A Time to Speak — A holy man was laid to rest

By Mary Ann Steuterman

Mary Ann
Mary Ann Steuterman

On Monday of Holy Week, the Catholic Community of Louisville laid to rest a holy man, Father Eugene Zoeller. I was blessed to know Father Zoeller for the better part of 30 years, first as a student of his in theology classes at Bellarmine College (now University) during the late 80’s and ever since then as a close friend.

In an age in which organized religion in general is portrayed as an irrelevant artifact of a bygone era and Catholic priests in particular are demonized more than admired, Father Zoeller was, for me and for many others, an incredible example of the grace and beauty of a life devoted to God.

I gained a lot of knowledge about the theology behind the sacraments and the liturgy in his classroom during my college years, but I gained a far more transformative wisdom about their beauty and power in my life by experiencing them with him. It’s hard to imagine that anyone prepared more carefully for each and every homily as he did.

Every one I heard was, without fail, interesting and insightful and often surprising or challenging as well. I still remember several lines nearly verbatim from the homily he gave at my wedding liturgy 20 years ago about the mystery of an imaginative, dreaming God who was, in that special moment, inviting my husband and me to dream right along with God.

So too will I remember how he asked everyone present at my son’s baptism to make a sign of the cross on his forehead. The profound sense of joy and gratitude I felt at the words he spoke is a memory I will always cherish.

Similarly, I will never forget the tangible sense of peace that my family experienced when Father Zoeller anointed my mother-in-law just days before her death.

He taught me that rituals speak to us on another level, far deeper than the one at which we normally navigate our lives. He taught me that we need those rituals. We need the centuries-old prayers and music, the metaphors and repetition, the richness and tradition of the same words and symbols that countless others before us have used as well. At a place far deeper than we usually access in the course of our daily lives, rituals help us become our truest selves and open us to God in creative ways.

As powerful as these sacramental experiences were, there were other, less formal moments in which I learned, through my interactions with Father Zoeller, something about the fullness of life that Jesus spoke of in the Gospels. More than anyone I’ve ever known, he made the most of his blessings and most fully accepted his hardships. When I would visit him on Sunday mornings at Nazareth Home in recent years, I would always ask, “How was your week?” With few exceptions, he would tell me with a genuine sense of gratitude and even amazement, “It was wonderful!”

I thought to myself, “How on earth could it be wonderful?” He lived in a nursing home, underwent dialysis three days each week, had to have one leg amputated and was confined to a wheelchair. At times, I couldn’t understand how he could find anything at all to be “wonderful.” But it was and he did — with a grace and humility I doubt I will ever encounter again.

Despite his circumstances, he delighted in the sacramental moments he found in daily living — a beautiful melody, an engaging discussion, a fine meal, a well-written book, a stunning painting, a hearty belly laugh, time spent with family.

He taught me that joy is available to all of us, regardless of our life circumstances. He taught me that there is much at which to “wonder,” that so much is “wonderful.” He taught me that God dances with us not only in the loud thunder claps of formal church rituals, but also in the light rain drops of great conversations with friends and quiet moments alone.

I learned a great deal about my faith from the 16 years of Catholic education I was so fortunate to receive. But I believe the most profound learning I experienced about our dreaming, dancing, loving God came from my friendship with Father Eugene Zoeller. So many of us in the Louisville Catholic community are deeply saddened at his loss. But we take comfort in knowing that he lived joyfully and died peacefully. We have been richly blessed.

Mary Ann Steuterman is a parishioner at St. Michael Church and a former principal of Assumption High School.

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2 replies on “A Time to Speak — A holy man was laid to rest”
  1. says: Beverly McAuliffe

    Mary Ann,
    What a beautiful tribute to Fr. Gene Zoeller! I, too, appreciate the greatness of this man of God, and while I did not know him very well, as did you, what I did know was that he was always gracious, kind and very priestly. “Well done, good and faithful servant.+

  2. says: Mary Lou Zoeller

    Thank you
    You were a true and faithful friend to him . We all miss him but know we are better off from knowing him.

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