Last Wednesday members of the Saint Ignatius community past and present gathered in the St. Mary of the Assumption Chapel before the start of the school day to remember Jim Skerl ’74 in a special way by celebrating the Eucharist together. Throughout the liturgy my thoughts went often to Jim and to my other great mentor, friend, and colleague Mike Pennock ’64. Mike passed into eternal life ten years ago on June 24, 2009, to be followed five years later by Jim on October 23, 2014.
Dates are important to us. We remember not only birthdays and wedding anniversaries, but days like July 4, 1776, November 22, 1963, and 9/11/2001. Sometimes we are able to see something beautifully poetic associated with such commemorative dates. My brother John, who lived for only a few hours, was born and died on my paternal grandfather’s birthday. Last year my dad died on that same day, October 29.
So as I was remembering Jim and Mike I began to think about their death dates and what mystery God has woven into them.
Jim Skerl was quite proud of his Slavic heritage, and so it was fitting that he shared a birthday with our lone Slavic pope, St. John Paul II. And in the syllabus for Jim’s signature Christian Manhood course he stated that the basis for the class was the philosophical outlook known as Christian Personalism – a school of thought made prominent by the work of a number of scholars at the Catholic University of Lublin, especially the acclaimed ethicist Karol Wojtyła. Wojtyła went on to become St. John Paul II, and his feast day was first celebrated on October 22, 2014. Jim Skerl died the next day.
Mike Pennock worked tirelessly in his proclamation of the Good News of Jesus, bringing that message to over 15,000 students in the classroom and another 2 million students through his textbooks. Mike was relentless in his desire to make Our Lord and His teaching known to his students at Saint Ignatius and around the world. As his publisher, Ave Maria Press, noted in their official obituary, “It is appropriate that Mike passed on June 24, 2009, the birthday of St. John the Baptist. John was God’s herald…and for over thirty years Mike has been a herald of his Savior, Jesus Christ.”
As the Mass for Jim drew to its conclusion and the final hymn was begun it hit me again just how important dates and anniversaries can be. The Mass concluded in the same way that so many Saint Ignatius Masses conclude – with the hymn “Sing We Now to You, O Mary.” This beautiful tribute to the Mother of God, Our Lady, and Patroness of the Society of Jesus was written by an alumnus of Saint Ignatius High School, the newly ordained Fr. Raymond Guiao, S.J. ’82.
Few schools have an alma mater that is known and sung by their alumni and alumnae on a regular basis. Saint Ignatius is one of those schools. But even fewer schools have a second song, especially a sacred hymn, that rivals the alma mater itself in popularity. Because of the musical gifts of Fr. Guiao, Saint Ignatius is such a school.
I opened the hymnal to the inside back cover where a printed copy of the hymn is pasted, and I noticed that the copyright date was 1999 – twenty years ago. And, as I found out later, the Mass where the hymn made its world premiere took place on October 7 of that year.
Here, as with all such intertwined events and dates, the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley apply: the poetic “lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world.” For on October 7, 1999 as we dedicated a chapel named for Mary at a Mass which included a special hymn written in honor of Mary, Catholic churches around the world unknowingly joined us in prayer as they celebrated the feast for that day: the Memorial of Mary, Our Lady of the Rosary.