My dear friend and longtime spiritual mentor, Fr. Bill Mehrkens, is “91-plus” now, as he told my daughter and me this past weekend during our visit to his retirement home in Bemidji, Minn.
We drove two and a half hours each way to see this sweet man for about half as many hours. More driving than seeing, and yet I would do it again in a heartbeat.
This was our first glimpse, along with the colorful cross above that drew me straight in. These are the numbers to his room; the room he may well die in, he told us. “I can’t even walk anymore,” he says. “Three things are killing me.”
He named two of them — bladder cancer and heart issues from a heart attacked he experienced years ago. But the third one? “I can’t remember.”
It’s very inconsequential. He is dying, and he knows it, but that’s beside the point. What he wanted to tell us more than anything else — and he said it several times, with a huge grin — is that he is still living, and still enjoying life.
When you are in Fr. Bill’s presence, you can’t help but feel more alive. He told us he misses being in more direct contact with people as he did when he was a priest all those years. But he said he finds other ways. Even sitting in his room watching TV and seeing all the people out there in the world who are hurting, he takes time to bless them. “God loves them too and they need a blessing. Who else will do it if I don’t?”
Oh, this precious man who will bless people a half a world away because if he doesn’t, who will?
“That’s beautiful,” I say, adding that to me, it indicates there are no bounds on love; that love transcends time and space and even the obstacle of a television screen.
Fr. Bill wants to keep loving as long as he can. He says he loves the visitors that come. And he loves the squirrel that comes to visit outside his window, even though a lot of people squawk about the squirrel because it eats all the bird food. “I like the squirrel as much if not more than the birds,” he says.
Even as he talks, the squirrel is doing acrobatics from the bird feeder outside the window, making us giggle. The squirrel’s personality has won us over. I’m glad Fr. Bill has this little visitor. It is an alive thing, and Fr. Bill is very much alive so it’s a match.
Father Bill tells us that there was a brief time he wondered if the priesthood, a path on which he began in 8th grade, had been a mistake. But it was a fleeting thing, and once he stepped into the realm of priesthood, all doubts left forever. “It’s been a good life,” he says.
Just then, I glance over at a photo on top of a dresser. It’s Fr. Bill as the pope! What is this now? I have to know more.
His characteristic smile spreads wide. He wants to make sure we know the facts — how a friend had gone to Rome, and during the trip, asked Pope Francis for his beanie, and Pope Francis actually gave it to him. “He’s the kind of guy who will do that,” Fr. Bill says. I make a note of this. If I do visit Rome as I hope to do before I die, I need to ask the pope if I can have his zucchetto. Fr. Bill tells us his friend put the beanie on him during a recent visit, took the photo, and then sent him this framed picture, declaring him pope. Even though he’s not, he says, a lot of people ask him about the pope, and he’s happy to share with them what he knows. “He’s my boss, after all.”
He then points to the wooden statue near the framed photo. It’s St. Francis. “Did I ever tell you my middle name?” he asks. “No,” I say. “It’s Francis.” Aha! It’s all making sense now. There’s a theme going on here and it goes along with what I’ve been thinking ever since our pope was named pontiff. These two, Fr. Bill and Pope Francis, are men of the cloth cut from the same cloth. They do have a similar way about them. Mercy is each of their bottom lines, and they love Jesus and his church.
I know I’m only one of thousands who has been profoundly affected by this man’s gentle, wise presence and friendship. He shows us a stick that someone has meticulously fashioned through wood-working, having burned into it a writing of John Henry Newman, along with naming Fr. Bill as “my best friend in the whole world.” Yes, this is the kind of friend who deserves to be shared with many.
Toward the end of our visit, Fr. Bill talks about his days at Lake of the Woods in Northern Minnesota, a place he used to frequent to be in touch with God’s beautiful world. He loved the peace of it and he loved the animals — including the bears and wolves — and even the insects.
Fr. Bill said that unlike some, he didn’t usually sweep away the cobwebs of his cabin because he knew they were the homes of the spiders, and he welcomed the spiders. They are part of God’s world, too, after all. Of course, he says, animals are not more important than people, but they’re a close second, perhaps.
But my favorite part of the visit was this.
Having my daughter there with me felt very special. She’s met him before but I doubt, until this day, she’s understood why I would clear a whole weekend day to spend a few hours with an aging priest in another state away. But he drew her in, because neither age nor position matter to him. Fr. Bill seeks the humanity in all, and he honored her humanity during our visit. By the end of it, they’d each made a new friend.
Our couple hours with this dear soul were golden to me, and I hope that during our time together, something small began to stir in my daughter’s heart as it did in mine all those years ago when I, just a few years older than she is now, heard him speak for the first time, note cards in hand, at the Newman Center on my college campus. It’s been quite a journey, and one that easily could have diverged in a whole other direction if not for Fr. Bill.
I may not get to Rome anytime soon, but Fr. Bill’s cozy little room in a humble retirement center in northern Minnesota will do well for now.
Q4U: Where is your Rome?