Last Saturday my daughter graduated from her Catholic high school. There are many people she will remember fondly, but one person in particular stands out – Msgr. Richard Lopez, one of the priests assigned to the school. Father Lopez had no special relationship with my daughter any different from every other student. He stands out entirely for his exceptional love of people.
I first met Father Lopez at the Annual Dads’ Morning of Recollection, one Saturday morning last January. This was the 19th time this fellowship event and Mass was held for the fathers of students. Father Lopez was very warm and funny, but the thing I remember most was receiving a blessing. At that point I was not yet confirmed so I could not receive the Eucharist at Mass, but I did go up for a blessing. Father Lopez had such a warm smile for everyone. Much more than a smile really… obvious joy. Somehow completely accepting, embracing and reassuring.
When I first learned of the retreat, I was undecided about attending. My wife had met Father Lopez on a parent / teacher night and said I definitely had to meet him. My daughter, who is usually neutral on these things, urged me to go. Other parents did likewise. I am glad I listened to them! Many of the dad’s who were present didn’t even have students still enrolled. They simply enjoy coming each year and are invited to do so.
My daughter often recounted how some students would misbehave and get in trouble at school. One thing I appreciated about her Catholic high school is their unwavering discipline. Those pushing the fairly tight envelope would swiftly find themselves in detention or worse. In Father Lopez’ classes things were different. Punishment was never necessary.
For example, if Father noticed a student apparently chewing gum – he would turn around and face the blackboard. Then he would offer a prayer something like, “Heavenly Father – I must be imagining what appeared to be gum chewing. Please let me see my error when I turn around in 3 – 2 – 1…” Of course, the offending student would quickly discard the gum. The class would proceed and no punishment assigned, but it was more than just that. The students did not want to misbehave for Father Lopez. If not out of respect and love, they behaved simply due to peer pressure from the love everyone else had for him.
Of course, the relationship Father had with the students meant they especially listened to him and did as he asked. It was respect he never requested but received fully and gladly from everyone. Such treatment from high school kids most teachers can only dream of. That love and respect is reciprocal. Father has covered the walls of his classroom with pictures of hundreds – maybe thousands – of past students.
Last Friday an end-of-year awards assembly was held. Various awards were presented to students and teachers. I remember joking with my wife that any “teacher of the year” type award should really be renamed “teacher of the year other than Father Lopez” to give everyone else a chance. As it turned out, Father Lopez did in fact win an award, but true to his nature, he was not there to receive it. Father was out in service to others.
On graduation day, Father Lopez was on stage with all the other faculty, administrators, dignitaries and our Archbishop. The principal presented the award at that time. Everyone immediately stood-up and enthusiastically applauded. Parents, teachers, students – everyone. Not to be polite or because their view was obstructed, but in recognition of someone they truly admired. Father Lopez accepted the award and sat down as quickly as he could, motioning for everyone else to also do so. Always humble, he wanted the focus to remain on the students and not himself.
Later that day a “lock-in” for the new graduates was held. They had a lot of fun and received nice prizes. One thing they all received was a “Father Lopez Bobblehead Doll” (pictured). I suppose such things are sometimes to make fun of someone. Not in this case. I have no doubt that these toys will accompany most of the kids to college in the fall to remember Father Lopez.
In this Year of the Priest, we celebrate Father Lopez and all of our priests. We are truly blessed to have such humble servants called to the priesthood. They are the Catholic priests who should be in the news. Since the news doesn’t value them, it is up to us to honor them and keep them in our minds and prayers.