The month of November begins with two important feasts: All Saints and All Souls. On these days we remember in prayer those individuals who, though not formally canonized, led exemplary lives. We remember those individuals who, though not perfect, inspired us by their lives. We remember parents, grandparents, spouses, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and acquaintances. And we remember individuals like Jim Skerl.
Jim Skerl was a teacher at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland. He died last week of pancreatic cancer. He was 58. Though I never met him personally, I have heard about him from people who knew him well. And I have been moved by their great love and respect for Skerl who the local news station called a “legendary theology teacher.” Skerl was a 1974 graduate of St. Ignatius High School. By all accounts, the 6′ 4″ student was a star basketball player. In college he decided to go into teaching. He began teaching at Ignatius in 1979. Theology. And he continued teaching theology until three weeks before his death. That’s over 35 years! It’s estimated that during that time he taught and/or worked with over 10,000 young men. The scope of his influence was wide. And it was deep.
For Skerl did more than teach theology in a classroom. He showed his students how to live theology with their lives. He learned, for example, that some families were finding it hard to find pallbearers for their loved ones’ funerals. So he started a “club” called the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Society. (It was Joseph of Arimathea who claimed Jesus’ body after he died on the cross.) Each year about 300 boys take part in this ministry, serving at funerals with dignity and respect. Terry Pluto, writer for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, asked, “What kind of man is able to persuade high school kids to attend funerals and be pallbearers for strangers?” But Skerl did. To him, “it was putting your feet to your faith. It was living the gospel of Jesus.” Members of the pallbearer society do funerals all year long for people of all faiths. They have served even for those being buried in the local “potter’s field.”
Skerl started another ministry at St. Ignatius: feeding the homeless. Every Sunday night he, the kids, and other volunteers would begin this ministry with prayer. Then the vans would be loaded with food and taken to the homeless wherever they might be—often under the bridges of Cleveland. Marty Dybicz, one of Skerl’s friends said that Jim never let this service become political—either conservative or liberal. “You worked for Christ,” he said. Skerl also developed and taught a popular and “iconic” course called “Christian Manhood.” (I’d love to see the syllabus!)
Skerl was single most of his life,. Then he met and married Kym in 2006. Though he never had any biological children of his own, says Pluto, “there are thousands of sons who claim him as one of their spiritual fathers.”
In February 2013 Skerl was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He underwent surgery and extensive chemotherapy. At first the treatments seemed to be working. But then his cancer returned. Pluto writes, “He never seemed to fall into the trap of asking, ‘Why me?’ He seemed to know that question is something that can never really be answered. Rather, he lived each day with a heart of gratitude.” October 3 was Skerl’s last day of teaching. On that day the students at Ignatius gathered outside in a light drizzle and offered a prayer service and farewell to Mr. Skerl.
The month of November is dedicated to All Saints and All Souls. During this month we remember in prayer and thanksgiving all those individuals who touched our lives—especially our lives of faith. We remember individuals like Jim Skerl.
Does anything in this reflection on Jim Skerl touch you or move you?
Who are the deceased individuals in your life whom you want to remember in prayer and thanksgiving this month?
PS: We have a winner! Last week I received our 2,000th response to my blog. The person who wrote it is Joanne Bennardo from Novelty, Ohio. Joanne is a wife, mother, and grandmother who recently earned her BA in Humanities and Fine Arts from Hiram College. Like me, she loves to write. Joanne has been reading “Sunflower Seeds” for over two years. A copy of my book Everyday Epiphanies is being mailed to her. Congratulations, Joanne! Also: Last week we had the most responses ever to one of my posts. That’s wonderful. Keep them coming!
Also: On Monday I will be speaking on Mary to our candidates in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) here are St. Mary, Chardon. On Friday I will be giving a day for spiritual directors and pastoral ministers entitled “Stories of Life, Stories of Faith” at the Upper Room Spiritual Center in Neptune, NJ. And on Saturday I’ll be giving a few talks at the Spirituality Day at Georgian Court University in Lakewood, NJ. May I once again ask your prayers for these events? Thank you very much!