By Robert R. Schwarz
"Every person who is suffering is on that cross . "
A priest during an interview a month before his retirement party —you would have thought it was New Year's Eve—on June 28, 2013 said, "I m going to try to be the most productive pastor emeritus I can be. " No one among the several hundred parishioners who packed the St. James school gymnasium that June night doubted Fr. William Zavaski's prophecy. Now, 18 months later, Fr. Bill shows little sign of resting from 45 years of priesthood, the last 18 as pastor of St. James Catholic Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois.
To satisfy the ongoing curiosity of many of the parish's more than 4,000 families who keep asking " what is Father Bill doing nowadays, ? " your reporter once again prevailed upon this 71-year-old man to sit still for a second interview and answer some questions. So, in summary , he's now celebrating Mass on weekends and Mondays at the Holy Family church in nearby Inverness ; the pastor there is Fr. Terry Keehan , one of Fr. Bill's former altar boys at St. James. In between funerals and weddings here and there , he says Mass at the Luther Village retirement home (" Whenever someone there needs help , I go and help out " ) . He leads an occasional spiritual retreat and will soon be performing priestly duties for senior citizens at St. James. Also , Cardinal Francis George has asked him to be a chaplain for all the newly ordained priests in the archdiocese.
Though he draws a small pension from the archdiocese, Fr. Bill identifies himself as a volunteer , an "independent agent. " As he once said, "I also want to work on my spiritual life, because, you know, that the older you get, the closer you get to those gates."
At a small table in his modest one-bedroom home in a residential neighborhood less that a 100 yards from the church parking lot, we talked about fun-things Fr. Bill has been up to. He related them with characteristic gusto slightly reminiscent of his persona seen on a St. James stage through decades of his cameo and other performances in Broadway musicals that never failed to elicit howls of laughter from his flock. Though the balding of his white hair has noticeably advanced, other aging has not; it's been merciful to Fr. Bill , allowing him to be as affable as he was playing FDR in " Annie" and as mobile as Fagan's pick pocketing fingers were in the recent St. James' "Oliver." Now and then , having said something which after a second or two of reflection he found humorous , he'd let loose with a guffaw : "HA ! "
Some of his spiritedness he says he owes to walking Merton , his ten-year-old Tibetan terrier named after the renown monk and author Thomas Merton . The dog at the moment was near our feet , either taking a nap or sulking over recently being scolded by his master for dipping into the kitchen garbage basket. " He's a pain in the neck, " the priest said with restrained affection. Fr. Bill maintains a three-times-weekly exercise regimen at a wellness center near Northwest Community Hospital. He is still recovering from surgery more than a year ago that repaired torn and detached eye retinas. "That was a little scary, " he said. "I prayed a lot. I still don't have great vision."
The man does have his share of recreation—well deserved for sure. There will be a six-week getaway in a rented house in Fr. Meyers, Florida this winter with two former seminary classmates . Traditionally in summer he plays cards and golf and hikes in New Buffalo, Michigan, where 17 years ago he and six of those seminary classmates purchased a home. " I have a lot more time to read, " he added. He reads library-borrowed novels, and is currently reading the non-fiction book " Sacred Fire " by celebrated author and lecturer Fr. Ronald Rolheiser. "I'm not bored . I'm having a great time."
His 'Mountain Top ' Experience In Israel
Then there was a virtual "mountain top " experience on his three-month sabbatical which , among other places, took him to Mt. Tabor in Israel where he was the principal presider at a Mass for his tour group of priests from various countries. (Mt. Tabor, the Bible tells us, is where three of Jesus' disciples saw their Master transfigured in celestial white light with Moses and Elijah . In Rome he stayed at the North America College, two blocks from the Vatican, and made a side trip to Assisi, the town known for its very own saint—St. Francis. "That was just wonderful, " Fr. Bill exclaimed.
