A last assignment


I called him August 1st of last summer to say good-bye. It was a call I'd put off for weeks, voicing what three unsent letters wanted to convey. How can one say a final earthly goodbye to a good friend, a former teacher, a magnificent priest, now dying of cancer?

Msgr. Donald Neumann

Impelled by the knowledge that a recent palliative treatment had given him fresh strength and a short remission from an invasive brain tumor which had caused a recent stroke, I grabbed the opportunity.

My anticipated discomfort vanished at the sound of his booming voice. This Father Neumann, so recently appointed a Monsignor, was always warm-hearted and great-souled. After talking about his health status (he was on oxygen at the moment, but resting comfortably in a hospital bed brought specially to his quarters at Holy Rosary Cathedral) I thanked him for the many things which he had given me and my family, mentioning just a few specifically. He had been a source of wisdom for nearly 30 years, dating back to the crazy days of being our Grade Seven teacher. (I've always said that it was our class that confirmed his vocation to leave teaching and resume his priestly studies.) And now, I asked, what do you advise to help me raise this wonderful family that I've got?

Without missing a beat, he said, "My father always said to try to speak to each of the children privately daily, in a casual way, as they follow you up the stairs, or as you do dishes together. Let them know that you know them and see what they do. Praise them, thank them for whatever good they have done. Try especially to give correction in private...the heart speaks to heart clearly, 'Cor ad cor loquitur' was Cardinal Newman's motto. I have tried to do this even with my caregivers, thanking them for their particular kindnesses to me."

He went on, intently, "Also, offer sacrifices each day for them, offering things one day for each child. Keep it simple; name them in your morning offering, say one decade of the rosary for them, take only one cookie at tea time rather than two. Do you think you can do that?"

Yes, I said, I thought that I could. Seven days in a week, seven children, at least I'd have no excuse for forgetting who was on what day. But I know from experience, that so often I am like the beloved brothers in the gospel, James and John, who reply, "Yes Lord, we are able," when they are asked by Christ to drink the cup that He must drink, and they later falter. Fr. Neumann emphasized the importance of it, though. "You may find that if you are having a particularly hard day, that day's child is in special need of graces. You will find out in heaven that it was necessary for his salvation."

A little awed by the importance of this vocation, I asked one more question, "And what about my husband?" This answer was equally prompt. "Be the kindest person, the nicest person you can be, to him first, then to your children. Everyone comes after that."

We ended the conversation soon after, though I would have liked to plumb the depths of his holy knowledge further. He entered the hospital a few weeks later, and died in a coma the next first Saturday of the month, September 6th. I will always treasure and ponder his last lesson to me about the value of solidarity, sacrifice and kindness. They are the acts that nurture human beings and save souls, that define the kind of mother we all want to be, that were part of Fr. Neumann's life. Charged with simple, but not easy tasks, I look to the example of my former teacher for inspiration and the joy of knowing that he is cheering us on, perhaps even in song, to achieve them. He understood, and helped us understand, that sacrifice is valuable and endurable, even with joy, if it is accepted with kindness and love. And like a good teacher, he will not leave the lesson impossible, but will help us to learn it well.


Cathy Collins. "A Last Assignment." Catholic Mother vol 4. no. 1 (Lent, 2004).

This article is reprinted with permission from the author and Catholic Mother.

Catholic Mother Magazine invites mothers to create a Catholic culture in the home. Our aim is to inspire, entertain and inform Catholic mothers as we raise our children in the faith.

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Cathy Collins, mother of seven, lives in Ojai, CA.

Copyright © 2004 Catholic Mother

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