The tragic loss of Father Todd Reitmeyer
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By Matt Abbott
The following article was written by Father J. Patrick Serna for "Catholic Men's Quarterly." It is reprinted with permission from Father Serna and the editor and publisher of CMQ. (For subscription information, please visit www.houseonthemoor.com)
A Son Becomes a Father
by Father J. Patrick Serna
In order to make my high school football coach fly off the handle, all one had to do was make an excuse for a failed block, missed tackle, or imperfect execution. If Coach Slaughter sensed that an excuse was about to blossom, he would shout a dictum which should be etched in the mind of every man: "Excuses are like armpits. We all have them and they all stink!" Three hundred pound linemen would be shaking every time we were given this gentle reminder. But Coach Slaughter referred to a body part which was not the armpit, and even the dimmest light bulbs on the football field knew that certain principles must be maintained in order to be a man. "No Excuses" is one of the principles which every man should stick to.
I was expected to write something up for The Final Blessing and have it ready three weeks prior to my writing of this piece. In many years of school, college, seminary, and teaching, I have never experienced "writer's block," and this is the first time in my life that an assignment has been turned in late. Now, I see that these mental dead ends were Providential. God wanted to teach me, and whoever else will pay attention, a very big lesson through the instrumentality of a very close priest friend. I felt a nudge from the Holy Spirit to get the heart of this essay from Fr. Todd Reitmeyer, but our rendezvous was to take place one week after my deadline for this essay. The editor was gracious enough to give me the extension. No excuses, but better late than never.
Allow me to go back to the year 1999, when I first met the seminarian Todd Reitmeyer. He was a "New Man" that August, and this was the beginning of my third year at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. While in my room unpacking from the flight overseas, there was a strong knocking on my door. Frankenstein might as well have been the perpetrator. After I told the clubber to enter, in swaggered a six-foot plus Goliath, but this particular hulk had a buzz cut and blue eyes. "So are you Patrick Serna?"
"Yes," I answered.
"Well, I heard you're a Texan, along with some other things, and I'd like to be your friend."
"Sounds good to me," I replied. And so the friendship began.
Over the next two years we shared many laughs, pranks, conversations, prayers, and even tears together. While we both loved the privilege of living just a few hundred yards from Pope John Paul II and the bones of so many saints, we would have preferred to experience that privilege via a pilgrimage rather than a four year exile of study and formation. Texas is where country boys like us longed to be, and we'd pal around quite a bit talking about the Hill Country in Texas, where the Frio River runs and people on inner tubes have fun. Todd often spoke of getting a pool of priests to buy some land near the Frio River, and it would be used for retreats or recreation. Some of our deepest conversations revolved around the sadness which was brought about by his dad's stroke and disabilities thereof. Todd would speak of his dad's strong faith, and how he never blamed God or complained. Six years after the first cruel stroke, the patriarch was called home at the young age of fifty-one. This was a heavy cross for the family, and in many ways, Todd the son became a father to his own sister and two brothers.
The cycle of many millennia of sons becoming fathers took place again, but now in the lives of two young Texans. I was ordained a Catholic Priest in 2001, and Todd became "Father Todd" on June 13, 2003. Now, lessons we had learned from our Fathers would become more important than ever as we would live out our spiritual fatherhood, a sentiment which we have frequently shared since ordination. While I was able to exercise my priesthood in South Texas, Fr. Todd was called to serve in South Dakota. We promised each other to meet up at least once a year.
Fr. Todd would celebrate his 36th birthday on May 13, and I would celebrate my 34th on June 5. We decided to celebrate this gift of life, and our upcoming anniversaries of ordination to Catholic Fatherhood, by camping out in the small Frio River town of Concan, Texas. Fr. Todd was bringing along a long time layman buddy named Harry Tajchman, who he was eager to have me meet. So there I was two Thursdays ago at the checkout counter of a small obscure gas station in a little town I know not the name of, running an hour late for the rendezvous in Concan, when I felt a man's touch on the back of my tee shirt. Fearing that a sissie was getting friendly, I quickly turned around with an "unfriendly" and maybe less than priestly look. Apprehension and anger instantly transformed into joy... it was my close friend and brother, Father Todd! He was admiring my custom tee shirt which has the "Exterminatrix of Heresies" Virgin Mary image on back.
"Well I'll be," said Fr. Todd. "I was wondering who that could be standing there, with such an awesome image of our Blessed Mother on the back of his tee shirt! This is not coincidence, this is not chance, this is Divine Providence! I don't know why God would put us together like this in such a small gas station in this little town at the same time, but there is a Providential reason."
I simply replied: "Right on. Catholics might as well rip the words 'chance' and 'coincidence' right out of their dictionaries. Let's get the lead out and head on to Concan. We still have an hour to go!" After introducing me to his layman friend Harry, we took off in our respective pickup trucks.
Later that evening next to the barbecue pit with beef patties on the grill, I told Fr. Todd that for the first time in my life I was experiencing writer's block, and I couldn't think of what to write for the upcoming Catholic Men's Quarterly issue. Fr. Todd shot the theme right at me: "God's Providence dude! Do you think it was coincidence that we met like that in the gas station earlier today? It was Providence. For some reason, God wants us to reflect on His Providence, so just write on that. For Catholics, there are no accidents or coincidences." We then proceeded to talk about the suffering which his dad's stroke (1986) and death (1992) created for the family, and how God's Providence did beautiful things with that suffering which could only now be recognized or appreciated.
