Father Tom McElhinney
Glenmary Father Bob Dalton
"When we contemplate eternity, time becomes insignificant and small. For what is time in light of eternity, and what is our life on earth in light of eternity?"
These thoughts were part of the last monthly "Letter from the Pastor" that Father Tom McElhinney wrote to the people of St. Anthony Church in Fayetteville, Tenn.
A few days later, during Holy Week in April 2001, this parish and the people of the mission church of the Immaculate Conception in Pulaski, Tenn., were mourning the sudden death of their popular pastor.
A young man of the community expressed his feelings about this energetic Glenmary priest in these words: "Probably Father Tom's greatest gift was his inner strength of character that gave courage to so many others."
For almost 39 years, this native of Winchester, Mass., shared that inner strength with the people he served in West Virginia, Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee.
Father Tom deeply loved the people of the mission areas of the United States. He could be very eloquent in his expression of gratitude to God for the gift of his priesthood and his vocation to the home mission ministry of Glenmary. However, he deeply missed the support he found in the Catholic culture of his native New England.
In 1987 he returned briefly to that familiar atmosphere, taken for granted by so many Catholics who live in an area where the Catholic Church is prominent and strong. His missionary call was revitalized by two years of ministry at a parish in Northampton, Mass., and one year at the large downtown St. Joseph Church in Macon, Ga.
Even a missionary priest admired for "his great inner strength of character" can sense the need to renew his strength in the familiar setting of a large Catholic community.
Later Father Tom would write about his experience with the mission communities in Tennessee: "When I celebrate the Eucharist together with my parishioners, I am so aware of our union with each other and with Christ. The love of Christ draws us together."
A great love of Scripture led Father Tom to the Holy Land for three months of study and renewal in 1986 after almost 25 years of serving others. His reflections on that experience revealed a man ever searching for a deeper relationship with Jesus:
"I thought that just by visiting the sacred shrines I could find Jesus easily and that I could come to know him better. What I found was that the shrines were no more than archaeological sites. Jesus did not leave a great mark on the landscape. You still have to find him through faith. That is when you realize that he is there in a different way.
"I found Jesus in an entirely different sense, and he is more powerful to me now than he ever was before. I also found that you have to have faith in his great power to make things happen."
The reflection at Father Tom's wake service at Our Lady of the Fields Chapel at the Glenmary Headquarters in Cincinnati centered on the qualities needed for successful ministry.
Courage, wisdom and love were highlighted, as displayed by Dorothy's traveling companions in The Wizard of Oz.
It was in the dangerous trials of the journey that the Cowardly Lion discovered his courage, the Tin Man recognized his loving heart and the Scarecrow acknowledged his wisdom.
Like these now-classic characters, Father Tom hardly noticed, but these gifts for his ministry were developing steadily all along the way as he made his pilgrimage to God.