A friend I’ve known since 1997 passed away. Father Joseph F. Reilly, a priest of the Diocese of Allentown, died at the all too young age of 36. His death was completely unexpected and it is still hard to fully comprehend that he is gone.
I met him when I first entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Wynnewood is part of Philadelphia’s Main Line. I was a new seminarian and he was my prefect. Each of the residence halls had a seminarian from an upper class as prefect. Joe was prefect of St. Philip’s Hall, which was where I lived my first year.
That first year would prove to be something of an adjustment. Not only were there all the classes to consider, but there was the liturgical life and one’s own spiritual life to consider. Basically, our schedule was not unlike that of a monastery, with morning and evening prayer, not to mention Mass and compline. My class had a very difficult adjustment, but we did have a very good prefect.
In seminary, at least as how St. Charles ran things, you get to know your brother seminarians exceedingly well. We were basically together all day long, from morning prayer at 7 AM until night prayer at 9PM, at which point the Great Silence came into effect. We were expected to take our meals in common, no matter whether or not you actually intended to eat. (Overbrook Pizza derives a major part of its income from the seminary faculty and students, thanks to the food served in the Refectory.) Being around the same people every day, you get to know them very well. Sometimes, this can be irritating. Other times, this can be a great blessing. Some of my best friends all come from this period.
I must confess to being something of an Anglophile. I’ve long had a certain fascination with the “Sceptr’d Isle”. The British Isles are where many of my ancestors came from. One would not expect a person with the last name of Reilly to share those interests and Joe emphatically did not. In fact, I was unsure what to make of him, given that his door was decorated with all sorts of stickers advocating the reunification of Ireland and kicking the English out of Northern Ireland.
Despite this, he and I did get along well. I found him to be funny, opinionated, and quite outgoing. Also, as I would later find out down the road, he had a real interest in helping people who were struggling. This was one of his most attractive traits.
He himself faced some real struggles. Those who are in active ministry can attest to the great stresses of the priestly vocation. In some sense, your life is not your own, as you are at the constant beck and call of your parishioners. Rectory life can be a pressure cooker. He had suffered from clinical depression for some time. Eventually, things reached a point to where he asked the bishop for a leave of absence.
Unfortunately, I had lost touch with him completely by this point, as I had moved to Asia. It was difficult enough keeping the lines of communication open with me in the Western US and him in Pennsylvania. He took time off of active ministry and was working in secular employment. His goal was to return to active ministry, but unfortunately, that could not happen.
On September 30, 2012, his family had the police check on him as they hadn’t heard from him in a few days. The police entered his apartment and found him dead. Apparently, he was preparing to go out and just had a heart attack.
His death does come as a shock. It is hard to bid farewell to someone so young. However, I do believe that there are people who were touched by Fr Reilly’s ministry. I’m grateful for his presence in my life and I pray that he is now at peace, finally free of the shadows and struggles of his last years. Rest in peace, my friend. May God love you forever!