by Fr. Joe Nassal, C.PP.S., Provincial Director
(This is the homily preached at the Mass of Christian Burial on December 10, 2013 in Carthatgena, Ohio.)
In 2005, Msgr. Stephen Rosetti, a priest of the Diocese of Syracuse and Director of St. Luke’s Institute, wrote a book called, The Joy of Priesthood. A licensed psychologist, Msgr. Rosetti followed that book in 2011 with an extensive study that included interviews with almost 2,500 priests. He called the study, Why Priests Are Happy. One of his conclusions in these books is that “happiness in the priesthood flows from both wholeness and holiness.”
Msgr. Rosetti did not interview Father Al Fey for his study of why priests are happy, but he could have used Father Al as his model for the joy of priesthood. Indeed, it would have been appropriate to put the smiling face of Father Al Fey on the cover of these books. The joy that Fr. Al reflected throughout his life as a priest reflects the vision from the book of Revelation when John “heard a voice from the heavens” say to him: ‘Write this down: Happy now are the dead who die in the Lord!’” Today, as we commend Father Al to God, we hold fast to the promise of the Spirit’s postscript to John’s vision: “Yes, they shall find rest from their labors, for their good works accompany them.”
As his sister Marie told me the other day, “Father Al was a happy priest.” Being a priest and a pastor were so much a part of Father Al’s identity that he was never ready to retire. Indeed, he was 86 when he finally left fulltime parish ministry in Baileyville and moved to retirement at St. Charles—and not without some resistance! But though he was reluctant to finally retire, the good works he accomplished throughout his life as a priest are remembered by the countless people who are better people because they knew and loved Father Al and were recipients of his kindness, his care, and his compassion.
A Ministry of Priestly Presence
Throughout his priestly ministry, Fr. Al lived the invitation of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew: “Father, Lord of heaven and earth, to you I offer praise; for what you have hidden from the learned and the clever you have revealed
to the merest children.” His humble and holy approach to others brought people closer to Christ. While he probably never considered himself “learned or clever,” Fr. Al had a wisdom that met the people he served where they
were, and then gently moved them to a deeper understanding of God’s love for them, a love they no doubt felt in Fr. Al’s gentle smile and gracious presence.
Father Al’s commitment as a pastor extended to all the people he served, from those who attended daily Mass to those who had been away from the church for a long time. From visiting those in the nursing home to helping to support a home field for children to play baseball in Baileyville, Father Al was totally immersed in the life of his parishioners. At the ceremony to dedicate the baseball field at Sacred Heart Parish in Baileyville, one of the organizers said, “We give a lot of credit to Father Al who was very supportive and loves kids. He was very supportive from the word go.” After blessing the “field of dreams,” Father Al threw out the first pitch.
His commitment to children extended especially to his passionate advocacy for the rights of the unborn. As the program for his 60th anniversary celebration as a priest recalled, “Father Al has championed the cause for the unborn. He has been God’s mouthpiece speaking unceasingly of the tragedy that our country allows legally to kill innocent children and how we, too, are called to pray and do whatever we can to help the unborn children who are threatened with abortion.” Father Al’s advocacy wasrooted deeply in his concern for the dignity of all human life. As a priest, he became a living example of Jesus’ invitation in the gospel, “Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Your souls will find rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.”
Fishers of Men and Women
Celebrating his 60th anniversary in 2006, Father Al quoted our founder, St.Gaspar. “God wishes us to have generous souls, and every sacrifice is deemed as nothing in comparison to what is merited. Vocations come from God, and if God calls, one must respond.” Perhaps influenced by his older brother Father George, who was already in the seminary with the community, Father Al heard the call of Jesus to follow him as a priest.
And like those first followers of Jesus—Peter, James, Andrew, and John—Father Al was a devoted fisherman. When he was in Mystic and Lake Rathbun in the 1960s and 1970s, his fishing prowess was featured in the Des Moines Tribune’s sports section. Larry Stone, the Tribune’s Outdoor writer, reported that “Father Albert Fey divides most of his time among his three Catholic parishes—St. Francis at Mystic, St. Anthony’s at Rathbun, and St. Williams’ at Numa. When he’s not at one of the churches, though, you’ll probably find him at Lake Rathbun fishing. “Fish are funny things,” Father Al told the reporter, “you never know what they’re going to do. Sometimes you’ll go half or three-quarters of an hour and nothing—then all at once boom, boom, boom.” In sending the article to the Father Ralph Bushell, provincial secretary at the time, Father Al joked: “Everybody dreams of becoming famous someday, but I always hoped it would be for something of a more spiritual nature.”
Given that Jesus’ first apostles were fisherman, I think Fr. Al’s devotion to fishing was very spiritual. Indeed, everywhere he went—whether it was in Virginia and Ohio when he was a young priest, or in Iowa, Oklahoma or Kansas where he spent most of his 67 years as a priest—Fr. Al’s gentle and welcoming presence and warm smile brought many to the faith. Regarding one of his first assignments serving five missions in rural Virginia, Fr. Al wrote on his 60th anniversary, “We had a motor chapel that would travel through the counties and stay at each location for two weeks. We would park the chapel under a nice shade tree, and in the evenings give a two hour ministry. There was no television in the homes at that time and the folks would come to see the movies we would show. We would follow-up this time with door to door visits. I was told a good missionary has his one hand on the catechism and the other on the doorbell.”
I would propose the book of Daniel might have had Father Al in mind when the prophet wrote, “The wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament. And those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.”
When Father Al was transferred from Mystic, Iowa to Miami, Oklahoma in 1977 —after sixteen years serving Mystic, Rathbun, and for a time, Numa—Father Larry Cyr was provincial at the time and he received several letters requesting that Father Al not be moved. What Father Cyr wrote in response to one of those who wrote captures we what feel today as we commend Fr. Al to his eternal rest: “You can be thankful to God that you have been blessed with a good priest all these years,” Father Cyr wrote. “I hope you are now resigned to share him with others who can benefit from his understanding, dedication, strength, guidance, and devotion.”
Indeed, after a long and wonderful life, we are now resigned to share Fr. Al with the saints of heaven. As his smile brightened our lives for almost 93 years, so now Fr. Al “shall be like the stars forever.”
May he rest in peace.