Note: The following text is adapted from a talk that Dean Brian T. Kelly gave at a Thomas Aquinas College Alumni Association dinner on June 28, 2008.
Thomas Aquinas College was very blessed by the presence and service of Rev. Gerard George Steckler, S.J., from 1982 to 1993. He has done many things worth noting and appreciating, but I will leap over these and focus on his time with us.
It is kind of funny that an institution devoted to the teaching and method of St. Thomas Aquinas should have had twice as many Jesuit chaplains as Dominicans. Stranger still that all four of those Jesuits have been good, holy, and orthodox. Just to put that in perspective, in all my life I have only known eight such Jesuits, and four of them wound up here. He was sent to us by providence. Since some of you did not share the “Steckler Experience,” I thought I would reminisce a bit and try to give you a little sense of the man, the myth.
Fr. Steckler was a fisher of men. He knew when to ask and when not to ask. I remember a very casual meeting a few months into my freshman year. He asked me, in passing in the dining hall, if I would want to stop by and see him. I said OK, and so we set up a time. At the end of our meeting, he asked if I would like to set up a regular time to meet with him. I said OK, and without any real effort on my part I was signed up for regular spiritual direction, which turned out to be a great blessing to me. There are many here who could tell similar stories. There are many who were not Catholic when they started meeting regularly with Father. There are many who had lapsed. But for all of these he cultivated and nurtured the faith. There are some who were led to discern their vocation through Father’s influence.
Part of why he was attractive to students was that he did everything with style and precision ... and he liked to say shocking things. Style — precision — shock value.
First, his style: I often picture Fr. Steckler in his very cool-looking dark glasses. He was a very natty dresser, though as a Jesuit his options were limited. He required his altar wine dry, not sweet, and very chilled. David O’Reilly (’87) was his wine steward — I mean master of ceremonies — and he recalls that father always used a chilled Concannon Blanc, and he didn’t want any of “Monsignor’s stuff.” It was his style.
His homilies were of moderate length but packed. He would end them with a punchline and, for effect, he would snap off the podium light by yanking the chain very sharply. I was trying to remember some of his punchlines ... I remember him once saying, “If you think for a minute that God created the vast expanses of the Cosmos just to show off to mankind ... then you are right!” Yank chain. Another time he smiled his enormous (and somewhat wicked-looking) grin and said, “Cheer up! Things have to get worse before they get much worse!”
He really shone in his homilies. Many of us were married by him, and I really came to look forward to his wedding homilies. He knew that there were always folks in the pews who were not regular churchgoers, and he always took the opportunity to make sure that they had at least heard the truth on that occasion. I think he was inspired by John the Baptist, who spoke the uncomfortable truth and paid the price. I think he secretly hoped that one day he would offend a modern day Herodias who would demand his head on a platter. Father was always a fan of martyrdom.
Precision: Fr. Steckler was always very precise. I remember in the early days of the Tridentine indult, the kitchen was going crazy because the Mass was taking two hours. Mass was at 9:00 a.m., brunch was at 10:00, and people were getting out at 11:00. So Father decided to take over. He announced to us, over whiskey sours and cigars the night before, that he would say the Latin Mass (which he hadn’t said in years) “in 54 minutes precisely.” And he did. And there was a certain charity in his punctuality and precision. As a student it was nice to have a sense that you could go to Mass and get breakfast.
Shock value: I think that Father found being at Thomas Aquinas College to be a bit of a challenge. He liked to say shocking things, but we weren’t like the Jesuits. He couldn’t shock us simply by being orthodox. He had to try harder. Still, he managed.
Here I have to be careful about what stories I tell. I will skip, for example, the stories I remember from marriage-preparation class. I remember that, since there is no time for God, he still prayed for Adam and Eve to reject the forbidden fruit. For wayward bishops he wished and prayed for them the highest good possible, the blessing of a good and holy death — though he always added the qualifier “immediate,” so he asked for them a “good, holy, and immediate death.” Not a sentiment you will find on a Hallmark card, but a great blessing indeed. And always he gleefully exhorted us to “Suffer! Suffer!”
Fr. Steckler believed in a certain creativity. I remember, in later years, making the mistake of asking him to hear my confession shortly after my wife had complained that I hadn’t finished painting the house. You can guess what he gave me for a penance. It took me a year and a half to complete that penance. I should add that father loved to shock but was rarely shocked by anything. The only time I ever saw him visibly affected was when Lori Murphy (’88) asked him if he had advised a student to join the Jesuits.
Why was he this way? I think it was because he loved us and he loved his vocation. He shared with us one day that, in the seminary, a wise old priest had advised him to adopt a style and live it. It proved an effective way to serve souls. It spoke to us. As students we felt that Fr. Steckler loved us. And I have to add that we loved and love him. He took care of us.
In those days we were about 130 students. He threw two wine-and-cheese parties every year and he would invite half the student body to each one. That way he hosted all of us over the course of a year. He also had a Wednesday-night dinner to which he would invite two or three students, again covering all of us over the course of a year. His big wine-and-cheese party was an event. But his Wednesday-night dinner was a treat beyond compare. He would cook, and serve vino, and you got his personal attention. He really could cook, too. And you have to understand that this was BBA (Before Bon Appetit). Those were the days when the meat shipments were rated “Grade D but Edible.” So when Fr. Steckler asked if you would like to come on Wednesday, you cleared your schedule. And if every so often you managed to get invited twice in a year, you were the envy of all.
He loved us and served us; he helped us to find the right path and then stay on it; and Father, for your love and service, we thank you and honor you, and again we love you.