I came to learn through the course of the years that Fr. Bruce was himself a very complex human being who was pursued by his own personal demons.
Last Wednesday evening, while I was up on the campus of St. John’s University to teach my weekly theology class at the graduate school, I noticed the presence of an ambulance in the monastery area as I walked to class. I didn’t think too much about it at the time; there are, after all, a lot of old and frail monks who live there.
Later in the evening, though, I learned that the life support service was there for Fr. Bruce Wollmering OSB, a priest who once taught me an Introduction to Psychology course about thirty years ago. He was only 68 years old when he suddenly collapsed and died in the monastery at that hour. In the days that have followed, I have thought a lot about Fr. Bruce, and I have been somewhat surprised by that fact. It is not as if we were lasting friends or correspondents after I finished college. I remember virtually nothing from his class, and it is entirely possible that he never remembered me at all. He really didn’t have any reason to. I last saw him when I was having lunch one day last summer in the Abbey refectory. I made no effort to speak with him, as he sat across the large room from me. And if he had any faint memory or recognition of me that day he didn’t show it. He must have taught many hundreds of students in the intervening decades.
But I never forgot him. When I was a sophomore in college Fr. Bruce was also the head of the office of counseling at St. John’s, and I was in the process of being overwhelmed by my emerging perfectionistic personality. In fact, I recently unearthed part of the personal journal that I was keeping at that time—exactly thirty years ago. For me then, as a twenty-year-old, counseling was something that weak people did, and obviously I was not to be counted among them. Yet this is what I wrote to myself on March 19, 1979: “I have finally sought counseling for my mental hangups in the Student Development Center, and especially through Fr. Bruce Wollmering—at the recommendation of my friend Chip. Fr. Bruce is great. I sincerely hope that he can find solutions to my hangups…” He really did end up being a life source for me at a time when I was feeling very vulnerable and quite burdened. It is very possible that he never knew of his effect in my life; I certainly never told him.
I came to learn through the course of the years that Fr. Bruce was himself a very complex human being who was pursued by his own personal demons. But he was there for a young, anxious, searching college kid a long time ago — one who was helped to hear and truly to believe for the first time that it was possible to be weak and to be really good at the same time. I hope there were people to tell him that same thing before he died.
We all have the same capacity and the same invitation to do that for one another every day, just by being stewards of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We share our “power” not so much by being the most put-together personalities in the room at any given occasion, but by being present to one another in the sometimes-not-so-desirable circumstances of life. And we may never know the depth and endurance of the effects of just being there for others when they need us.
May Fr. Bruce rest in peace.
Fr. Mike Byron
Church of Saint Cecilia
Saint Paul, Minnesota