Remembering Father Naus

How many times must one hear the same message before its point hits home?

John the Evangelist supposedly spent the last years of his life leading an early Christian community in Ephesus, where he was known for sticking to a seemingly simple sermon: “Love one another.” When an irritated disciple asked when John was going to preach on a new topic, he replied, “When you’ve followed this one.”

For the better part of my time as a Marquette University undergraduate, I played guitar at the 10 p.m. Tuesday night Mass at St. Joan of Arc Chapel. Each week, another John essentially offered the same homily his namesake had. Father John Naus, S.J., who served at Marquette in various capacities for nearly 50 years and died Sunday, presented  this theme by way of phrases, quips and quotes that are familiar to all who knew him:

“To see the world through God’s eyes, imagine the words ‘Make me feel important’ written across the forehead of everyone you meet.”

“The best cure for a bad day is a good friend.”

“To make a difference in one person’s life is immensely more precious than the value of the whole world.”

“To see the smile on their face, to hear the laughter of a little child…of a very old person…of someone who is ill…and to realize that you put it there, makes the holiest day holier still.”

Father Naus’s life highlights are oft-told and well-known in the Marquette and Milwaukee communities. He was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1955 and spent most of his teaching and ministerial career at Marquette. He lived in the university’s Schroeder Hall for 28 years and was a popular ethics, Eastern philosophy and philosophy of humor professor. Father Naus was most famous, however, for entertaining students and hospital patients as Tumbleweed the Clown, sending 4,000 Christmas cards each summer, interrupting university tours to teach prospective students the Wisconsin handshake and presiding over Tuesday night Masses.

The thread that connected all of Father Naus’s activities and actions was, of course, his love. I have never encountered someone more unquestioningly open to people than Father Naus. This applied to everyone he met. We used to frequently get lunch and even continued exchanging letters when I moved to Peru. He often made a point of telling me I was one of his best friends. While I have no doubt he meant it, I am also sure he said this about most people who had the good fortune of knowing him.

In the beautiful remembrances shared about Father Naus on Marquette’s Web site, much has been made of his wonderful, childlike persona and just how extraordinary his commitment to others was. As I reflect on these qualities, I realize that his love for others was, at least in part, fueled by his willingness to embrace his own lovable-ness. For while Father Naus thrived on making people happy and, as he often wrote in his cards, doing whatever he could to help someone, he was completely comfortable in letting others be kind to him, too.

He effusively lauded the Walgreens employees who sold him his Hallmark cards, graciously thanked anyone who held a door for him and responded to praise with a chorus of “Oh, but it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way…” I imagine this was especially true after a stroke in 2004 confined him to a wheelchair, but just as Father Naus was the most unhesitatingly caring person I have ever known, he was also one of the least self-conscious. He accepted and loved others because he accepted and loved himself.

So how many times must one hear the same message before its point hits home?

I probably attended somewhere in the ballpark of 80 Masses Father Naus celebrated, and every day, I struggle and often fail to practice that seemingly simple sermon he offered each week.

Who knows when Father Naus first heard John the Evangelist’s recurring homily. Who knows how many times it took to sink in. But at some point, probably very early on, it stuck. And every morning from then on, Father Naus rose, said his beloved “Jesus Prayer” and dedicated himself to trying to live up to it.

The Jesus Prayer
Live, Jesus, live
So live in me
That all I do
Be done by thee
And grant that all
I think and say
May be thy thought
And word today


About brianharperu

A recent Marquette University graduate who inexplicably finds himself living and working as a Jesuit Volunteer in Peru, Brian enjoys writing, learning new musical instruments, imagining himself to be a better athlete than he is, eating pancakes and voting as part of his civic duty.
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