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In the Liminal Space Between Life, Death, and Eternal Life

Fr Rich AndreFr. Rich Andre, CSP
May 1, 2024

I am writing this as I sit in the corner of Fr. Chuck Cunniff’s bedroom, watching him fitfully doze on May 1, the 9th day of his at-home hospice care. I’m reflecting on how intertwined my life has become with his over the past 20 years.

I first met Chuck at my sister’s church, the Newman Center at the Ohio State University. Perhaps it when he baptized my second niece. At the time, I was applying for admission to the Paulists. Chuck called me almost every month while I was in the seminary (2005-2011) to check on how I was faring in the formation process. The only exception was 2008-2009, when I lived and worked alongside Chuck at Ohio State for my pastoral year. Even though he wasn’t technically my supervisor, he gave me a lot of guidance and coaching in the evenings, patiently putting the TV on “pause” whenever this extreme extravert had a question or a comment to share!

When I became the Director of the Paulist Center on July 1, 2022, I never imagined that my time here would frame Chuck’s final illness. At the time, we presumed Chuck would continue on as the Associate Director for another few years. That all changed in 22 days when he took a medical leave and was soon diagnosed with an aggressive prostate cancer. As I write this, it seems unlikely that Chuck will still be alive by the time I leave Boston later this spring.

Today, I realize what a “full circle” moment this is for me, and for Fr. Rick as well. Chuck has had a reputation for decades in the Paulists for the excellent care he has provided to our older brothers. Long ago, he and Fr. Rick Walsh worked together to care for retired Paulists in Texas. In Ohio, I witnessed Chuck care for two older priests, both of whom had previously served at the Paulist Center. Chuck attended my mother’s and father’s funerals in Pennsylvania in 2009 and 2012, respectively, and I attended his father’s funeral in Connecticut in 2022. Even after his cancer diagnosis, Chuck still did a lot to help us care for our other brothers here in Boston. It has been a difficult week, but Rick and I are honored to care for our brother who has cared for so many others. We’re now joined by members of Chuck’s family and the Paulist Center Community in providing the care Chuck so richly deserves in his last days.

Many of us who caring for Chuck have been prone to crying this week. Some of the tears are due to Chuck’s rapid diminishment or in response to the brief moments when he feels pain before a medication kicks in. But more than that, the tears flow from the realization that we are bound together in an extended act of love. Together, we are living out Christ’s command to love one another (cf. John 15:11-12). And in realizing that, our joy is complete.