When we profess vows in the Dominican Order, the brother who is oldest by date of birth in his class of novices makes his vows first, and then down the line until the youngest by physical age. At this point all of the newly professed brothers enter into a new kind of “age”: order of religion. This refers to when someone has made his first vows – so I am one year younger in religion than the class of brothers who made vows the year before me, and one year older in religion than the class who made vows the year after me. This doesn’t always match up with birth date, of course – we may have a brother who is 26 years old but is older in religion than a brother who is 34 years of age due to the fact that the 26-year-old entered the order before the 34-year-old.
This past week we lost a friar, our brother Fr. John Linus Sullivan, who was 91 years old and made his profession on June 25, 1949 after completing his novitiate year. Fr. John Linus Sullivan was the oldest in religion in the entire province at the time of his death, which meant he had lived a longer life as friar than anyone else in the Province of St. Joseph. Now, with his death, the title of oldest in religion has passed to his classmate, Fr. Malcolm Sylvester Willoughby. Fr. Willoughby celebrated his ninetieth birthday this past August 25. When I heard the news that Fr. Sullivan had passed away, I went to Fr. Willoughby to offer my condolences for his classmate. I mentioned that Fr. Sullivan had been oldest in religion at the time of his passing, to which Fr. Willoughby replied, “Now I’m the oldest in religion!” As I went about my day Fr. Willoughby’s words kept echoing in my mind: “Now, I’m the oldest in religion…”
I really couldn’t get over it – here among us is the friar that has lived the Dominican life longer than any one of the almost three hundred friars in our province. God has blessed Fr. Willoughby with good health and and a passionate zeal for the Gospel, so he still works in the city for the salvation of souls every day by preaching the Word and administering the sacraments – and when he comes in to choir in the evening, he can genuflect better than any of us!
When you live in community, the witness of the older friars and their dedication to the life is a gift beyond words. Fr. Willoughby’s sixty-two years as a professed friar are too rich and varied to go into here, but I will pass on one small fruit of his life of prayer. As we left the chapel after taking the above photo, I asked him for a word of wisdom for the blog. He quipped right up and said, “Life is short… eternity is long…”
Image: John Devaney, Fr. Sylvester Willoughby