God Has Been Very Good to Me

Fr. Schlegel served as Creighton University’s 23rd president from 2000 to 2011. He also served in leadership positions at fellow Jesuit institutions Rockhurst University, Marquette University, John Carroll University and the University of San Francisco, where he also was president.

God Has Been Very Good to Me

By the Rev. John Schlegel, S.J.

“Cancer” gets everyone’s attention. After six months of an indeterminate stomach ailment, the doctor sitting across from me declared that I had pancreatic cancer. It was a late-detected and very aggressive form; the tumor was inoperable. This was a jolt to the body and the spirit.

As one who had enjoyed excellent health across many taxing decades, it was not the answer I wanted, but I did expect it. In an uncanny way, I always suspected I would experience something like this.

In the months prior to the final determination, I had thought, read and Googled, prayed and discerned, discussed and debated what my response would be. By the time my situation was revealed, I had decided on a personally framed plan of action: to take a noninvasive approach, no chemo or radiation treatment for me. I was going to let nature take its course, with reasonable pain medication, unto the end.

While objectively hearing both sides of the experiences from others, I decided that chemo would not advance the quality of my life in any significant way. In the end, I was interested in the “quality of life” not the longevity of life. I wanted to have time to say “goodbye” and farewell to the people and places I love.

I am well aware that this will come at a cost. I recall Thomas à Kempis writing: “If you are unwilling to suffer, how can you be a friend of Christ?” Like him, I believe suffering is at the heart of the Christian story. But I also agree with Teresa of Ávila in noting that “pain is never permanent.”

On reflection, God has been very good to me. I have had a rich and productive life. I have had a terrific run! I dare say, I have had a graced life. A life of wonderment! Together with so many of you, we have added to the building of God’s kingdom. I have experienced teaching or leadership on five Jesuit campuses — from the administrative learning curve at Marquette and John Carroll, to the excitement of reviving the University of San Francisco, to my lifelong love of serving Creighton and the Omaha community.

Overall, I spent some 27 years in and around Creighton. Many of you were there — be you parent, student, faculty, staff or alumnus/na — with your encouragement, friendship and prayers. I have taught you [and you, me], married you, baptized your children, buried your loved ones and picked your pockets. At the same time, we skied, hiked, played racquetball, rowed, golfed, cooked, listened to Jackson Brown and opera, and drank wine. And, yes, prayed together, from the Brandeis lounge to the Rockies. God is indeed a gracious and generous God. Because of you and because of these grace-filled experiences, I do not fear death.

The wonderment of it all. I, for one, remain astounded that this blue-collar kid from Iowa found a “fit” in higher education. The life in the academy became the focus of four decades of ministry. Those were graced years. And if, as Aquinas noted, “grace builds on nature,” there was LOTS of grace gracing these past decades.

This wonderment at the presence of God yields a deep and profound, almost tangible, gratitude — a gratitude resident in action and contemplation. It is a gratitude for companions shared, opportunities revealed, agendas realized, causes championed and justice pursued. It is this gratitude, born of the surprising, always transformational, presence of God in Jesus’ gentle mercy, restorative forgiveness, life-enriching relationships and humble attempts at building God’s kingdom, that accompanied me across these decades. The wonderment of it all.

As I pen this reflection, I know I am living on borrowed time. I have just finished a wonderful Easter celebration at the Gesu, my parish in Milwaukee; a celebration of HOPE in the power and the presence of the Risen Christ. So I judge that Jesuit Pedro Arrupe captures my present disposition best when he writes: “More than ever, I find myself in the hands of God; this is what I have wanted all of my life. But now there is a difference: the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands.”

Thank you, Creighton family, for being my companion on this journey of life and wonderment. Never forget the words of St. Paul:

“If we have died with Christ, we shall also live with Christ.”