me when I needed to hear something the most.
Monday was his wake and yesterday was his funeral at his last parish before retirement, St. Thomas Aquinas in Knox. I made the reception of the body and wake service on Monday but could not attend the funeral yesterday as it was so far away and my first commitment was to my students at the all-school Mass. I could see him nodding as I made that decision to remain at home. He smiled and said, “Right choice.” He always reminded me that my first priority was to my community.
I will not miss him. That might sound strange, but I have not lost him. He is still with me in that great communion of saints and I will continue to seek his counsel. All of our old friends remain there with us in this life and for us in the life to come.
FAITH ACTION: Celebrate the memory of your old friends today and thank God for their gift to you while they were still among us. And, if any of your old friends are still alive, reach out and let them know how special they are to you.