Fr. Todd went so far as to say that without all that Providential suffering, he might never have become a Catholic Priest. He reflected on how everything made no sense at the time, and how everything seemed so random, meaningless and pointless. I reciprocated with similar thoughts about my little brother's untimely death (1992) during my first semester in the seminary, and how it made no sense to any of us then. I also shared with my fellow priest how my brother's death and our suffering was not an accident either, but God's Providence, especially when appreciated from hindsight. At the time of suffering though, and for a few years after the death, finding meaning and Providence seemed almost impossible. We shared, at great length, thoughts on these sufferings, and how they helped us understand Christ's Passion, Death and Resurrection in a way that no seminary books ever could have conveyed.
Deciding to lighten up the conversation, and with Fr. Todd sitting right next to the fiery barbecue pit, I said that the people in my parish hear me refer to hell as the "eternal barbecue pit" on a regular basis. Very quickly, Fr. Todd responded with: "Man, all I want is to die in a state of Grace and get into heaven." I had heard him say that same thing several dozen times since our first meeting in 1999. Then he mentioned something of vital importance to him, something he frequently mentioned to me and anyone else listening: "I go to Confession at least once a week, sometimes more. I refuse to let that imposter, death, catch me off guard. If I wait longer than a week, I find myself grumpier and less patient with people. I need that forgiveness from the Father, and that peace of the Holy Spirit, which only Confession can give."
Harry, waiting with salivating impatience for the beef patties to be ready, observed a few things during the priestly conversation. Harry told several people in these last two weeks that Fr. Todd asked me to hear his confession, and that it was nice to see two priests confess sacramentally to each other. The three of us spent the next day and a half in God's splendid outdoors, and we were able to celebrate the Holy Mass together in those Concan hills where Cypress trees are big as buildings, and sweet smelling cedars are as plentiful as the rocks. Those hours in God's great outdoors were spent amid much laughter and delight, and in awe of His Creation; the theme of the Father's Providence was incessantly falling off of our lips. "There are no accidents, everything happens for a reason, everything fits together in the Father's Providence."
On Saturday morning I said farewell to Harry, and A-dios, "to God," to Fr. Todd. On Wednesday night, four days after our farewells, I received a phone call from Harry: "I have some very bad news." Then came the long silence which usually brings bad tidings: "Fr. Todd was killed today in a jet-ski crash at 12:30 PM. He was hit unexpectedly from behind. He went to confession yesterday, five days after going to you, and said he wanted to be spiritually ready just in case he broke his neck on the jet-ski the following day, which is today."
Then, again, silence between the two of us. "Well Harry, it was not an accident." I continued, in a state of shock and bewilderment: "Somehow, this fits into God's Providential Plan. It was no accident that we met up in that little gas station on Thursday. That little meeting started us off on the whole Divine Providence discussion which lasted from Thursday till Saturday. That's all the three of us talked about during our Rio Frio time. It's no accident that I couldn't think of what to write about for the Catholic Men's Quarterly article, and it was no accident that I wanted an extension so that Fr. Todd could help me with ideas. Father Todd told me to write on God's Providence. He told me how much he loved Confession and how the imposter death would never catch him off guard."
So, I am late in submitting this article, but with no lame excuses. God wants you to learn through one of His sons, Father Todd Reitmeyer, about being ready and vigilant. Trust in the Father's Providence. There are no accidents or coincidences. Everything happens for a reason. Be a man with strong shoulders when given the Cross of suffering. Father Todd's whole life was a preparation for death. The Father has a mission for each one of us, but some of us hustle and get it done faster than others. For me, Father Todd is like another St. Therčse the Little Flower, but maybe I know him a little bit more on the personal level.
If you never met Father Todd and knew not his love for the priesthood, his love for fidelity, his love for children, his love for Jesus, then I exhort you to encounter him in his writings on his personal Blog, (www.fathertodd.com/blog) begun at the time of his priestly ordination in 2003, the title of which is: "A Son Becomes a Father: A live journal of a recently ordained Catholic Priest."
I spoke with Harry yesterday, and he told me about a recent dream. "What happened in the dream, Harry?"
Harry choked up a bit and answered: "It was Father Todd. He was so happy. He did that Father Todd chuckle and said, matter of factly: 'Man, I knew it was going to be beautiful, but it's even better than I could have imagined.' He did the Father Todd chuckle again, and then he was gone."
We do not say goodbye to my friend, my priest, and my brother. We say "Adios," to God, until we meet again. On this Father's Day I know that Father Todd would be overjoyed to learn that more Christians are meditating and thanking God the Father's Divine Providence, which gives meaning to everything. It has happened again: A son has come to The Father.
Please offer Masses and prayers for Fr. Todd Michael Anthony Reitmeyer, May 13, 1969 - May 24, 2006.
Requiescat in pace
(Fr. J. Patrick Serna is a priest for the diocese of Corpus Christi, and is pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish. You can e-mail him at Krakalese@Yahoo.com)
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