“The ultimate criterion on which our lives will be judged is what we have done for others” (Pope Francis, “Rejoice and Be Glad,” 104).
A beautiful message from our Holy Father, and a little scary. He continues, citing St. Thomas Aquinas: works of mercy toward our neighbor” are even more noble than our acts of worship (106).
So how can we ever measure up to such a high standard of behavior? Fortunately, God gives us models to follow. One of those was Father Ken Irrgang, a priest of the Diocese of New Ulm. On May 12, family and friends said goodbye to this remarkable man with a Mass of Christian Burial at St. Paul Church in Nicollet, Minnesota.
The eulogy at the end of Mass was an appropriate tribute to Father Ken’s ministry with farmworkers and Cesar Chavez in the 1970s. Marc Grossman of the United Farm Workers Foundation spoke of Father Ken as the longest serving and most beloved chaplain of Cesar Chavez and his farmworkers.
In so many ways Father Ken’s life reflected the seven core themes of Catholic social teaching:
- Respect the life and dignity of all people.
- Participate in building the common good.
- Defend the rights of others and live out our own responsibilities.
- Practice a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.
- Recognize the dignity of work and defend the rights of workers.
- Strive to live in solidarity with all of God’s people.
- Care for God’s beautiful creation.
Father Ken was a tireless advocate for social justice — working for the rights of farmworkers, speaking up for members of the gay and lesbian community, addressing the needs of immigrants and refugees here in central Minnesota. Catholic social teaching calls us to work for needed changes in our society. It also reminds us to respond to the needs of people in front of us, something Father Ken did faithfully.
For decades he read for the blind through a program at St. Cloud State University, and he tutored immigrants and refugees studying English through the Adult Basic Education program. Remarkably, Father Ken did this until the day he died at age 89.
He was an avid reader and spent most of his retirement days reading books covering a wide range of topics. He often expressed gratitude that God had given him good eyesight even in old age. He was a faithful participant in the Eucharistic celebration at St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud. He loved dining out with friends and discussing church matters, theological topics, politics and whatever was in that week’s news.
He enjoyed his daily martini, his tomato lunch, and his ice cream treat at night. None of this may seem all that noteworthy, but these activities represent a healthy, balanced lifestyle — one that empowered Father Ken to carry on a life marked by service to others in California and Minnesota.
If our lives are to be judged by what we have done for others, then we need to get busy and figure out how to make that happen, whatever our state in life might be. We also need to know, as Father Ken did, how to shape a healthy, balanced life so that we are capable of serving others and working for a more compassionate and just society.
When Jesus spoke about the last judgment (Matthew 25) and asked whether we fed the hungry, cared for the sick, welcomed the stranger and visited those in prison, these were not judgment criteria meant only for clergy and religious. Christ had all of us in mind.
What Catholic social teaching and, more recently, Pope Francis suggest about how our lives will be judged can be unsettling and frightening. Let us notice, however, and be grateful for, the examples God provides to help us see how we can meet this challenge. I give thanks for the life and example of Father Ken Irrgang.
Bernie Evans is retired from St. John’s University School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville, where he held the Virgil Michel Ecumenical Chair in Rural Social Ministries.