I imagine there may be a few people who had met Fr. Paschal who didn’t learn that he was born in South Boston, but very few. Even if Paschal himself had somehow forgotten to mention that he was a “Southie”, his accent would have said so. For all the decades that he lived in the Commonwealth of Virginia–and, heaven knows, it’s not as if his life was cloaked in silence–none of the local cadences ever impacted his speech. Or his tastes; even in his final decline, one very thoughtful neighbor coaxed his appetite back into form by bringing him fried clams just about one week ago. Now that’s the taste of a real Southie.
Fr. Paschal began life as Joseph Balkan, born to immigrant parents in a Lithuanian ghetto. It was from pious mother, and perhaps in reaction to his anti-religious, reportedly Marxist father, that he developed his strong, somewhat inflexible Catholic identity. It would seem that he lapped up everything Catholic education could dish out to him–I know first hand that even twenty years ago he could still write an accurate and humorous apology note of several paragraphs in good Latin. His adolescent desire was to be ordained. After World War II, he was old enough to enlist in the U. S. Navy, his family expecting him, upon discharge, to support his parents. Ever independent-minded, he took the bold step to enter the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of the Valley, Valley Falls, Rhode Island on 25 July, 1949. His head was filled with idealistic notions of an ideal life, lived with fellow seekers after perfection. The experience was not quite that and the asceticism wasn’t only found in the austerities of the life (this was the era of one change of clothes per week and showers under lock and key) but in the less than perfect people. Perhaps aggravating this situation, discovered by all beginners, was the fact that young Joey Balkan usually didn’t recognize that he was as fallible as the others. However life at the Valley didn’t last long: on the night of 21 March, 1950 fire swept through the greater part of the monastery. Some monks relocated to Spencer, Massachusetts, where a new foundation was already being prepared, and others were housed, at the good grace of the governor of Rhode Island, at a former Civil Conservation Corps camp, known as Our Lady of Refuge. Here the remainder stayed–and new members entered!–until the building at Spencer was complete.
Given the religious name “Paschal” (in reference to the Easter Mystery of the Resurrection and not a hommage to the “depressing” French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascale, as Fr. Paschal was known to explain), Joseph Balkan made his first profession in August, 1951 and his solemn profession in October of 1954. It would have been usual in those days for a choir religious to then succeed rapidly through ordination to the minor orders, the diaconate and priesthood. However, Fr. Paschal’s disillusionment with some of his confreres also generated some tensions with his Abbot, Dom Edmund Futterer so that his ordination was delayed until June, 1955, in Cardinal Cushing’s private chapel, rather than in the Abbey church at Spencer with a host of other monastic ordinands.
Although he was not one of the founders sent to Berryville, he eventually found himself sent to Holy Cross Abbey in the days of our first Abbot, Don Hugh McKiernan. Somehow, Pascal hung on through the troubled years that ended in Dom Hugh’s resignation and the temporary leadership of appointed superior Thomas Aquinas Porter (Holy Trinity Monastery, Huntsville). In an era when ordained monks were being sent to the Order’s House of Studies, Monte Cistello, on the outskirts of Rome, so they could earn graduate and post graduate decrees and form competent, in-house theology faculties, Paschal was not one of the monks sent on for studies. However, it took it upon himself to ask for more education and he eventually earned his STD in Rome, while learning how to support himself abroad, leading pious American Catholics on the occasional pilgrimage. But by the time he returned to Berryville, the practice of in-house studies had ceased and candidates for ordination were being sent to seminaries.
Whatever disappointments, surprises or disillusionment crossed his path, Fr. Paschal was always one to do his assigned work as well as he could and never abandon his commitment. He might cushion his nest with perquisites and coax compensations from sympathetic friends, but his guiding principal was that he had made a solemn vow before God and he must remain a monk. It’s a point of view that I couldn’t imagine supporting a contemporary vocation. I don’t mean that men and women today are incapable of perseverance through disappointment or adversity but the motivation today would not be provided by such a juridical justification. Paschal was an outspoken critic of superiors who enabled dispensations to people in vows–which the Church in her wisdom does allow–and he could never allow himself to consider that possibility.
When I made my Observership here in 1976, Fr. Paschal was in charge of the wardrobe. When I actually entered the community in 1977, he was on a leave to take care of his mother who was dying. Aside from caring for her, he also helped out in a parish in Brocton, Massachusetts, a forum which gave scope to his extroverted nature. When he eventually returned to the community in 1983, when Fr. Flavian was our appointed superior, Flavian told me he received a letter from a disgruntled parishioner in Brockton who felt that the Abbey was stealing Paschal from them. “But he gave us Bingo,” he lamented. Paschal was disappointed at that time that Flavian would not stand for election but was returning to his hermitage: “He stands up to me, he’s not afraid of me,” he told me at that time. A few years later, the new Abbot, Fr. Mark Delery, assigned Paschal to be chaplain to our nuns at their still new foundation in Crozet, Virginia.
He would return to Holy Cross in 1995, celebrate his Jubilee of monastic profession in 2001. It was quite an event and the community pitched in to accommodate his numerous guests and allow him an enjoyable day. We were all a bit surprised that evening when a large and elaborately decorated note (on a manila folder) appeared on the bulletin board–Fr. Paschal thanking us all for the celebration. That was something of a first. In his final years, more glimpses of such appreciation and gratitude would surface–occasionally accompanied by a barb or two. From that same period, Fr. Paschal faithfully did the Abbey, Sacristy and Retreat House laundry up until a couple of months before his death.
If he was a man of strong likes–with perhaps more friends outside the community than within–his dislikes were equally strong, often to his disadvantage. He did prefer people who would not cower before him, though I could never say he actually enjoyed the experience of someone opposing him. The late Fr. Robert once gave me this advice: “Always let Paschal have the last word.” That could mean the last maxim, the last tidbit of advice, the last joke, the last laugh–but let him bring down the curtain and decide where to shine the spotlight. That was practical advice. When all is said and done, what Paschal really appreciated were people who didn’t take him too seriously.
At his best, he had no pretenses and, on occasion, described his somewhat uneasy relationship with God as his offering himself as he was without excuses. We pray that he’s discovering just how much more merciful God is than he ever imagined and how healing, for everyone, that mercy can be.