Tribute for a Fallen Friend

It seems that this time of year, far from being the joyful time of Christmas coming into the anticipation of a New Year, has become (for me at least) one of tragedy.  That’s spilled over into this blog, from reflections of my mother’s own Christmastime death (Delayed for My Appointment) to the tragic suicide of a fellow church member (The Funeral Message I Did Not Deliver).  Now tragedy has struck again with the death of one of my old Catholic Charismatic prayer group’s leader in a house fire.

When I came back to Chattanooga, TN in 1978 to my family business, I came armed with the Charismatic prayer group list put out in South Bend.  They listed the “Cornerstone Prayer Group” at the Roueché home.  For the next five years (with one break) I was a part of that group.  The Rouechés–Joe, his wife JoAnn and his eight children–became like a second family to me.

Obituaries these days tend to get a little out of hand, but his is spot on:

He was a faithful husband, a devoted father and grandfather, and a true friend to many. He was a loving, unpretentious man, totally content with the gifts God gave him…Joe was a happy and joyful man. He was known to many as “the hugger.” He was full of life and love and these gifts he shared with everyone he met. Though we are grieving for ourselves, we rejoice in knowing that he is gloriously united with his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as well as the family and friends that preceded him.

It’s hard to think about a more consistently and unconditionally loving human being than Joe Roueché.  And that wasn’t always easy in the years I was active in the prayer group.  The Cornerstone Prayer Group was an ecumenical, Charismatic prayer group with a Catholic base, complete with a membership that ranged from a Lookout Mountain attorney to sisters from Memorial Hospital.  In a community that tended to be class conscious and conventional, that wasn’t an easy road.  The accession of Pope John Paul II, with his less open view of ecumenical efforts in general and Charismatic ones in particular, complicated things.

And then we had our local problems.  First an errant Pentecostal proclaimed the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Holy Spirit (like the Muslims think we do) and insisted on Marian devotions.  Leaving these out was an unwritten rule in an ecumenical group and the result was predictably divisive.  So the group split, giving the Rouechés (and the rest of us) heartburn.

After these things the prayer group started a youth group.  I made three trips to Steubenville to the Youth Conference (and one to the Prayer Group Leaders’ Conference).  But, with our aforementioned problems, and doubtless conscious of its community image, the Church locally vacillated from unenthusiastic to hostile.  Much of that unfavourable message came through the local Catholic high school.

Alas, the Rouechés themselves were able to avoid that, as I noted last year:

Back in the early 1980’s, I was involved in a Catholic Charismatic prayer group.  We were under a great deal of pressure, some of which was of our own making and some of which came from a Church which didn’t really care much for what we were doing.  It was also the days of “if you want peace, work for justice,” the nuclear freeze, and other left-wing emphases which tended to deflect hierarchy and faithful alike from their relationship with God.

A major turning point for me took place on day when, while discussing things with one of our prayer group leaders, she mentioned that, because of the high tuition, she could not afford to send her eight children to Catholic school.  So they went to public school.

That revelation was the beginning of the end of me as a Roman Catholic.  I concluded that any church that was too bourgeois and self-satisfied not to subsidise its own needful children to attend the schools it wanted them to attend was too bourgeois to be an advocate for social justice.  So I took my leave on a course that’s best encapsulated in The Preferential Option of the Poor.

But the prayer group suffered again.  It was crunch time.  I left.  Joe and JoAnn stayed.

Through all of this Joe never lost his joy, never stopped hugging and loving people as he always had, and never lost his smile.  That joy went right up to the end and into eternity.  It’s an example for all of us–even when “I don’t know if my church loves me any more or not.” Joe knew that God’s love never fails, and our mustn’t either.

So today and always may the peace of love of God–both of which Joe exemplified–be with the Roueché family and friends, as they continue to celebrate a life lived to the fullest in Jesus Christ.

Note: after publishing this piece, this tribute appeared in the Chattanoogan.

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