Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 20, 2004
A salute to a life of service
Fellow sufferer Msgr. Bill Irwin encouraged author to speak up for the disabled
My Glass is Half Full
By MARK PICKUP
I met Msgr. Bill Irwin in 1979 when I was employed with the federal government. We were processing refugees during an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Desperate people fled persecution by the thousands in war-torn Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. They took to the perils of the South China Sea in rickety, overcrowded boats rather than face the risks and perils of staying in their homelands. The world dubbed them the "boat people."
Canada's government made a noble and necessary commitment to accept 50,000 boat people. Immigration officials were aghast at the sheer magnitude of the task! It was a logistical nightmare. How would we process so many people? Where would they stay when they arrived?
How would we help them settle into their new lives, or find work and adjust to a different culture? There were so many questions and hurdles yet so few answers or apparent solutions. But the refugees started coming whether we were ready or not.
Fr. Bill Irwin steps inCanadians were wonderful! Church groups, organizations, even ad-hoc groups of citizens formed to sponsor the boat people. A few people and organizations stand out in my memory of that time: Father Bill Irwin and Catholic Social Services (CSS) come to mind first. He stepped forward to help, undaunted by the mammoth task and sheer numbers of refugees. It did not seem to faze him (at least that he showed to me).
I negotiated numerous federal government agreements, sponsorships, employment training programs with CSS over the next few years, under the faithful supervision and guidance of Father Bill. I remember thinking that he really took the words of Jesus seriously:
"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."
Both Jesus and Father Bill became friends of mine.
For 25 years, Father Bill was a mentor and friend of mine. We both became disabled with degenerative diseases: He with Parkinson's disease, I with multiple sclerosis. Father Bill encouraged me to speak out for disability rights, equality and inclusion, and opposing euthanasia acceptance. In 1997, I was humbled when Father Bill put my name forward to be the first recipient of the Msgr. Bill Irwin Award for Ethical Excellence.
A few weeks ago, I was stunned to learn Msgr. Irwin had suffered a massive stroke. He was in a deep coma when I visited him in the hospital. They say hearing is the last thing to go so I sat beside his bed and reminisced. Our last conversation went something like this:
"Father Bill, it's Mark Pickup. The doctors say you're in a deep coma but I need to say thank you for being a better friend to me than I was to you. I'm sorry. There been so much that's happened over the years. When I first met you I was a young father and now I'm a grandfather. You never met my grandchildren, Father. I'm sorry about that. Still, you're my friend.
"Look what you've done, how many people you've helped when they really needed a friend. We are all so much richer because of what you did in the name of Jesus Christ. I love you, Father Bill. I'll be along in a little while.
"Just think, the next time you open your eyes you will see the face of Christ and hear him say, "Well done, good and faithful servant." (Matthew 25.23.) What more could anyone hope for?" Rest dear friend.
"Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death."
My dad used to tell me to leave the world a better place than I found it. That's what Father Bill did; the world is better because he was here. What a legacy of love he leaves in Catholic Social Services.
Real Christians sacrificeFather Bill taught me that real Christianity is not for spectators. Real Christianity requires sacrifice. Real Christianity requires us to be engaged with the world. Jesus said,
"This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. It is not you who chose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another" (John 15:12, 16-17).
Father Bill taught me that Christ shows his love to the world through us. His followers are to be emissaries for his love and holiness. Msgr. Bill Irwin understood this profoundly. The fruit he bore in the name of Christ is ours to continue.
May we all leave this world and hear Christ say - as he did to Msgr. Bill Irwin - "Well done good and faithful servant."
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