‘A man with a great heart’

First slide

He treasured the Mass and helped counsel, console and inspire hundreds of seminarians during his 46 years as a priest. So it was fitting that at the funeral Mass for Father Ronald S. Gillis June 25 at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington nearly 50 priests, along with a church filled with lives he'd touched, gathered to celebrate his 71 years of life. Known for his big heart, infectious humor, patience and wisdom, the Opus Dei priest died June 21 of colon cancer.

Those gathered honored a humble man who believed a good priest should aspire to be a "Father Nobody," according to Msgr. Thomas Bohlin, U.S. vicar of Opus Dei, the homilist and a concelebrant. For Father Gillis, being a priest is "about letting Christ shine through," he said.

Yet for those in the pews Tuesday morning, Father Gillis was remembered as a very special somebody.

During a brief reflection at the end of Mass - also concelebrated by Bishop John O. Barres of Allentown, Pa. - Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde called all present to recommit to Father Gillis' lifelong example of love and selfless service.

The youngest of eight children of Allen John and Mary Flora Gillis, he was born Dec. 10, 1941, in Boston. He graduated from Mission Church High School in Boston and attended St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto, graduating from Boston University with a bachelor's degree in history in 1963. He studied as a seminarian at the Roman College for the Holy Cross in Rome. While there, he had the opportunity to learn from St. Josemaría Escrivá, the priest who founded Opus Dei as a personal prelature of the Catholic Church in 1928.

His personal relationship with the saint "gave him an enthusiasm that he never lost," according to Msgr. Bohlin.

In 1969, Father Gillis earned a licentiate in history and a doctorate in canon law from the University of Navarre, Spain. On Aug. 27, 1967, he was ordained a priest for Opus Dei in Segovia, Spain. Father Gillis served as spiritual director at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., for nearly 32 years and as chaplain of Oakcrest School in McLean since its 1976 founding in Washington.

From 1972 to the present, he served intermittently as chaplain of Tenley Study Center in Washington, an Opus Dei supplementary educational center dedicated to the academic and character formation of young men. He also was chaplain of The Heights School, an all-boys Opus Dei school in Potomac, Md., from 2005 to 2006.

For the past eight years, Father Gillis served as chaplain of the Reston Study Center, an Opus Dei educational center dedicated to the character development of students and professional men, where he also resided.

Daryl Glick, Reston Study Center director, said Father Gillis had a gift for understanding people's struggles, and he brought great sympathy to both his work as a spiritual director and to the life of the center. "He had a very big heart - he was sort of the heart of the house (in Reston)," said Glick.

Msgr. Bohlin said in his homily that Father Gillis' sympathy came from his understanding of God's love. Father Gillis knew there is no human heart that is so weak and so fallen that God does not want to bring it back to the flock. He knew that holiness has nothing to do with doing everything right, but all to do with perseverance and a willingness to begin anew, said Msgr. Bohlin.

"He had a gift to know human frailty, to touch human frailty," he added.

Father Gillis spent so much of his life providing spiritual direction because he deeply valued every person and knew that "each soul is worth all the blood of Christ," Msgr. Bohlin said.

"You judge all your spiritual directors by how they compared to him," said Msgr. Steven P. Rohlfs, rector of Mount St. Mary's Seminary and longtime friend of Father Gillis. "He was a master at listening, a master at knowing when to say something and when not to say something.

"He had a tremendous amount of wisdom borne out of experience; he was infinitely patient with you and he never gave up on anybody. He would always call you to do better than you were doing but never crushed you with a demand you could not meet."

Msgr. Rohlfs estimates that Father Gillis touched the lives of more than 600 seminarians and Mount St. Mary's faculty over the years.

Father Gillis was very good at working with seminarians who had doubts about their vocation, said Msgr. Rohlfs, adding that "there are priests today because he intervened in their lives."

Along with his understanding and patience, Msgr. Rohlfs said he will miss Father Gillis' sense of humor. "He always was able to laugh at himself as well as the situations God would place him in."

In a letter to Oakcrest parents, Head of School Mary T. Ortiz said that even during his two-and-a half-year battle with cancer, his ability to see the humorous in life remained.

Alex Aguilar, a rising senior at Oakcrest who attended his funeral Mass, said Father Gillis was always a joy-filled and cheerful presence on campus. And his joy, she said, "came from the Mass." He taught students about the power of the Eucharist and that God's love can be felt through the Mass.

And when he became too ill to celebrate Mass or hear confessions at Oakcrest, he continued to be an important presence on campus, ministering to the girls and offering them spiritual direction, said Marty Lerner, Oakcrest director of communications.

In his more than four decades as a priest, Father Gillis said he witnessed many tumultuous changes in the culture and the church. But, he said in 2011 interview with the Catholic Herald, the answer to all challenges is prayer. "Prayer is the only weapon we have," he said. "The church will rise up when we get on our knees."

Meghan Hadley, a 2006 graduate of Oakcrest, said that Father Gillis helped her not only better understand prayer but also authentic love. In a letter she wrote to her mother the day after Father Gillis' death, she said that the longtime chaplain taught that "love is not some mushy sentiment. … Love is a decision, each and every day that you wake up."

Even in his final days, Father Gillis' decision to love affected countless people.

"He finished the race well; he was faithful to the end," said Msgr. Bohlin. "He was a man with a great heart."

Father Gillis is survived by his sisters Doris Marie Wilcox and Martha Jane Gillis and his brother Gregory "Gil" Gillis, all living in Falmouth, Mass.

Email condolences may be made at adamsgreen.com.

Lisa Socarras contributed to this this story.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013