“Harbor No Doubts About What a Source of Encouragement, Joy, and Consolation You Are to Me”

Posted January 16, 2014 / Last updated January 23, 2014

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With Grace and Candor, Fr. Raymond Fitzgerald, S.J. Talks Directly to Blue Jays About His ALS at a Special Assembly

Fr. Fitzgerald's candor, encouragement, and positive outlook in his talk at Assembly were just what Blue Jays needed after learning about his illness

After Fr. Fitzgerald’s talk at a special Assembly on Wednesday, Jan. 15, several students came up to him to shake his hand, show support, and wish him well.

Inside the Clarion-Herald… An article written by editor and Jesuit alumnus Peter Finney, Jr. ’74…

Fr. Fitzgerald: In Sickness or Health, Praise, Reverence, and Serve God

One day after informing the Jesuit High School community that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and intends to step down from the president’s office after the conclusion of the 2013-2014 school year, Fr. Raymond Fitzgerald, S.J. ’76 took to the podium at a special morning Assembly on Wednesday, Jan. 15 to speak directly to 1,410 Blue Jays about the short and long-term realities of his illness.

“Let’s get the bad news out of the way,” said Fr. Fitzgerald. “There is no cure and ALS proceeds to greater loss of muscle functions.” The good news, he said, is that ALS does not affect cognitive functions. “Moreover, the process takes its time and the disease can move along in a gradual, not to say, stately pace.”

Father was initially diagnosed last summer with ALS, which is also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and it was confirmed in October 2013. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), ALS is a “rapidly progressive and invariably fatal disease that attacks the nerve cells (neurons) responsible for controlling voluntary muscles.”

He told students that he is doing what he can to slow down the progression of the disease. He is taking a medication and goes to physical therapy, where the exercises are designed to help him maintain as much muscle function as possible.

Fr. Fitzgerald said his immediate plans are to continue serving as president for the remainder of the school year and to remain at Jesuit beyond that “as long as feasible.”

Echoing what he told faculty and staff on Tuesday, as well as parents of current students, Fr. Fitzgerald said he is open to discussing ALS and the status of his condition with anyone, although he hastened to add that the disease should by no means be the only topic of conversation on the agenda.

Wearing his sense of humor on his sleeve, Father elicited laughter from some students when he suggested that there are a variety of other interesting and instructive items to “chat about — New Orleans restaurants, the care and feeding of zombies, and Greek verbs, to name but three.”

Looking out over the Assembly, Fr. Fitzgerald said he considered himself “blessed” to be able to do his duty because each day, he has the opportunity to serve God and the means of so doing. “Therefore, my good brothers, this morning I desire to offer something to you and to ask something from you,” he said. “To you, I wish to offer my personal witness to two items from the spiritual arsenal of St. Ignatius.”

The first item is found in the introduction to The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and is known as “the first principle and foundation.” As Father explained to the students, “The purpose of our being here is to praise, reverence, and serve God, our Lord. God gives us the means of doing this each day. Good or ill health doesn’t enter into it. With the witness of my life, I wish to assure you that this is true.”

The second item is the truth found in the Suscipe, also known as St. Ignatius’s prayer “Take and Receive,” particularly in the closing line: Give me only your love and your grace, and that is enough for me.

“It is true that God never fails to give us His love and His grace,” said Fr. Fitzgerald, who then told Blue Jays that he wished to ask three things of them. “The first is your help — you have the strength that I will increasingly lack. Second, your prayers — something that we can always do for one another. The third, quite simply, is being yourselves — yourselves both as you are and as God is forming you to be.”

Fr. Fitzgerald instructed them to “harbor no doubts about how good you are and can be; harbor no doubts about what a source of encouragement, joy, and consolation you are to me.”

Repeating that God has given him abundant blessings in his life, Fr. Fitzgerald added, “Among the greatest of these is sharing these years with you.”

He paused for a second or two before continuing. “Now certainly, you can be entertaining, enlightening, and engaging. But beyond that, I have come to realize that I am privileged to be here at Jesuit at a time when I can stand in the hallway and find myself in the presence of saints, for saints do walk among us in greater numbers than one might suspect.”

Fr. Fitzgerald smiled at the wonderment reflected in a few astonished faces. “Sainthood is truly how good you are capable of becoming,” he affirmed.

“And so the longer term future will be what it is,” Father concluded. “This day, each one of us has a task in becoming the person that God calls us to be today. Let us now be about this task.”

When the students heard Father impart the usual words to disperse them, “This concludes this morning’s Assembly,” they gave him sustained applause. As Blue Jays scattered to their respective classes, many approached Father to shake his hand and wish him well.

Later in the day, at a regular scheduled meeting of the President’s Advisory Council (PAC), Arthur Mann ’64, who is president of Jesuit’s board of directors, recalled a conversation he had with Fr. Fitzgerald not long after the medical diagnosis was confirmed last fall.

“I met with Father to discuss where do we go from here, but I was still trying to comprehend this incredibly sad news,” said Mann. “I remember thinking that here is a priest, and a young priest at that, but also a man with human needs. It made me wonder if he had a bucket list. So I asked him if he had a bucket list, something he wanted to do more than anything. His response was immediate and clear. ‘Being president of Jesuit High School is my bucket list,’ he told me. ‘Every day is new, different, challenging, and rewarding. This is what I want to do. I want to be with my family.’”