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What is Conversion?
I was privileged to have a priest uncle after whom I was named: Father Richard G. Pates, SJ. On the occasion of his burial at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, a dramatic event occurred. His body was carried in procession to Red Cloud Cemetery, which is small and hard-scrabbled. It was placed on a stand utilized to lower the body into the grave. At that moment, an outsized bald eagle appeared about 50 feet overhead. It circled my uncle’s body three times, very intentionally so. It then soared into the Western horizon and disappeared. It was amazing.
Upon reflection, it seemed fitting as the concluding note in my uncle’s life journey. In high school, he excelled academically and was a standout in athletics, earning multiple diving awards, and was the anchor on the offensive line of the Cretin football team. Among his peers he was popular and well-liked. In an era of abundant vocations, he joined the Jesuit order after high school. It led to priesthood.
Having survived the rigors of Jesuit formation, he emerged with an outgoing, affable spirit and much zeal for his chosen vocation. My cousins and I came to enjoy his company on “home visits.” He would borrow a convertible from his friends, and we would spend an enjoyable afternoon ride with the music cranked up. He also built on his relationships with his high school friends. His Jesuit character could not help but rub off on them.
His first assignment was as a religion teacher and athletic director at the Jesuit high school in Denver. The post-World War II Catholic culture was in high gear. Church structure and life were stable. Middle-class Catholics, almost exclusively Caucasian, focused on success. Expectations and a sense of generosity were well defined. Uncle Dick fit in well with the spirit and values of the time.
In the midst of a satisfying position, he was picked by the Jesuit responsible to become the superior of the St. Francis Indian Mission in St. Francis, South Dakota. There was a high school attached. Given the ambience, very scant resources and limited lifestyle, it was a new world for Father Dick.
Accompanied by Jesuit confreres, he entered into a culture that had been victimized for centuries. There were deep poverty, prevalent addiction, and induced societal depression originating from injustice over hundreds of years.
With his penchant for optimism, he applied himself to helping “those people.” He solicited college scholarships for promising young scholars. He spearheaded extensive housing developments through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Many on the reservation were able to leave behind their ramshackle housing to live with pride in their new homes. Countless hours were spent dealing with the scourges of addiction as well as facilitating recovery.
As his term at St. Francis Mission ended, Father Dick was assigned once again to high school teaching and serving as athletic director at Marquette High in Milwaukee. As he settled in, he realized this tour was far different than Denver. He had changed. No longer did the material possessions and certain elements of the middle-class ethic hold allure. It now became impossible for him to be indifferent to the poor and to the disadvantaged. He felt drawn to the Native Americans who had touched and expanded his heart.
Unable to quell his restlessness, he petitioned his superiors to reassign him to ministry among the Native Americans. He was sent to Mother Butler Center in Rapid City, which provided multi-faceted services for the Oglala Sioux. While serving as pastor and after a bingo night, two inebriated Indian young adults broke into the rectory. They were armed and in pursuit of the bingo cash.
An older Jesuit priest in his 80s living with my uncle died out of fright. They offered Father Dick the stark choice: be shot in the heart or in the buttocks. He chose the latter and survived.
Amazingly, my uncle did not react with bitterness, hate, or deep feelings of revenge. To the contrary, he forgave the intruders and accepted a philosophical attitude from a Christian perspective that identified him with the victimization of the people, the Native Americans.
Over the years, Father Dick had undergone a profound transformation. He continued to cherish his family, the friends from his youth and various assignments, and his religious confreres. The values of his earlier personal journey led to accepting the opportunity to become heroic by helping “those people.”
But his immersion with them challenged his indifference to their plight. He could not help but identify, have compassion, experience the Christ presence in unity with these brothers and sisters in the human family. He was irresistibly drawn to be one with them.
I think often of my Uncle Dick during these days when racial injustice has taken center stage. In his upbringing, he harbored no ill will toward other races or ethnic identities. Along with his generation, he was merely indifferent and, in a sense, complicit with racism and prejudice inherent in the prevailing culture. I reflect frequently that a widespread transforming conversion such as my uncle experienced will be the doorway to the breaking out of justice, peace and unity that resides at the bottom of our hearts.
Father Dick died while jogging. He was serving as pastor of St. Patrick Church in one of the USA’s poorest counties, Shannon, South Dakota. The outpouring of grievers was extraordinary. Almost totally Native American, they came to pay respect to one of their own, whom they had dubbed with the name “Good Eagle.”
The bald eagle then paid extraordinary tribute by circling his body three times, before Father Dick was laid to rest.