Chad Judice

 

In Loving Memory of Father Joe Breaux

Why I called him Father: The impact of an authentic Vocation to the Priesthood

By: Chad Judice

Director of the Office of Catechetics

Diocese of Lafayette, La.

In the face of recent revelations of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the ongoing saga of the sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, it’s easy as a faithful layman to become discouraged and disenchanted with one’s faith. My immediate response to these events has been consistent and reassuring to my mind and heart with regards to the hierarchy of the Church. It’s not the man who makes the office, but rather the office that makes the man. I will defend the institution of the divine office of the pope, his bishops, and priest established by Jesus Christ until the day I die, but I refuse to defend the immoral actions of any individual who has held those offices over the past 2,000 years. (See Isaiah 22:19-25; Mt 16:16-18; Mt 18:15-18) These recent scandals say more about the moral corruption of the individuals themselves than they do about the truth of the teachings of the Catholic Church.

 

More often than not, our priests are holy men of God who answered His call to a life of service.  Overton Joseph Breaux’s life and service to others for over fifty years as a priest in the Diocese of Lafayette exemplifies this. Like any apologist in the face of misrepresentations of the faith, I would have to make the familiar distinction concerning the difference between his life as a man and the office he held as a priest. Despite this reality, when it came to Father Joe Breaux, it wasn’t the man who made the office or the office that made the man. It was both.

 

When another person impacts our lives in such a profound way that it is impossible to capture the experience in words, the level of intimate love in that relationship has transcended the human into the divine. He’s the first person I’ve lost who played a dominant role in leading me into union with Jesus Christ and His Church. The personal sense of loss and emptiness felt in the days following his death and funeral were something I’d never experienced before and may never again. After being able to mourn his loss, I’ve come to see that process as a gift that gave clarity to the relationship we had, the lessons he taught, and the incredible love that he gave.

 

I met Father Joe when I began a life changing journey at St. Thomas More Catholic High School in August of 2005. We were placed in the same small group at a retreat my first day as a member of the faculty. His smile was as inviting as it was sincere. It was the first time I directly experienced his ministry of “presence” that made him an icon, and it was instantaneously at work in my soul. As our friendship continued to grow, he shared an observation that I have never forgotten, “Chad, you do not know the capacity you have to love!”

 

That prophetic statement manifested itself in a tangible way in September of 2008 when my wife and I received a crushing pre-natal diagnosis for our second child. Our child’s projected quality of life based on modern medical science confirmed a preexisting condition that should have rendered him severely mentally disabled, afflicted him with ongoing health issues, and made him a life-long paraplegic. In that moment when it was too difficult for me to stand, I was able to fall into Father Joe’s arms. His reassuring presence made the reality of selfless love possible in the face of the most impossible circumstance.

 

Father Joe was the master of cultivating personal relationships that were a reflection of the intimacy God desires with each person He has created. The amount of people he touched in his many years at St Thomas More or in his multiple parishes as a diocesan priest are truly immeasurable. Reflecting on the depth of our friendship, I’ve come to realize it is just one narrative among many others in the story of one humble servant’s life. Joe’s willingness to share his own brokenness as the key to the redemption of his humanity made redemption in my brokenness and humanity a reality for me as well. He pastored me from spiritual infancy into spiritual adulthood.  Whether it was as a member of a men’s prayer group or as my spiritual director during my formation to lead retreats for high school students, I came to understand that what I did wasn’t the key to defining who I was.

 

In 1994 Walt Disney released what has become one their classic animated films, The Lion King. The movie’s central character is Simba, the son of King Mufasa. His ambitious and diabolical Uncle Scar is set on becoming king after Mufasa’s sudden death but knows that Simba is the rightful heir to the throne. In a spirit of deceit and manipulation Scar tricks Simba into forgetting his identity. He wanders into the wilderness and begins to associate with all the other animals who are nothing like him. Simba is deeply confused and conflicted about what to do and where to go. As the plot reaches an important turning point, Simba encounters Rafiki, a baboon whose character symbolizes the priesthood. He had anointed Simba at birth, leaving a permanent mark that identified him as an heir to a kingdom, and he has now found Simba at the weakest and most crucial moment of his life. Filled with truth and mercy, Rafiki quickly guides Simba to a pool of shallow water where he sees his father Mufasa’s image staring back at him. There in a moment of clarity, Simba finally realizes his father is not dead but instead lives on within him. He was the son of a king and an heir to his father’s kingdom. The cub who was lost is now the lion who is found. He is now ready to face himself and claim his rightful place on the throne to become who he had been created to be.

 

There isn’t a better analogy for the way Father Joe served his parishioners or the faculty, staff, students, and parents of St. Thomas More Catholic High School than this one from Disney’s The Lion King. Each person he journeyed with was able to come to self-awareness that unlocked the personal desire to be loved, find worth and belong to something greater, and identify the gifts God had bestowed that were as unique to that individual as they were irreplaceable. His shared wisdom was a catalyst of radical self-awareness leading one down a path of surrender to interior change and participation in a divine love that would transform the individual and the world. This is the gift his friendship gave me in the fourteen years I was able to journey with him and was blessed to receive. A gift I promised to give away in this life until we see each other again in the next.

 

Not a day has gone by since his death that I have not pondered one of the many significant moments we shared in our friendship. Moments that were building blocks God used to draw me closer to Himself and make His presence and work in my life more visible to me.  Those who knew Father Joe  intimately were aware of his personal fears of abandonment and being deemed insignificant when he could no longer serve in his sickness the way he once did in health. However, the shadow of his love and the imprint it left on others will never be forgotten.

 

Those he faithfully discipled became the fruit of his labors, and we won’t allow him to be abandoned or forgotten. (See Mt 7:16-19) Although the next generation of students at St. Thomas More will encounter Father Joe partially in their ministry, they will never get to experience the man behind the image that is memorialized on its walls. This is a bittersweet tragedy amidst the beauty of the legacy his priesthood and life left behind.

For Overton Joseph Breaux the office of the priesthood did indeed define the man, but his willingness to cooperate with God’s grace within the limitations of his humanity also defined his office. His fifty years of service and love embodied an authentic vocation to the priesthood and the gift of himself to others is the reflection of what Christ intended that office to be. In surrendering to God’s will in his battle against cancer, he didn’t just teach others how to live, he taught them how to die. Rest In Peace my Rafiki. I love you.

 

Father Joe Breaux, pray for us!


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