On the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, my dear friend, Fr. Al Hewett, a priest in the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, passed away at the age of 95.
“I have thought, if I ever retired, and learned how to write,” Fr. Al said years ago, “I’d write a book—that it’s fun to be a follower of Christ. That it’s fun to be a priest!”
I wanted to help Fr. Al write that book. The world needed that book. I needed that book. And I couldn’t imagine a better person to tell readers how fun it is to be a priest than Fr. Al.
He was the definition of fun. And he was the definition of priest.
He cracked the same jokes so many times that my children learned them by heart and told them to their friends.
“Why do they put fences around cemeteries?” he would ask, with a twinkle in his eye. “Because everyone is dying to get in!”
Next, he’d delight the children by flipping a spoon from the table into a water glass, or pretending to make his thumb detach.
In between the jokes and tricks, he would talk about his favorite subject: the Church. After six decades of priesthood, his enthusiasm never wavered.
“Every morning, as soon as I wake up,” he said as he sat at my kitchen table last year, at the age of 94, “I thank the Lord for the sacraments. I remember the dates of them all….”
Then he began to recall the dates of his reception of each sacrament, beginning with his baptism. The sacraments were etched on his heart as clearly as each verse of Scripture is inscribed in a Bible.
Ice Cream and Evangelization
Fr. Al never tired of talking about the joy he found in the Church, and he shared that joy with everyone he met.
One thing he loved, in addition to the Church, was ice cream. (Another was hot dogs.) While he was visiting our family one day, he went out to an ice cream shop. At the counter, he struck up a conversation with the cashier, asking about his tattoo. Then Father cheerfully moved on to his favorite topic.
“Were you brought up with any religion?” he asked. When the cashier said no, Father did not hesitate to try to fill that gap.
“Have you ever considered the Catholic faith?” Fr. Al asked, and moments later he was jotting down contact information so the cashier would have someone to call if he had questions about becoming Catholic.
If someone else had tried that approach, it might have fallen flat. But Fr. Al had a way of inspiring immediate trust. Whether he was with a hospital patient, a prisoner, a doctor, a child, or a cashier at the ice cream shop, he treated everyone the same way: with respect, humor, and a heartfelt desire to help each person reach heaven.
Brimming with Life
When I decided that I wanted to help him write that book about how fun it is to be a priest, Fr. Al was 95 years old. But he was so full of life, so seemingly invincible, that I thought he would live past 100. We would have plenty of time to write down his stories—the ones he told again and again—the ones that, like him, never seemed to fade with time.
How could we forget, for example, his story about the hospital patient who had been away from the Church for 62 years and would scream, “Get out of here!” at Fr. Al every time he tried to set foot in her room? He didn’t give up on her, and she finally received the sacraments with joy on the day she died.
That was Fr. Al. He would go to any length to offer the gift of the sacraments, especially to people who were suffering. He was unstoppable.
It almost seemed as if he would live forever. And so, when my cousin John called last week to tell me that Fr. Al had been diagnosed with coronavirus after undergoing a heart procedure, it was hard to grasp. Fr. Al, the picture of vitality, fighting for his life in a hospital bed? He would pull through, wouldn’t he? He was too full of life to be that close to death.
He was indeed full of life—so full of life that this world could not hold him much longer, and he would soon brim over into a new life, where “death shall be no more; neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4)
The Vigil of Divine Mercy
“The first Sunday after Easter,” Jesus said to St. Faustina, as recorded in her Diary, “…is to be the Feast of Mercy. I desire that priests proclaim this great mercy of mine towards souls of sinners. Let the sinner not be afraid to approach me.”
In April of 2005, as St. John Paul II lay dying, he asked the priests visiting him to read the Gospel to him. Then, this giant soul, who had established the Feast of Divine Mercy during his pontificate, took his last breath on the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday.
In April of 2020, as Fr. Al Hewett approached his final hours in this life, he asked my cousin John, a transitional deacon, to pray the Liturgy of the Hours with him over the phone, as he had done so many times for so many years before. The next day, this giant soul, who had prayed the Divine Mercy chaplet every day and had encouraged countless souls to come without fear to the sacrament of confession, took his last breath on the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday.
Divine Mercy had dawned in the hearts of both of these great men long ago, as they poured out their priestly lives to proclaim Jesus’ great mercy towards souls of sinners. Now, they would enter into its radiance.
As Fr. Al lay in the hospital bed, the eyes that had closed in prayer countless times in his 95 years now closed for the last time. Those eyes, broken by macular degeneration, had striven every day to read the prayers of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, and a litany of other devotions. Those eyes had looked upon every person he encountered with a gaze that I can only describe as the gaze of Jesus Himself. Now those eyes would close forever on earth, so that they could behold the beatific vision for all eternity.
His book, it seemed, would not be written. Yet, in his way, he already wrote the book he wanted to write about how fun it is to be a priest.
The book was his life. He composed it with his words. So many good, kind words, strewn freely to all who needed to hear them. He inscribed the book with his prayers. He punctuated it with his never-ending jokes. He authored it with his tireless expressions of love for the Church and for every person God created. His story was told in the pages of his days.
Just by being who he was, Fr. Al showed everyone he met that “it’s fun to be a follower of Christ” and “it’s fun be a priest.”
The Source of His Joy
While I was writing this article, I kept feeling like it wasn’t finished. What was I forgetting to say? Should I mention the Our Lady of Guadalupe pins he handed out to every member of our family to wear—to match the one he wore—because he loved the Blessed Mother so much? Should I write about how, no matter how late into the night we stayed up talking when he visited us, he would always go out to adoration afterward? How he gave away whatever he could to the poor?
In the end, I realized that no matter how much I wrote, I would still feel like I hadn’t finished, because there is no way to convey the entirety of who he was. I would have to be content with telling my small part of his eternal story.
As his beautiful obituary says, there was one phrase in particular that captured his essence—a phrase he often said he wanted on his tombstone: “He was available.” He would go anywhere at any time to bring the sacraments—to a penitent, to a sick person, to anyone who needed him.
And now, I pray that he is regaling all the saints (especially all those souls whom he helped get to heaven) with stories and punch lines that will never grow old, as he basks in the Source of the joy that he spread all his life. May he rest in the place where childlike hearts reside forever, in the radiance of Divine Mercy and the glory of the Risen Christ.
O God, Thou didst raise Thy servant, Fr. Alfred Hewett, to the sacred priesthood of Jesus Christ, according to the Order of Melchisedech, giving him the sublime power to offer the Eternal Sacrifice, to bring the Body and Blood of Thy Son Jesus Christ down upon the altar, and to absolve the sins of men in Thine own Holy Name. We beseech Thee to reward his faithfulness and to forget his faults, admitting him speedily into Thy Holy Presence, there to enjoy forever the recompense of his labors. This we ask through Jesus Christ Thy Son, our Lord. Amen.
Image by hunterglenn from Pixabay.