I only learned this weekend, while visiting family in Arlington, of Ronald's passing. Now, home, I've been out looking for tributes. Yours, Dr. Fletcher, says more about the man that Ronald was than I ever could, or anything else I have found thus far.
Ronald and I grew up ten years apart at St. Columba's. I recall well, during his early years at General, him shepherding our parish youth group around New York, which included a glorious High Mass on a Whitsunday at St. Mary the Virgin. Not long thereafter, another friend and I were invited to Hicksville for his ordination to the priesthood, and I was honored to serve at his first Mass the following day.
There were many Masses after that. He may have been the only priest ever to conduct daily Masses at St. Columba's in its history, in its now-gone St. Aidan's Chapel -- each summer’s weekday evening at 5:30. I was there to assist for most of them.
Your reference to Ronald's being at home, high church or low, brought so many stories to mind. His summer Masses were during the Bill Swing era.
I recall one fine evening, we were in the sacristy saying our Preparati. As I turned to my right toward Ronald in the course of my confession, Fr. Swing's head came into view in the window immediately beyond Ronald, as the rector was at the top of his bounce on the family trampoline outside the old rectory. Ronald saw my double-take and, without missing a beat of our Preparati, turned his own head to look out the window in time for the next bounce. I sense you know him well enough to know what kind of giggling fit overtook the two of us. It took a break in our routine to settle us -- after exiting the sacristy I took the unusual step of going back to the narthex and ringing the tower bell, something we did not customarily do for our daily service. That simple break served its purpose. and the Mass went on with all the dignity that Ronald was so gifted in bringing to it, in grand or humble settings.
It was during those summers that we were joined by a little fellow that Ronald named Petrock after the patron saint of spiders???? Who knew, who would have suspected there was such a saint? Such was dear Ronald's grasp of the hagiology.
Whilst the customary three or four dowagers joined in our Mass each evening, and while Ronald and I had been observing little Petrock coming out from under the altar hangings and scampering harmlessy about the fair linen, one fine evening, things came to a pass. Petrock found his way up the side and into the chalice. Ronald, at least in those days, celebrated an Hippolytan Mass, which includes the celebrant taking three sips from the chalice. I'll express no judgment of Ronald in this instance, even having three shots at it, but our little arachnid friend was still in the chalice when it came to me. It took two tries, with a great deal of logistical swirling on Ronald's part and a BIG gulp on my own, to deal/dispense with our dilemma.
Apart from being a dear friend with whom I shared a lot of memories, Ronald was the priest everyone should have. I recall he was the one who got me past my personal outrage at the "Green Book," the trial prayer book that is now essentially The Book of Common Prayer. He did that by pointing out that the third Communion service was really all rubrics, very little in the way of canon. Fr. Conner's view was that as long as we had a confession, an absolution, a consecration, and a giving of thanks thereafter, it was a Mass under those guidelines, and he could celebrate a Papal Mass in Latin and comply with the rubrics. He took what so many of us feared as a complete betrayal of dignified worship and read it as permitting a glorious rite. Such was his gift.
When my mother died some ten years ago and more we siblings decided to have her funeral at St. Columba's, which is the last parish we had attended together as a family, some thirty years prior. The parish staff was a little leery of a stranger showing up and asking to have Ronald officiate at a funeral, but upon discovering Mom's name on the vestry rolls over a span of years, they decided it would be okay. When we met at the house to plan her service, Ronald knew right where we siblings were headed. It was All Souls' season, and we had the music Mom loved -- no dirges, instead the rousing marches available from the hymnal. I recall also Ronald allowing that, the funeral being on a Tuesday, he could use the rich incense, since, what with the moderate weather in the forecast, they'd have all week to "air the place out." Ronald to the core.
For all his biting sense of humor, I've never known another who could share his love and hope so freely.
I was privileged to attend Ronald's ordination to the priesthood. It struck me as odd at the time that he chose to be ordained to the diaconate in Washington, but to the priesthood on Long Island. But such was his loyalty to his flock, he chose the parish he had been working in. Among my memories of the occasion is, of course, Ronald's insistence on tradition, and I recall there being quite a kerfuffle amongst the altar guild to make sure that the floor where he would prostrate himself before the bishop should be spotless.
And it was a marvelous affair. After the Mass, but before the benediction, the acolytes carted the bishop's chair to front and center, upon which the officiant took his seat, and read the ordination papers in a fearsomely gruff voice. "We (ahem, cough, cough), Jonathan Goodhue Sherman (cough again), in the twenty-second year of our consecration (clearing of throat) . . . "
I've spent most of my life since in Maine. One fine August Sunday morning, long after Ronald's ordination but, still, it seems, many years ago now, I went down to Bar Harbor for Mass at St. Savior's. The rector was on vacation and one of the diocese's supply priests was officiating. One of my observations of the clergy is that they tend to sing from the hymnal with more gusto than any of the choir (never mind the typical skeleton that choirs become in the summer!). Being an old chorister as well as acolyte, I tend to sing right along myself, and made note that day of the supply priest affirming my observation, but there was another voice somewhere in the congregation, belting the processional hymn right out. I allowed to myself that there had to be another priest in there somewhere and keened my eye. Sure enough, as the crucifer passed by and all bobbed and nodded in his direction, I caught a glimpse of a purple shirt, situated at the aisle about five rows ahead.
In his remarks prior to the offertory, the supply priest acknowledged the presence of none other than Bishop Sherman himself. When I approached him afterward, he maintained an appropriate distance for a bishop, but lit up when I told him of having been present for Ronald's ordination. Bishop Sherman, in the course of our polite banter, expressed a true and heartfelt admiration for Ronald as person and priest. What greater tibute, and how to balance that with Ronald's flock's love for him? A man for all seasons, our Padre.
A few years after that, Ronald was rector of St. George's, I think it was, in Providence, RI. I was working for a couple of weeks in Boston and, having to be there over the weekend, took the bus down one wintry Sunday morning. I'd, of course, called ahead. I recall the trek through the streets covered with new snow, up over the hill from the river, and cutting through the courtyard/quad of the Brown University campus to get there. And, in the brief moment it took in the little time we had before the procession was to start, my life was brightened anew by Ronald's unabashedly joyous welcome. His love for his brothers and sisters here on earth fell only a short step behind his faith in and love for our Heavenly Father.
Ronald enjoyed his vocation and his all-too-brief life here on earth as noone I've ever known, and has left a gift to us all who loved him and can recognize it, in his ability to share his knowledge that there is greater joy beyond this life.
And I trust that that joy is now his own.
Our loss is Heaven's gain.