by Father Robert Lauder
In the May 20 edition of The Tablet there was a brief obituary for Msgr. George Deas. Though brief, it called to my mind some of the most wonderful memories I have of Father George Deas. For the past 50 years, George had been my regular confessor and spiritual director. For whatever good there is right now in my relationship with God, I owe George my gratitude.
George and I first met in 1952. At that time in Downtown Brooklyn on Washington and Atlantic Avenues there was a building that housed two educational institutions: Cathedral High School and Cathedral College. Most who graduated from the two-year college then went on to the major seminary in Huntington for six more years of study before they were ordained priests. In 1952, Archbishop Bryan McEntegart sent George, who at that time had been a priest for one year, to teach English at Cathedral High School. The same fall, I registered at Cathedral College for my first year in college. Some time during that fall, George and I met in that building. Apparently we quickly enjoyed one another’s company. How could either of us have guessed that the seeds that were planted in that fall of 1952 would blossom into a close friendship that would last 70 years?
George was exceptionally intelligent, and I mean exceptionally. His insights into the psychology of the human person seemed to equal those of a professional psychologist.
In 1967, when Archbishop McEntegart was opening Cathedral College Seminary in Douglaston, he assigned George and me as part of the first faculty: George was to be the spiritual director, and I was to teach philosophy. By this time George and I were close friends. In fact, George had become close to my family and had officiated at my sister’s wedding.
I don’t think I would ever describe Father George Deas as pious, but I have no problem describing him as holy, very holy, profoundly holy. At some point in his life George made a commitment to Christ, and that commitment seemed to deepen through the years. I would describe George’s consciousness and conscience as Christocentric. He looked at all of reality from the viewpoint of his faith in Christ. His commitment to Christ as the center of his life shed light on all his experience. It shed light on how he viewed literature, poetry, theater, film, politics, and it shed special light on how he approached other people, and on how he reflected on his relationship with God.
The French existentialist and personalist philosopher Gabriel Marcel claimed that human people in their lives should try to achieve what he called “disponibilité.” The word may be untranslatable, but the basic idea is that we should try to be available to others, sensitive to the needs of others, ready to help others, open to dialogue with others, present in such a way that an I-thou relationship might be nourished and develop. That word “available” describes Father George Deas perfectly. He was ready to listen, ready to respond. He loved to help people!
One of George’s assignments was to be one of the first five vicars in the Brooklyn Diocese. A vicar was to be the liaison between the bishop and pastors, priests, and parishioners in one fifth of the diocese. George’s commitment, availability, and goodness were now to extend either directly or indirectly to thousands.
Father George Deas’ last assignment was to be pastor of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament in Bayside. George loved being a priest, and he loved being a pastor.
Around the middle of April, I received a phone call from George. He said, “I called to say ‘Goodbye.’ I am dying. George was correct. He was dying but not yet. He died about a month after that call. The last month of his life had to be the most difficult. One of the key sufferings George experienced was not being able to be available to people. Each day he seemed to grow weaker.
In one of his books, Father Ronald Rolheiser wrote that the greatest gift we can give people is our death. I did not understand that until I witnessed the last month of Father George Deas’ life. He approached death with the same faith, hope, and trust that had motivated him during his 70 years as a priest. George’s room at the Bishop Mugavero Residence was next to mine, and so it was easy for me to visit him each day. Spending time with George each day of his last month, I came to understand Father Rolheiser’s statement.
In George’s last month there was no fear but only great peace. For a moment when George died I was tempted to think I had lost a wonderful friend. I don’t think that. When those we love or those who love us die in Christ, I believe they are present wherever Christ is. Because of that, I believe friendships and love relationships can increase after death. I believe Father George Deas will always be present in my life, not just in my memory, but really, personally present. And so I have begun not only to pray for George but to pray to him.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.