by Jake Neu

My father Joseph Charles Neu was born in July 1940, the second of eight children to a rice farmer in Hamshire, Texas. Dad milked the cow every morning and helped harvest rice every summer. He learned his prayers kneeling on the truck floorboards as his father drove home on country roads after late nights playing shuffleboard at the bar. He learned his religion in a small Catholic church, where the priest had long bony fingers with which he would flick the ears of misbehaving altar boys who messed up the Latin. Joe was good natured, warm, and gregarious. He entered the Navy in 1958 and became a pharmacist’s mate, work that he would continue in civilian life. He also got himself into the kinds of trouble farm boys and sailors usually do. He told us he and his brother Billy once tried to drown each other in the rice paddies, and another time he and friends accidentally sunk a man’s boat. 

Nevertheless, he kept confessing his sins on Saturday and attending Mass on Sunday, right up until 1970. Dad never came to terms with the loosening of morals in the 1960s and afterwards, and the revolution in Catholic life brought by the Second Vatican Council disturbed him greatly. When I tried to explain once in my youthful fervor that the Church’s teachings never changed, he winced and without looking up replied, “Well, they changed on me.” Shortly after the introduction of Paul VI’s new missal, one of those young priests, so excited to be looking at everyone in the pews while saying Mass, told him in confession that something he confessed “wasn’t a sin anymore.” Dad was no saint, but he knew what sin was, and he knew he had committed it. If the priests who had taken away his childhood religion were not even going to chastise him for doing wrong anymore, what was the point? He left the church that Saturday and rarely went back.

The journey home would take the rest of my father’s life. In 1984, Joe married Amy, a nurse and former employee at his Bellaire, Texas, pharmacy fourteen years his junior. She was Catholic and insisted that her children would go to church on Sunday, so Dad started attending weekly Mass as well. I was born the following year, and my brother Joshua the year after that. I recall sometimes playing sick to try to get out of attending Mass, but Dad had made a promise to Mom, and he kept it and made us keep it too. I only stayed home if I was running a fever and throwing up. In grade school we moved from the Houston area to Fredericksburg, a small German-settled town and popular weekend getaway for Texas urbanites.

During my senior year of high school and then in college, my own Catholic faith deepened, and I began strongly considering the priesthood. My sophomore year, I told my parents. My mother was encouraging; Dad was not. He had been an active Catholic, yes, but he still resented the changes of the 1960s. The recent revelations of clerical sexual abuse added another dimension; he did not want people to think his children were freaks or perverts. But most of all, Dad was the consummate family man. He was the natural leader among his siblings, interested in genealogy, and reached out to relatives to keep them informed of his researches. That it was his eldest son considering a celibate life struck him hard, since I took after him in many of these respects. By this time he also had an inkling that Josh might consider the priesthood as well. The possibility that both of his sons would become priests, with no little Neus to carry on the family name, clearly dismayed him.

All of this came out during the summer before my junior year and then again at the Christmas break. Dad and I would play rounds at the local golf course, rounds that were more about talking things through than working on our averages. By the end of the year, it seemed we were at an impasse. My father was not ready to accept a son in the priesthood. I had come to believe more strongly that this was my vocation, but it pained me to disappoint a man I loved so much.

“Some providences are like Hebrew letters,” said John Flavel, the seventeenth-century Puritan divine; “they must be read backwards.” Flavel was right about this, but most of us desire to know our path forward before we embark upon it. “Let us walk simply in the path where a merciful providence leads us,” wrote Blessed Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam in a letter, “content to see the stone on which we are to step, without wanting to see at once and completely the windings of the road.” This I refused to do, and it led me to make the most callous remark of my life. My brother Joshua and I were driving around on errands during our Thanksgiving vacation, considering the situation, when I hit upon a potential, if undesirable, resolution. “This will sound bad and I don’t actually want it to happen,” I hedged, trying to soften it. “But if Dad died before we became priests, it would almost be easier on everyone.” It is painful to describe the glance with which he replied, but its meaning was unmistakable.

The weekend of New Year’s Day, Josh and I assisted in running a high-school retreat. Unlike prior youth retreats at the parish, this one involved a number of traditional practices, including the rosary, morning and evening prayer, and learning the Salve Regina in Latin. The kids seemed to enjoy it. Dad met us at the parish after Sunday Mass. We went home, had lunch, and I packed up to return to college for the spring semester. As I backed out of the driveway and started down the road, my father waved and smiled from the front porch until I was no longer in sight. A few weeks later, I made my usual weekend phone call home. Dad talked about his recent round at the golf course and how he and Mom had celebrated their anniversary.

