April 23, 2004

Priest gives students a lesson on dying

Click here to see pictures taken in the last weeks of Father Borders' life

By Sean Gallagher

First in a series

NAPOLEON—On a late winter Sunday in early March, a group of high school students, led by their catechist, filed into the rectory of St. Maurice Parish in Napoleon.

The reason for their presence there was not unusual. Their pastor wanted to teach them and answer their questions.

But the experience that these young people shared that day will likely stay with them long into the future.

For their pastor, Father Larry Borders, revealed to them the good news of suffering and dying for those who have been reborn in Christ.

Father Borders was in a unique position to speak about such things. Pancreatic cancer was soon to take his life. He would die less than three weeks later on March 27.

When the students came to talk with him, they all saw how his disease had ravaged his body, how his skin seemed to cling to his bones.

They gathered around him as he sat up on his hospital bed. It was in his first-floor living room since he was no longer able to walk up just one flight of stairs.

They listened to him intently and asked probing questions. Many of them came away with new perspectives on the passing of their own friends and relatives.

Over the past four years, Amanda Harmeyer, a sophomore at Jac-Cen-Del High School and a member of St. Maurice Parish, witnessed the sudden death from a heart attack of a 39-year-old uncle and the death from cancer of a grandfather.

She gained some important insights from her meeting with Father Borders into the Christian meaning of suffering and death.

“Death didn’t come to him as a fear,” Amanda said. “[He] let me know that I didn’t have to be fearful either. Even if he was dying—if anybody dies—we shouldn’t worry about it. We should just trust in what God has planned for us.”

The Sunday meeting in March was not the first time that Craig Meister, a sophomore at Jac-Cen-Del High School and a member of St. Maurice Parish, had spoken personally with Father Borders.

Craig shared with his pastor a keen interest in foreign languages. He even took Greek lessons from Father Borders after asking him about differences in various translations of the New Testament.

Seeing Father Borders so thin and so clearly close to death that day in March was difficult for Craig.

“I wasn’t in a very good mood after that,” Craig said. “I didn’t know what to think. I always thought that he might get better. I still had pretty high hopes.”

Nearly a month after his pastor’s death, Craig realizes that he still has high hopes, only now he is looking toward a higher end.

“If I were to be terminally ill, I would want to deal with it the way that he dealt with it,” Craig said. “It was the perfect way of dealing with it.”

Father Borders’ approach to his time of suffering and death was formed by his Christian identity. In particular, he suffered and died as a priest, as one who is a living sacramental sign of Christ.

Amanda seemed to recognize this, praising him for his desire to continue to proclaim the Gospel until he died.

“Even though he knew he was going to die, he was still preaching,” Amanda said. “I thought it was wonderful that he could be preaching and dying at the same time.”

In the weeks leading up to his death, Father Borders confirmed in a series of interviews with The Criterion this role that he hoped to play in his suffering and death.

“I’m a shepherd leading the flock into at least an understanding or an acceptance that death isn’t something to be terribly feared,” Father Borders said. “You can surrender to it, whether it’s yourself or a loved one.”

In order to lead his flock into the
profound mystery of suffering and death, Father Borders remained present to them until the very end. He preached to them in his words and in his own lived example.

In reflecting on how Father Borders remained a shepherd for his parish even in his dying days, Craig felt that “he made his dying worth something.”

Craig’s words, in part, echo what Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1984 apostolic letter on the Christian meaning of human suffering, Salvifici Doloris, where one essential aspect of this meaning was that “Christ has taught man to do good by his suffering” (paragraph 30).

But the Holy Father also noted another fundamental characteristic of the Christian meaning of human suffering that we are also to do good to those who suffer.

Throughout his life as a priest, Father Borders was committed to being present to those who suffer and are facing death.

“I try to be with the dying,” Father Borders said. “I tell these parishioners, ‘As soon as somebody’s sick, call me.’ I want to be with them.”

This ministry of presence at St. Maurice had begun when he was an associate pastor at St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus.

Rick Neidigh, a member of St. Bartholo- mew, recalled how Father Borders ministered to him and his family when he had lung cancer and was having one of his lungs surgically removed in May 2002.

“He was always there [at the hospital],” Neidigh said. “He sat there and talked with us and really put us at ease. That was special.”

But perhaps what brings together these two aspects of the Christian meaning of human suffering in the example of Father Borders was the way in which he cared for his dying sister, Gayla Kieffer, in 2003.

Over the course of the first half of that year, Kieffer was slowly dying of breast cancer. Father Borders was diligent in the care that he gave his sister, but he started to notice strange physical symptoms in his body.

“I knew something was terribly wrong [with me],” Father Borders said. “ [But] I kept worrying about her. I was praying for her, wondering what she was going through at the time.

“At one point, I started thinking that I was neglecting myself, but I snapped out of it. I began to focus on her again.”

Kieffer died on July 15. The following day, Father Borders saw a doctor about his own condition. He was soon diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually take his own life.

The gospel of suffering that Father Borders shared with the high school religious education class just before his own death was wondrous enough.

But when viewed from the perspective that his own suffering and death was tied so closely to that of his sister, its mystery becomes even greater.

He never harbored bitter thoughts that his own disease could have been treated more successfully had he been able to have it identified earlier.

So in doing good by his suffering and doing good to those who suffer, Father Borders was always present to others,
giving of himself for their good.

In the days before he died, he expressed his hope to continue to be present to the faithful of the archdiocese by sharing his perspective on suffering and death through this series of articles.

He said that he wanted “to die publicly.”

“It’s not a private thing for me, as a pastor,” Father Borders said. “It’s just natural for me to do that as a priest.”

It seems appropriate, then, that during the season of Easter when we celebrate Christ’s conquering of death, a diocesan priest who passed away during Lent should continue to lead his flock into what he called the “greatest of mysteries.” †


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