What he misses most about his pastorate at St. James is "seeing the people every week ." He raised his voice to add: " I do not miss the administration at all ! It's a lot of work. I was in that office ten hours a day ! " Then , with obvious thanksgiving : " I no longer have a night meeting nor have to ask anybody for money. " In hindsight, would he have done anything differently? He paused in thought. " I don’t think so. I'm very happy with what we have done. " He mentioned the fact that the $88,000 parish debt , most of it for new school construction, was paid off a year after he left. "I felt very affirmed and think the people are happy with what we have done. "
Though Fr. Bill said he lives " one day at a time," his agenda for at least the next year appears fairly full. He likes to travel, and so there'll likely be a trip to India to visits Foundation for Children in Need , an ever-growing outreach to hundreds of needy children and adults ( St. James is a major sponsor of FCN ). . There'll be chaplain duties with those newly ordained priests , who will likely hear Fr. Bill's often quoted assertion that "being a pastor is the simplest job there is. All you have to do is love the people—and they'll love you back . " And waiting for him are rehearsals for his role in "Peter Pan," the church's musical for 2015.
Our conversation turned more serious when Fr. Bill was asked his advice for people who want to live Godly and simplified lives in spite of a culture that is stressful and complicated. He cut to the chase. " Spend some time each day with Jesus. The closer you get to Him, the less material things you'll need. I pray for three things each day: health, healing , and holiness. " He admitted that "it's challenging to live in this culture. "
As for the current culture, he said , "I thing we live in a moralistically warped society…but Christians have always had to live in it. " He pointed out the Christians who lived in the once pagan Roman society were "devout people who loved each other and were the best people they could be and had a moral sense and a value about them." Commenting on same-sex marriages and homosexuality, he quoted St. Thomas Aquinas: Any law that is written against the natural law is no law at all, and quickly added: " Some goofy judge thought he knew more than God did when he said two people of the same sex could get married. Well, that's nuts!"
He wasn't finished with the topic.
Reminded of his comments at our last interview about how pleased he was with the large number of St. James members involved in the churches' some 80 ministries, while displeased with the "number of families who don't take their faith seriously , " the priest said, "We have to pray that someone coming back into the church has God's grace and is motivated. We have to continually invite people. I think that parents have to model faith for their children , and we need to spend more time teaching adults as opposed to kids. Jesus taught adults and played with children. What do we do ? We teach children and play with adults. I think we have it screwed up."
His Home and the Unseen Crucifix Face of Jesus
Lastly , we talked about Fr. Bill's home life. Does he cut the grass, rake leaves , make his own house repairs, cook for himself ? "I'm on my own here," he said. " Fortunately, someone takes care of the lawn, but I'll be doing some gardening in the spring. My brother is a handyman and he comes over and does things for me , like fixing the porch ." Thanks to fellow parishioners who regularly invite him to dinner—and they know what he likes to eat—Fr. Bill does little cooking. " I'm well taken care of and grateful to God. " Unlike two of the recently sold parish homes, Fr. Bill's retirement home has not been sold . " I'm going to stay here until they throw me out ." He guffaws.
His kitchen also serves him as a workroom ; it has a desktop computer and a washer and a dryer. Hanging on the wall is a painting of two dear, now buried friends: "Maurice" and "Higgins" , air dales which once shared another home with Fr. Bill. Paintings, drawings, and art pieces—many given affectionately by parishioners or close friends, others purchased during his travels—came into view as we walked through the house. There is a painting of an Amish buggy on country road, a Lithuanian street scene done in sepia ( a gift from a bishop ) , several Lithuanian wood carvings and a crucifix crafted by a neighbor , a Tiffany designed lamp, a painting of the St. James altar by one-time local resident and noted artist Tom Lynch , and a retirement present of a quilt hangs on the staircase landing which has been stitched in the likeness of the large, round stain glass window that hangs above the St. James altar .
On the fireplace mantel's opposite ends are statuettes of Jesus and Mary. Over the fireplace is a large oil painting of his favorite scenes in Rome, which he bought during his sabbatical there.
On a wall in his bedroom are pen-and-ink sketches of St. Francis and the Last Supper. Covering Fr. Bill's bed is a beautiful , crazy quilt made for him in 1976 by two parishioners. Over his bed is a sacramental that perhaps is also a metaphor for this priest— and others like him. It is a carving of Jesus hanging on the cross with His head bowed quite low. You cannot see His face.
" Why this particular crucifix ?" I asked.
"I like it the most ," was the answer.
" Because you don't know what He's going through. " Then, in a whisper as if to himself, were his words: " Every person who is suffering is on that cross. I think of so many people who are suffering. "
All comments are welcome.
© 2014 Robert R. Schwarz