Update: Monsignor Tom Villerot passed away December 5, 2016, just weeks after this post was first written and shared. Please say a prayer for the repose of his soul
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Ninety-nine years ago, Our Lady of Fatima appeared in the miracle of the sun, America entered WWI, J.R.R. Tolkein began working on his opus magnum, The Silmarillion, and Monsignor Tom was born in Detroit, Michigan. If you do the math, you’ll notice that as a priest he’s prayed Mass on Sunday at least 3,800 times (again, that doesn’t include daily Mass), he’s heard at least 10,000 confessions, and, if he’s prayed the Liturgy of the Hours all five times a day for at least thirty years of his seventy-four year priesthood, that means he’s opened up his Breviary prayer book at least 50,000 times.
In the first year of major seminary at Sacred Heart, seminarians are sent out to visit and pray with patients and residents at local hospitals and nursing homes. I had the chance to visit with Msgr. Tom on a few occasions this semester at a local nursing home. Our conversations generally revolved around the Detroit Tigers, our families, and our time in the seminary. I’m convinced that five years from now I will forget almost every word of our conversations, yet I hope I never forget our final encounter.
A group of us seminarians all squeezed into his room this past week to say our final goodbyes before we began our assignment at a local hospital. He wouldn’t let us go before running through his usual selection of stories from his childhood and seminary days. When he told us about the time his dad broke out the belt once he caught him smoking cigarettes as a youngster, we laughed aloud together. When he shared the lessons he’d learned the hard way as a priest, we drank in every bit of wisdom that flowed from the chalice of his heart. As our time together came to a close, we asked him if he could give us a final blessing. He was more than eager to do so and sat up in his wheelchair. His eyes closed and his head slowly began to droop as he prepared to enter into dialogue with his lifelong Intimate Friend. His tone of voice softened as he spoke, “Father…”
Suddenly, the sounds of the P.A. system calling for assistance in Room 213, the scraping of the wheels of walkers trudging through the hallways, and Wolf Blitzer’s voice blaring from the TV in the next room all began to fade. Silence took the place of time as this humble shepherd led us into the presence of the Eternal God. We all leaned forward a bit so we wouldn’t miss a single word.
“Father,” he began again, “we ask you to bless these men.” He paused. Perhaps he was taking the time to craft the perfect prayer in his head before speaking it aloud. Perhaps he was trying to find the right words to convey to us the goodness of God. Perhaps he simply couldn’t function as quickly as he used to and was using all the strength he had in him to stay focused on this one prayer. When he finally spoke again, his words did not flow together cohesively. It took a great amount of attention on our part to discern what words he was trying to say amidst his mumbling.
Eventually, his focus turned from addressing God to addressing all of us. He slowly lifted up his head so he could look each one of us in the eye. I will never know with certainty what it was that he saw when he looked at us. Did he see in us the younger version of himself: young men passionate to give our lives in service for the Lord while still naïve about the crosses that will come our way? Did our presence remind him of how quickly the time had gone for him? Was his heart filled with regrets as he considered all the ways in which he could have done more over the years to love God and others? Whatever it was that he saw, it caused a tear to run down his face and dangle from the tip of his nose.
“Keep up the hard work,” he told us. “It’s worth it.” His face relaxed a bit and a small glimmer of light twinkled in his eyes. Though his body was still in 2016, his mind had suddenly been calmed by a brief visit to the 1920s. “When you were kids, maybe you used to play Mass.” At this we all chuckled. “But soon…” All of a sudden his face began to scrunch up. He brought his fragile hands together and raised them slightly off his lap. His voice broke into a higher pitch as he spoke, “Soon you will be able to say, ‘This is my body.” He sniffled. “This is my blood.” His head and hands slowly drooped back down and only the sound of his sniffs could be heard. We all looked with great admiration on this faithful servant. While he thought of the right words to end his prayer, I quickly prayed in my own heart, “Lord, grant that I may have Msgr. Tom’s perseverance. May I cling to you to the end.”
When he raised his head again, he looked each of us in the eye one more time. His gaze pierced right through the shortcomings, the insecurities, and the worries that surrounded our young hearts. Though he is practically blind, he had developed a vision of another kind over his lifetime. He saw something in us that we could not see ourselves that prompted him to conclude, “You guys are the light of the world…You are the light of the world.” He paused once more, knowing he had said everything he needed to say, and lifted up his right hand. “And may the blessing of Almighty God…the Father…the Son…and the Holy Spirit…come down upon you…and remain with you…forever.”
“Homes for the elderly should be the ‘lungs’ of humanity in a country, in a neighborhood, in a parish; ‘sanctuaries’ of humanity where those who are old and weak are cared for and taken care of like a brother or a sister. It’s good for you to go and visit senior citizens! Young people, who sometimes seem so miserable and sad: Go visit an elderly person and you will become joyful!”