After a relatively brief but difficult battle with melanoma, Fr. John Baran, known as Fr. Nonomen to readers of Commonweal, died the Saturday before Palm Sunday. He was fifty-nine years old, and before his fatal illness he had long suffered from late-onset muscular dystrophy. I never heard him complain about that crippling infirmity. He was a widely respected and especially popular priest. He also was my pastor.
I first heard about John from Lauretta O’Connor. Lauretta, a feisty and opinionated woman, was a neighbor. As a young woman in the early 1960s, she had been Commonweal’s office manager. (A strange coincidence, that.) Shortly after we met, Lauretta asked where I went to church. She then informed me, in no uncertain terms, that Fr. John’s parish was much better. She was right. He was very much a Vatican II priest, deeply committed to involving the laity in every aspect of parish decision-making.
John was also a brilliant homilist. His homilies were never mini-lectures or labored paraphrases of the Scripture readings. Nor did he try to sell you on faith, or Jesus, or Catholicism. Instead, he shared his faith. Yet his homilies were never about him or his struggles. They were always about the readings and what he believed Christ had accomplished for all of us, and what Christ is still accomplishing today. John never scolded (sometimes I thought he should have). Nearly everything he said was an invitation to embrace the Gospel, never a demand to do so. He never pretended that having faith was easy, or that doubt could be banished by shopworn pieties.
Shortly after joining the parish, I invited John to lunch. I was impressed with what he wrote in the weekly bulletin and thought he might make a good columnist. Commonweal readers are keenly interested in the liturgy and parish life, and getting the view from the “other side of the altar” would be enlightening. John accepted my offer, and it is my impression that he was one of our best-read columnists. We decided he should use a pseudonym for two reasons. First, because he would be writing about what went on in his parish, we wanted to protect the privacy of parishioners. Second, because he might occasionally express opinions at odds with church practice or teaching, we didn’t want to make him or his bishop the object of scurrilous attacks.