‘Good stuff, Lord.’
I am a licensed professional clinical counselor specializing in visiting nursing home and assisted living facility clients on site. In icy cold Minnesota winters, and due to accessibility difficulties year-round, many rural seniors with disabilities would be unable to see a mental health professional if not for me.
Like many of my clients, I have lived a broken life, surviving a childhood car accident that took the lives of my parents and somehow living with posttraumatic stress disorder. You could say I’m the “wounded healer” mentioned often by the late Dutch priest Henri Nouwen.
In March, I was helping an 85-year-old assisted living resident (her identity has been altered to protect confidentiality) manage a depressive bout due, in part, to her feelings of isolation caused by the societal fallout from COVID-19. No family or friends were allowed in. Activities had been pared back. She had to eat in her room. She hadn’t attended Mass for two weeks.
She asked, “Could you show me an online Mass on your Samsung tablet?” I had done this once before, a 15-minute breath of fresh air improving her depressive mood. Mass twice weekly had been her life blood before the outbreak.
While readying the online video, I said, “You know, I’m not Catholic, but I have an affinity for the faith. I attended a Catholic school, the University of Dayton. In fact, a priest there had a lasting effect on my life.”
After soaking in online Mass, she asked to view an online photo of the priest, Father Ken Sommer, S.M. ’50. After searching his name, I uncovered a December 2019 obituary. My lungs heaved and heart sank.
"Father Ken had a joyful smile wide as a football and a holy heart big as a basketball."
Father Ken had a joyful smile wide as a football and a holy heart big as a basketball. According to an obituary, an online posting from a friend of his, and this writer, he had been, in part, an All-State football player at Dayton Chaminade in 1946, ordained in the Society of Mary in 1959, a UD campus minister in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and in 1986 founded Catholic Men’s Fellowship of Greater Cincinnati, which later would have more than 100,000 participants.
On a side note, he entered the Chaminade-Julienne Athletic Hall of Fame for football and basketball in 1982.
I knew him from UD, of course.
His favorite phrase, said usually after learning anything positive, would be “good stuff.”
He had a unique way of helping unloved and broken students feel loved and much less broken. He led UD Fellowship, which was a Christian gathering on Saturday nights of about 100 students in the Stuart Hall chapel, offering Christian bonding rather than beer and bars. One Fellowship ritual involved each student literally hugging every person present before leaving.
He led charismatic prayer meetings at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception on Friday nights, and in my mind’s eye I still see his joyful smile, his arm pumping and feet rocking, his genuineness, and his excitement over teaching and singing about his Lord.
My 1980-81 UD Christian Community housemates at 302 Kiefaber enjoyed Father Ken: Dale Miller, Ron Mysona, Mark Potticary and Vincent “Skip” Leon.
In psychology speak, you could say Ken’s thoughts, feelings and actions were totally congruent, meaning he was the same person inside as out. When I met him before a UD Fellowship reunion about 15 years ago, he was still the same Father Ken. Hadn’t missed one beat.
Where did he learn love? One answer can be found in a 2018 WYSO radio interview, now online, when Father Ken mentioned a mentoring moment provided by his Chaminade football coach Fuzzy Faust in 1945. He said undefeated Chaminade during an end-of-season game was losing badly at halftime to an undefeated rival. The Chaminade players literally were crying, beaten down, broken.
“I want each and every one of you to know I’d be proud to call you my own son.”
In the radio interview, Father Ken paraphrased Faust as saying, “Gentlemen, we had a great season. I’m proud of every one of you, you’ve done everything I’ve said. But this is very hard for me to say. And I don’t like what I’m saying, and I don’t want to say this, but I’m going to say it. I don’t care boys whether we win or lose. I want each and every one of you to know I’d be proud to call you my own son.”
Sommer said he and his Chaminade teammates went out energized after halftime to “massacre” the other team. It was an example learned of the power of love and acceptance.
In much the same way, Father Ken Sommer helped heal broken, wounded warriors at UD in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Thank you, UD, for having employed him, but mostly I’m writing to give God the credit for the life of Father Ken Sommer — because that’s what Ken would have wanted.
As for his new joyful heavenly life, Father Ken right now is most likely saying this to God: “Good stuff, Lord.”