The next day after lunch, a sense of uneasiness came over me, and my studies were unfocused. That afternoon I received a call from our college secretary asking whether I had spoken to my parents, but she didn’t explain. I called Mom, who said she was at the hospital and that Dad was not well. Somehow, she got off the phone without breaking down. About ten minutes later his sister and her husband came to my apartment to tell me in person that my father Joseph had had a massive heart attack on the second hole of the golf course and died in the hospital. He was sixty-five.

My uncle drove me home that night, where I spent the evening talking to Mom and waiting for Josh to arrive. It turns out that Dad had lived long enough for Mom to meet him at the hospital. Mom said she knew when she entered the room that he was not going to make it. She made a light joke, upon which he smiled and then grimaced through the pain. He never opened his eyes, but he asked her to give a last message to his sons. Then, she left the room for a moment. The nurse reported that after she left, Dad turned away and said, “We can go now,” and the electrocardiogram went flat. He never revived.

The message? Dad wanted me to know that if it was what I wanted, he was fine with my becoming a priest. During the last month, Dad had heard from several parents of children at the retreat about what it had meant to them. It seems that he understood what being a priest of the Church could mean in a kind of pastoral dimension, and that he was at peace with it. Mom said she had encouraged Dad to tell me over the phone, but he planned to wait for spring break.

My father had made a journey of more than thirty years down “the windings of the road,” from rejecting the Church and Her priesthood to joyfully accepting the possibility of his sons entering it at his death. That unknown sin of 1970, that felix culpa, led my father down a hard road, but one that ultimately brought him to see the goodness in God and the Church.

The night we buried Dad, I went to bed convinced I was going to become a priest. I went back to school the next week and dropped one of my engineering classes, anticipating I would not need it. But I carried the pain of my father’s death with me, and it needed an outlet. It happened that semester that I was sharing a weekly hour of adoration at the Catholic chapel with a young woman from school. For the first three or four weeks, I spent half the time at adoration just sobbing and telling her about my father, whom she had never known. After several weeks, it became clear that we had developed feelings for each other. I broke off the budding relationship shortly before Easter, thinking I was still destined for the priesthood, but almost immediately I regretted it.

That summer I went home to think through my vocation in earnest, while she went to Spain for a summer abroad. I visited with my local bishop and vocations director, and also talked to a psychologist, a Catholic whom I trusted. Ultimately, I realized that my love of family life and relationships was more than a trait I shared with my late father. About a week before starting my senior year, I called the girl and suggested that we go to dinner. We were engaged the following summer and are currently expecting our fourth child.

My father’s death was providential. Before he passed, I was convinced that I had a priestly vocation. Had he lived until spring break, I would likely have been confirmed in that understanding. Instead, his death in January led me to the deepening of my relationship with the woman who would become my wife.

But providence was not done working through the death of my father. For that is also the nature of providence—the winding road sometimes carries us back to old familiar territory. While I turned towards marriage, my brother Joshua looked instead to the priesthood. He was in part encouraged by that deathbed message from my father. Joshua entered the seminary after completing college and then went to the North American College in Rome to complete his studies. As is customary for the Rome-bound seminarians, he was ordained a deacon at Saint Peter’s Basilica.

For the ordination, my wife and I traveled to Rome with more than a dozen extended family members. We even had the joy of sharing the news of my wife’s first pregnancy over dinner that week. Included in the group was Dad’s oldest brother, Billy, the one he tried to drown in the rice dikes all those years ago. Billy had not had the easiest life and had not been to Mass in some time, but the trip to Rome for the ordination left a deep impression on him. When he got home, he went to confession for the first time in a long, long while. And then he started going to Mass again. He grumbled to his sisters about having to get up every Sunday, but he did.

And then, about a month or two after his return to the sacraments, Billy died. The Church teaches us that while we can never know with certainty in this life where we or others end up after death, we can have a firm hope in God’s providence that those who die in Her bosom will see God in heaven. Uncle Billy lived his last few months in the Church, and my hope in his salvation is very firm indeed. In Dad’s last words and blessing, he helped set in motion his son’s priestly vocation, which would, in turn, also save his brother.

Providence, Saint Thomas tells us, is in the ordering of creation to an end, especially to its final end. Events and actions lead creation toward that final end. Our marriages and religious vocations and our participation in the life of the sacraments are our own cooperation with that providence, working out God’s grace in our lives. God can take all things, even death, and use them in furtherance of the goal that we might all join Him in Heaven.

The mystery of life is that we cannot see this worked out all at once, but only slowly and with recollection of God’s blessings in our lives. We may neither anticipate it, as I tried to do, nor be passive in the face of it. Rather, we must walk the windings of the road, content only to see the next stone that God has placed in our path, and trust Him to lay that road to our salvation.

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