By Robert Lockwood*
The first time I met Father Ronald Lawler, O.F.M. Cap., he was about an hour late. This was not an uncommon experience with that good Franciscan priest who died last week after a two-year struggle with cancer.
When he finally arrived at the airport, he explained without guile that he forgot about me. He apologized, then insisted on buying lunch to make up for his tardiness.
So there we sat, wolfing down cheeseburgers (“My doctor says that I should avoid red meat - he’s a great man, though he needs to give more reasonable advice.”) We discussed this, that and the other thing, all of it woven together by the two subjects that always dominated his thoughts: God’s love, and how each is called to lead the great life, even doctors with bad advice.
Over his beer and my Diet Coke, we dawdled a bit with Scripture. “I think mankind’s greatest fear,” he mused, “is that Jesus truly meant everything he said.”
One never left a conversation with Father Lawler without a thought to revisit as the day went on.
Father Lawler was a theologian, scholar and a teacher. His former students include Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. He was co-author along with his brother Thomas and Bishop Donald Wuerl of Our Sunday Visitor’s best-selling catechism, The Teaching of Christ.
Father Lawler taught at Catholic University, St. John’s University and St. Thomas University, among other institutions. He was the founding president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and was the only American on the Pontifical Roman Theological Academy. He worked in the Diocese of Pittsburgh since 1990 assisting in the diocese’s efforts in adult formation.
I knew of that Father Lawler, of course. But the Father Lawler I came to know personally in his last years was a priest as comfortable talking with three-year-olds as with theology students.
When dropping by the office for a visit, he always had a tale to tell of one of the children from the legion of families that he worked with, like a grandfather who goes on and on.
Like any grandfather, he knew his role. “I give them candy and ice cream,” he explained, “and I have become great in their eyes.” But it was more than that, of course. He evangelized at every moment to every audience, small child or adult theologians.
The word “great” was always on his lips. He reminded people that they could be great, even if they were not so sure they could live up to the task. I asked him exactly what he meant by the “great life.” He answered simply that, “the Catholic life is the great life.”
Helping people to attain - and to want - that great life was all that mattered to him. By great, of course, he meant holy. Will Rogers might have never met a man he didn’t like; Father Lawler never met a person who couldn’t be holy. He saw that potential in everyone, and was not at all embarrassed to remind you of that regularly, though it might embarrass you.
When he cited Scripture he would often have difficulty holding back the tears. The good news of Jesus Christ was so good, that it made him cry with happiness.
The cancer that struck him was more an inconvenience to his work than a demon to be fought. Some people battle cancer; some people surrender to it. Father Lawler was simply not interested enough to make it the focus of his efforts. He never really thought that he would beat cancer. Rather, he assumed it would lose interest in him. As the symptoms grew worse and worse he seemed to think of it more as the Great Annoyance than anything else.
He died November 5 at age 77.
Father Lawler was a man who believed. In every fiber of his being, he believed. It is what made him a great man.
* Robert Lockwood is Director of Communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. First published in The Pittsburgh Catholic.