Tobias and the Priest’s Mother

Father Michael Jarecki is our chaplain. At ninety-two years of age, he is not yet quite as long-lived as Brother Francis (who died at ninety six), but he’s close. I fear that his recent hospitalization is a sign that he is soon to exit this world. Truth to tell, he wants to do just that, because, as he has told us many times, he wants to go to Heaven soon. Whether his departure is anon or no, I think a few words in tribute to this heroic alter Christus are appropriate now, even while he is still with us.

His name — Yah-RET-skee, with the “r” tipping the roof of the mouth — is a gift of his Polish immigrant father. Yes, our long-lived chaplain is proudly Polish, and has been labeled a “Polish War Horse” by one of his doctors, also a Pole, who is probably referencing the enormous beasts of burden once mounted by the heavily armed winged Polish lancer hussars. This equine appellation is a tribute to Father’s herculean strength of character as well as his physical robustness. In his youth he hiked every mountain in his native New York State’s Adirondack mountain chain. (To say that Father Jarecki is tough would be like calling Mathusala old.)

I was recently reminded of Father’s Polishness during his hospitalization. When he was awake, but a bit groggy from medications and illness, I asked if he wanted to say another Rosary together. He said that he would like, instead, to say another particular prayer to Our Lady, but he had trouble remembering its name. I suggested that it might be the Memorare he was thinking of, but that wasn’t it.

He said, “My Father taught it to me in Polish. It goes like this…”

Naturally, I did not understand the Slavic verbal outpouring that came my way, but by its rhythmical, repetitive sounds, I discerned that Father was reciting a litany.

“The Litany of Loreto?” I asked.

“Thaaats the prayer!” he enthused, like an excited little boy. We then recited it together. And every day since Father has been back at the Center, one of the brothers recites the Litany with him after his daily Mass — yes, the Polish War Horse still offers daily Mass.

Father’s mother was not Polish. She was a Scots-Irish lady by the name of Black, who professed Presbyterianism and even came from a family of Protestant ministers. She was stalwart in her religion and had no intention of changing it when she went for marriage instruction to a Catholic priest. (There was no way Mr. Jarecki was going to marry outside the Catholic Church!) The first appointment the engaged couple had with the priest saw Miss Black with her Bible under her arm, ready to do battle with the Papist and teach him a thing or two about Holy Writ.

It was something of a surprise to her to find out from the Catholic Reverend that the Bible she cherished was incomplete. To his credit — and probably to his eternal glory — the priest who instructed the future Jareckis in matrimony made it a point to teach them the beauty of marriage, and the chastity to which married couples are called, from the book of Tobias, which he had them both read. Of course, this book is one of the deutorocanonicals, those Old Testament books dismissed by Protestants as “apocryphal.”

How much today’s engaged couples need the advice given by Raphael to the younger Tobias!

Then the angel Raphael said to him: Hear me, and I will shew thee who they are, over whom the devil can prevail. For they who in such manner receive matrimony, as to shut out God from themselves, and from their mind, and to give themselves to their lust, as the horse and mule, which have not understanding, over them the devil hath power. (Tobias 6:16-17)

A tale of an adventurous and dangerous journey, a real-life parable, and a chaste romance all in one, the Book of Tobias has a sweet attraction that I believe only a black heart — no pun intended — could reject.

And thank God, Miss Black didn’t reject it. Far from dismissing it as a Romish interpolation, the future Mrs. Jarecki found great beauty and truth in the book of Tobias, which became to her an efficacious channel of grace. Having failed to rout the priest in a Bible argument, the would-be polemicist desired to embrace that religion which possessed the whole Bible, instead of her incomplete one. She became a Catholic, and — as Father Jarecki emphasizes — she became a real one. As a convert, she respected her husband’s deeply rooted Catholic sense, which converts can often take a long time to acquire due to the non-Catholic culture of their upbringing. She was not adverse to incorporating Polish Catholic customs into her family’s “table culture,” so that her children might have a vital atmosphere for the nurture of their faith. As others have pointed out, the Catholic faith needs a Catholic culture to survive; after all, a culture is an atmosphere conducive to life.

Mr. Jarecki died while his son, the future priest, was yet a teenager. For a time, young Michael Alexander Jarecki had to work jobs to help support the family. But when they could afford it, he left to go to seminary: St. Bernard’s in Rochester, known affectionately to its inmates as “The Rock.”

In the terrible confusion that engulfed the Church in recent decades, Father Jarecki had much to suffer, especially from parishioners and clergy who thought him not sufficiently progressive. Of all things, he was accused of being overly devoted to Our Lady, which charge Father considered a compliment, for he was long since totally consecrated to her (and thus was a Slave before ever being our chaplain). Ever faithful to the traditional Mass, even when people thought it was “outlawed,” he still managed to keep his diocesan faculties for all these years while attending to the needs of various groups of traditional faithful, who were perceived by others as “rebellious.” We here at Saint Benedict Center Richmond have had him these last 20 years, but many other groups and isolated individuals here and there have benefited from his wide ranging priestly apostolate long before and during his association with our community.

Father Jarecki often recalls his mother’s virtues, piety, and practical, homespun advice. Without at all being a “mamma’s boy,” he still bears a great affection for her.

And, oh yes, he still loves the book of Tobias.

Father Michael A. Jarecki

Father Michael A. Jarecki