I first met Fr. Franz Graef at Maryhill Seminary in 1962. At the tender age of 14, I had no inkling of how important to my spiritual growth this humble priest with a German accent would be. Fast forward 54 years and, now retired, he sat in the second pew every Sunday at St. Lucy Parish.When I told him that he was “always welcome to concelebrate” he told me, “It is better that I sit with the people.” Father Graef had a deep sense of his baptismal dignity. He once told me, “I think God gives us all the power we need when we are baptized. The sacrament of Holy Orders allows us to use that power. In a way, it ‘unties our hands’ to allow us to exercise that power for the good of the Church.”
I mentioned that Fr. Graef was humble. Even after he was honored with the title “monsignor,” he preferred to be called “Father Graef.” The first time I called him “monsignor” he told me, “I am nobody’s lord” (monsignor comes from the French for “my lord”). When he would concelebrate on special feast days, I would ask him if he would like to say some of the prayers. His answer was always the same: “I’ll just be a holy flower pot.” This is an example of his delightful sense of humor, one of his qualities that made him so beloved to the parishioners of St. Lucy, and to all of those to whom he ministered during his life.
Fr. Graef was the most learned theologian I have had the privilege to know personally. He received his Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Canisianum in Innsbruck, Austria. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Sacrament of Penance. He was a personal friend to Karl Rahner, perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century, and this great theologian preached Fr. Graef’s first Mass at the Jesuit-Church in Heidelberg. At his memorial Mass here in Shreveport, Fr. Phil Michiels gave a beautiful testimony of the impact Fr. Graef’s class on “Rahner’s Theology of Death” had on his life and spirituality. This is only the most recent example of how Fr. Graef’s former students – priests, deacons, laity – mention words of wisdom they remember from this wise and holy priest. Whether he was teaching seminarians in New Orleans, or laity and deacon candidates here in the Greco Institute, he always related theology to spiritual life and growth.
Fr. Graef was not only learned; he is one of the most pastoral priests I have ever met. As long as he lived he helped with the parish penance services. He never tired of assuring the faithful of God’s mercy, love and forgiveness. One of his favorite sayings was “all is grace.” With a twinkle in his eye he would say that his “favorite heresy” was that of Origen – the teaching that, in the end, even the devil would be converted by God’s love. Fr. Graef constantly reminded his flock how dear each one of them was to the God he loved and served in the Catholic Church.
One of God’s greatest blessings to Fr. Graef was his family, as well as his close friends. His younger brother and his five sisters — and their children, his nieces and nephews — kept this great priest and theologian “grounded” in real life. One tiny concrete example comes to me. On his recent home visit he brought some memorial coins as gifts for all the children. For one little niece, the coin was her First Communion present. She asked her pastor to bless it because “It is a gift from my Uncle Franz who is very old and will soon die.” Fr. Graef overheard and laughed heartily, but I am sure that this priest who taught “Rahner’s Theology of Death” knew the child was speaking the truth.
Among his close friends in America were Bill and Christie Weeks and their family. He was blessed to have a cottage on their property where he could “go aside from the crowds” to rest on his day off, which eventually became his retirement home. With characteristic humor, he referred to it as his Swiegermutterwohnung (mother-in-law cottage)!
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since I first met Fr. Graef in 1962. I will end with a brief personal testimony. Sometimes people are afraid to ask the deepest questions, afraid that such questioning will lead to “loss of faith.” Sometimes people with deep questions even feel that they might be “bad Catholics” because such thoughts trouble them. Father Graef taught me that questioning, deep questioning, can be painful, but that it is the way to spiritual growth. Fr. Graef taught me that it is possible to think deeply and to remain Catholic. He taught me this not only by his words, but also by his life.
by Fr. Pat Madden