Lives of Courage: A Holy Cross Priest Recounts Stories of Faith

Author: A Feature by Alison O'Neil and Mary Murphy

Fr Joe"

Fr. Joesph Tate, C.S.C., on Individuals Who Exemplify the Holy Cross Tradition 

Many of us struggle to find meaning and purpose in life, especially when we are presented with difficulties or challenges. Fr. Joseph Tate, C.S.C., however, may have some answers. Scholastic spoke to this retired Holy Cross priest about his life story, his faith experiences and the ability to find meaning in suffering.

Born in 1928, Fr. Joe has led a challenging but fulfilling life. After contracting polio at a young age and living in St. Charles hospital from age three to 16, he was left with a limp that rendered walking difficult. St. Charles Hospital, an institution run by the Order of the Daughters of Wisdom, became a family for several hundred children with polio, including Fr. Joe.

At 51 years old, Fr. Joe penned the story of Vincent Panipento, a young boy of profound faith. Vincent, a resident of the hospital in which Fr. Joe had spent his childhood, passed away several years before Fr. Joe’s stay. His deep religious faith, however, had made this young patient a saint in many people’s eyes by the time Fr. Joe arrived. Writing for the Toronto Sun, Fr. Joe described Vincent’s life as had been told to him by hospital workers. Meningitis contracted as an infant had left Vincent deaf, blind and mute; his parents, believing that Vincent was “not worth keeping,” left him in the care of nuns at the hospital. 

In spite of Vincent’s physical challenges, the nuns believed he could live a happy and meaningful life. They taught him Morse code so he could communicate with the other children, and they instilled in him a uniquely deep sense of faith that led him to happiness and fulfillment. The Sisters would find Vincent in the Chapel on Good Friday, in tears because he understood at a deep level that Christ had suffered for him, personally, on the Cross. Vincent’s first sentence, “I AM SO HAPPY,” revealed that “The Unwanted Child” (the title of Fr. Joe’s Toronto Sun article) felt the love of God through the Daughters of Wisdom as they cared for him. Even though others saw Vincent as useless and uneducable, the Sisters saw his life not only as worth preserving, but as worth living.

Vincent’s faith was so strong that even at the end of his life, when he was ill and racked with pain, holding the crucifix could bring him comfort as he would unite his suffering with Christ on the Cross. Vincent saw his suffering not as a burden, but as a chance to experience what Jesus experienced during the Passion. Fr. Joe provided a term for this interpretation of pain, “redemptive suffering,” that brings us closer to God and gives us hope and meaning to our suffering. 

Another child who had a profound impact on Fr. Joe was a 9-year-old boy named Joey who had been diagnosed with cancer. At the end of his short life, Joey told Fr. Joe, “Jesus didn’t have morphine.” Even though he was in great pain, he asked the nurses to turn off his morphine drip.

Fr. Joe sees several important messages in the stories of children like Vincent and Joey— namely that every life, even those deemed as “unwanted,” is precious and should be treated as such. “[Vincent] was able to understand that he could make a contribution by uniting his sufferings with Jesus’s sufferings.” Fr. Joe hopes that Vincent, with his saint-like faith, will someday be beatified. According to Fr. Joe, stories like Vincent’s teach us to say “yes” to God. He emphasized that when we suffer in life, we can offer up our suffering to Jesus as Vincent did.

People like Fr. Joe, Vincent and Joey teach us more than theological doctrine: They provide us with a blueprint with which to find meaning in our suffering and, in turn, find meaning in life. Even when faced with pain or illness, we can still find joy in choosing to live our faith with hope in and for Christ. 

It is bold to claim that the Cross of Christ is our hope. It is even bolder to believe and live the Cross as our only hope. Yet the Congregation of Holy Cross professes this truth as the center of its spiritual tradition. Holy Cross’s motto, Ave Crux, Spes Unica — Hail the Cross, Our Only Hope — offers the world not only hope in Crosses, but also trust in Divine Providence. Fr. Joe, Vincent and Joey are all examples of living out this motto.

As the Holy Cross website states, "Above all, believers in the Holy Cross tradition remain confident in the Cross as their only hope. They believe that the Cross is more than a dead piece of wood; it is a living thing, a new tree of life that is planted in our lives. As we allow this tree of the Cross to take root and to grow in our lives, it begins to bear fruit and give us new, abundant life. Thus, by accepting the Cross into their lives, people can learn how the Cross can be borne as a gift rather than as a burden. In this, believers have no greater teacher and example than Mary, who stood at the foot of her Son’s Cross. Her suffering and grief as a Lady of Sorrows teach us a great deal about the Cross and about hope. And in the end, it is this belief in the Cross as our only hope that provides order, meaning and life to the Holy Cross tradition."

Mary Murphy is Fr. Joe Tate’s caregiver. She partook in Scholastic’s interviews with the Holy Cross Priest who resides in Holy Cross House, and assisted in telling this story.

CORRECTION: Issued 9 November 2017, the final paragraph was not properly attributed to the Congregation of the Holy Cross' website. That attribution is now included.