Fr. Paul Walsman, OFM
‘Age didn’t matter’ to Paul | BY TONI CASHNELLI
How does he do it? We asked that question in recent years as the seemingly tireless Fr. Paul Walsman zipped around the hemisphere preaching for Food for the Poor. Even a terminal diagnosis could not keep this energetic 92-year-old off the road, where he would do two, three, as many as four Masses a weekend raising money to fight hunger. Paul could inspire people, and that fed his energy and endurance.
There were few tears at his funeral Nov. 16 at St. Margaret Hall in Cincinnati. Some said they simply could not believe Paul was gone. Others were more celebratory than sad that such an active, productive and meaningful life had lasted so long.
When family and friars shared memories, they used the same adjectives: Gentle. Delightful. Kind. Loving. Generous. Special.
A man of depth
“I had one year of living with him at St. John the Baptist Friary,” said Guardian John Bok. “I found him delightful to live with. His gentleness I found to be uplifting.”
Gentle, perhaps, but tough when he had to be. “The first year of high school we had gym together,” said classmate Fr. Tom Speier. “Who’s my opponent but the ex-aviator, Paul Walsman.” [Paul was a Navy pilot at the end of WW II.] When they squared off, “He demolished me.”
“I was in the Southwest in 1971 when he was out there” ministering to Native Americans, said Br. Scott Obrecht. “He always struck me as someone who went out of his way to see how I was doing. Through the years he was a kind, loving, generous man, and he will be missed.”
In Fr. Fred Link’s experience, “Paul really put himself out for others. His zeal for Food for the Poor was pretty amazing. He was indefatigable in his life as a friar-priest. He was a wonderful, unique, caring, compassionate, kind, loving man, deeply spiritual. The man had depth. He touched a lot of lives.”
Fr. Dennis Bosse heard stories of Paul’s pre-friar life as a pilot, which included zero enemy interaction. “I fought the battle of Corpus Christi, Texas,” Paul once said of his stateside service. According to Dennis, “Paul always joked that when he finally got his license, ‘The Japanese heard I was coming and surrendered.’” Paul’s health may have failed, but not his sense of humor.
Celebrant Mark Soehner emphasized the element of gratitude. “We come to celebrate with thanksgiving and joy for all God has given us through Paul.” He welcomed siblings Bob Walsman and Barb Ernstes, who seemed to share Paul’s vitality and youthful spirit.
In his homily Fr. Clifford Hennings emphasized contradictions, not the least of which was his friendship with Paul, a man 60 years his senior. “One of the oldest friars in our province and the youngest, becoming fast friends? An unlikely thing for sure,” he said. “Paul and I were in many ways two very different people,” distanced by generations and experience. “He had years of ministry under his belt, while I was still trying to figure out if I was even being called to this way of life.” At opposite ends of the political spectrum, “There were many occasions where the two of us would just go at each other.”
But “despite our differences, or maybe even because of them, we quickly became friends….I came to love the genuineness Paul always seemed to have. How he would open up and share with me some of the most intimate moments of his life. I had never known someone his age to speak with me in such a way.
“It was as if age didn’t matter with Paul. There was no paternalism, no condescension. Only sincerity and mutual affection.”
When Clifford’s classmates left the Order, “He became a pillar of strength for me. I knew in Paul, that it is OK to struggle, to have doubts. I saw in him that I could live this Franciscan life without having figured everything out. Because Lord knows, he didn’t!”
The power of love
But hope burned brightly in Paul.
“I learned from Paul that we can be joyful, even in the moments of doubt,” Clifford said. “We can find the light of hope, when things are uncertain. Paul gave witness to me, and I am sure to many here, just what it means to trust in the love and mercy of God.” It was true in life and true as Paul approached death.
“The way he accepted death these final months is a testimony to that fact. How he committed himself to preparing to embrace Sister Death, and how he shared that so vulnerably with me and the fraternity shows the power of faith and the limitlessness of love. Love, which knows no boundaries. Love which crosses all divides. Across the divide of age, of interests, politics and experience. Even across the divide of living and the dead. “
So, Clifford asked, “How much greater then is the love of God?.. God’s love is without limit, without border or contradiction.” And even in times of mourning, “God’s love is there. And when we breathe our last, God’s love for us never ceases…It is in this love that Paul put his trust. It is to this love that we now commend our brother Paul.”
It was a fitting tribute for an eternal – and ageless – optimist.