Mass of the Holy Spirit: A Tribute to Father Pilarz

Thomas MacKinnon, vice president for Advancement, offered this reflection about Fr. Pilarz’s life and career at the Mass of the Holy Spirit this fall.

Thomas MacKinnon, vice president for Advancement, at the Mass.
Thomas MacKinnon, vice president for Advancement, at the Mass.

Bishop Bambera, Father Marina, Father Keller, members of the Jesuit community and all of you joined here together today to celebrate the Mass of the Holy Spirit. Thank you for the opportunity to share some remarks about Father Scott Pilarz of the Society of Jesus. For those of you new to our community this year, Father Pilarz is much more than the building named on campus for him, the gifted homilist, orator and teacher, he was known to be, or the inspiration for and namesake of hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to support student scholarships. He was our president for 11 years over two tenures, and perhaps even more importantly, our spiritual compass and leader. He was our inspiration and example of what it means to be at a Catholic and Jesuit university.

I came to know Father Pilarz in 2005 when I relocated to Scranton to serve as a consultant for an upcoming capital fundraising campaign. I quickly learned that Father Pilarz was not your average priest. He called me to his office one afternoon to discuss our summer travel schedule for development visits. I suggested to him that our most active alumni live in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston and DC. So, I said, “We should focus on visiting alumni there.”

He came right back at me. “No. I would prefer to travel to Erie, Hershey, Rochester and Buffalo this summer. Maybe Hartford.” Floored, I asked why? “Because if I have to work all summer, I want to go to cities where the Bruce Springsteen concerts are happening.” I don’t know how much money we raised that summer, but we certainly had some laughs along the way.

For those of you who knew Father Pilarz, you might recall this -- the Mass of the Holy Spirit was one of his favorite days of the academic year. “A chance,” he would say, “to gather and reflect upon what Scranton is really about.” He would talk for weeks after the Mass each year about how many members of the community attended -- especially students. He loved seeing how active our students were in the life of our church and animating our Jesuit charism.

To the students here today – he loved you deeply. In fact, many might say he dedicated his life to working with and promoting students. He loved teaching. He loved the ceremonies, athletic events, retreats, days of service and countless other privileges that we all enjoy experiencing while working on a college campus. But more than anything else, he loved to laugh with you. He spent his years here living on campus in a residence hall. Each fall when students would return, there was often some trepidation on their part that they would be living in the same building as the president. Would they have to be extra quiet? What would happen on a Friday night if they came home a little late? To the contrary, he would refer to the noise of students having fun on the weekends as “music to my ears. My soundtrack.”

A staunch proponent of educating us on Jesuit literacy and nomenclature, I recall a particularly comical interaction with the Lacrosse team one year. The Jesuit motto, AMDG (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam), which means for the Greater Glory of God, had been embroidered on all of the jerseys of the players. Proud that we were likely the only Jesuit university to do something like this, he asked one of the players what AMDG stood for. The player responded, “Oh Father, that means Attack, Midfield, Defense, Goal.”) The team was promptly invited to a dinner in Condron Hall to receive a lecture from him on Ignatian spirituality. Like so many of his interactions with our students, he loved to laugh and tell that story.

He worried about our students – in fact our entire community, including faculty and staff – all the time. I recall him quoting the author T.S. Eliot to the President’s Cabinet one time. In his writing, Eliot lamented for those who “…had the experience, but missed the meaning.” Who had had the experience, but missed the meaning. As leaders at this University, Father would go on to say, one of our most important responsibilities is to see that that doesn’t happen.

The concept of being home was always present in Scott’s mind. And the realization that Scranton was indeed his home was a profound experience to witness for those of us who knew him well. Not only did this become his home, but that of his dear parents Ron and Joan, who in their own way became beacons of light on our campus. And his countless family, cousins and friends who always seemed to be in town visiting.

There was of course the phrase that he would often quote by an early Jesuit commenting on the Society’s work: “Our home is the road…” Scott believed that, but he did ultimately choose this place, this university, this community as his home. Upon his return to Scranton, he loved to quote New Jersey native, Bon Jovi, “Who says you can’t go home?”

As you know, Scott received a devastating diagnosis a few years ago when he learned that he had ALS. “There is no cure for ALS, and the average lifespan is two to four years,” he was told. Imagine the devastation of that news on such a healthy and intellectually vibrant person. So, he decided he had some choices to make. A Jesuit of great fame and prestige, he likely had many options. Step down and do some writing? Teach a class or two? Retire all together and spend time with family and friends…. Maybe, even at his beloved Jersey Shore?

Mary Oliver, the famed American poet, and one of Father’s favorite writers, once wrote “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” “What-is-it-you-plan-to -do-with-your-one-wild-and-precious-life?” In those moments and days following his ALS diagnosis, Father Pilarz chose Us. Scranton. He chose our faculty. He chose our staff. He chose our alumni. And mostly, he chose our students. He decided he wanted to spend the rest of his “one wild and precious life” at Scranton. Leading us. Teaching us. Loving us.

There are profound lessons to learn from the way Father Pilarz lived out his disease. He often said, “this is God’s way of calling me closer to Him.” And to quote Ignatius, ”Find God in all things.” Father Pilarz did just that. He didn’t just say we need to find God in all things, he did it. Even when his body was betraying him, he was looking for God. And finding God.

In 2004, Father Pilarz invoked his hero, Bruce Springsteen, in a reflection, he delivered to the campus. Father Pilarz remarked:

Sometimes, at the end of the day when I’m alone in the office, I hear the train coming down the tracks, I hear its plaintive whistle in the middle distance, and it conjures up one of my favorite images of our church and our University: We’re on a train ride together, pulling out of Steamtown and headed into the future.

It’s an image aptly described by my home state’s poet laureate, Bruce Springsteen.

He writes, “Grab your ticket and your suitcase, there’s thunder rolling down the tracks. I will provide for you, stand by your side for you; you’ll need a good companion for this part of the ride. This train carries saints and sinners. This train carries losers and winners. On this train, dreams will not be thwarted. On this train, faith will be rewarded. Big wheels rolling though the fields where sunlight streams, meet me in a land of hope and dreams.”

I believe that’s where God’s spirit wants to take us here at Scranton: to a land of hope and dreams. I pray that all of us will have grace enough to grab our ticket and get on board.

Father Pilarz is of course here with us today. Look around. He is asking each of us to consider “what is it we plan to do with our one wild and precious life?”

May God Bless you, may God bless Catholic and Jesuit higher education, and may God Bless The University of Scranton.

Find the Fr. Pilarz Memorial Website, here.

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