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NEWS FEATURE: Pope Poised to Beatify New Orleans Priest

c. 2000 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Capping an ornate ceremony in the heart of Roman Catholicism, Pope John Paul II will on Sunday (April 9) urge the world to draw a lesson from the gentle life of a Bavarian missionary priest whose bones lie below the floor of a 19th century New Orleans church. Among […]

c. 2000 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Capping an ornate ceremony in the heart of Roman Catholicism, Pope John Paul II will on Sunday (April 9) urge the world to draw a lesson from the gentle life of a Bavarian missionary priest whose bones lie below the floor of a 19th century New Orleans church.

Among the thousands in St. Peter’s Square will be New Orleans Archbishop Francis Schulte, who will participate in ceremonies beatifying the Rev. Francis Xavier Seelos.

In the crowd will be Angela Boudreaux, a New Orleans housewife whose family, just days before she seemed certain to die from liver cancer, prayed to Seelos to intercede for her. That was 34 years ago. And Jack Pitkin, a New Orleans retiree who frequently carries Seelos’ antique personal crucifix to hospitals around New Orleans, there to pray with the sick and touch the priest’s cross to their ailing chests or abdomens.

And, if health permits, the Revs. Joe Elworthy and Carl Hoegerl, two elderly priests who worked for years, one in New Orleans and the other in missionary archives in Brooklyn, N.Y., to bring their brother Redemptorist priest to this moment in St. Peter’s.

“He didn’t do anything memorable in the eyes of the world,” said Hoegerl, a historian who labored 11 years writing the 2,200-page “positio,” the dissertation-like spiritual biography making the case for Seelos’ sanctity.

“He wasn’t a bishop. He didn’t write any great books or found a religious order. He lived a good priestly life and was concerned about people.”

More to the point, in 23 years among German immigrants in Pittsburgh, Maryland, Detroit and New Orleans, Seelos’ superiors and those he pastored were consistently struck by his extraordinary warmth, grounded in his Christianity, Hoegerl said.

Letters and recorded testimony disclose that those who knew him spoke of Seelos’ personal example as a sign of “saintliness” and said it strengthened them and others, Hoegerl said.

He died in New Orleans at the age of 48 during one of the yellow fever epidemics that periodically ravaged the city.

Within five years of his death in 1867, priests and parishioners began gathering stories about Seelos, hoping this day would come.

An early effort was mishandled, and a campaign for his canonization sputtered and died about 1910, Elworthy said.

Seelos’ beatification, one step shy of sainthood, is the product of a 30-year second effort by the Redemptorist order and other admirers to convince the Vatican that Seelos lived a life of virtue worthy of emulation.

Beatification also means that his champions have convinced the church Seelos is almost certainly in heaven.

Part of their evidence is the presence in St. Peter’s of Boudreaux, a 70-year-old housewife the church is now persuaded was miraculously cured of terminal cancer in 1966.

Surgeons who operated on Boudreaux in 1966 found her liver almost completely obliterated by a massive tumor. Helpless, they closed her up and gave her two weeks at most, said her doctor, Dr. Albert Rufty, now retired in Winston-Salem, N.C.

On the advice of her brother, a Redemptorist priest, Boudreaux and her family prayed for Seelos’ intercession with God while she underwent a regimen of harsh chemotherapy that Rufty said no one expected to work.

Instead, she recovered from surgery, left the hospital and returned to her home routines at a pace that belied both the cancer and the chemotherapy.

Five years later, Dr. David Weilbaecher, who will also be in St. Peter’s Square Sunday, operated on Boudreaux again for gallstones and reported running his fingers over a healthy liver bearing only tiny pockmarks where the tumor had been.

Beatification means Catholics in the United States will now call Seelos”Blessed Francis Seelos.”And the church will begin to encourage popular devotion to his memory, where before it merely permitted it.

Should the church accept a second miracle as the result of Seelos’ intercession _ and with thousands petitioning the newly beatified priest, many such claims are expected _ Seelos will be positioned for Catholicism’s highest honor, sainthood.

As part of the beatification process, Seelos’ skeletal remains were quietly exhumed last year from beneath the floor of St. Mary’s Assumption Church, positively identified and divided, said Melvin Boudreaux, Angela’s husband, who was present for examination.

The attention to relics is part of a Catholic tradition dating back to Roman persecutions, when the remains of martyrs were treasured and when the earliest Christians believed, as many Catholics still do, that relics of a hero can be instruments through which God works miracles.

Vatican investigators carried a few of Seelos’ bones back to Rome. Some will return in an ornate, chest-like reliquary that will become the centerpiece of a new shrine to Seelos at St. Mary’s.

The subject of all this attention left his native Bavaria at 24 to become a Redemptorist missionary among the German and Irish immigrants clustered up and down the eastern United States.

Tall, bespectacled, with a long stride and an unpretentious air, Seelos reportedly gave simple sermons free of oratorical power but full of homely wisdom and gentle humor, Hoegerl said.

All through his career, the lines of people waiting to confide their failings were the longest outside his confessional, Hoegerl said.

“Frequently we see reports that when the other priests were done hearing confession, he still had long lines,” Hoegerl said. “People often waited hours to see him.

“Someone back then said, `It’s like he can read our souls. You just begin, and he can tell you what’s wrong.”’