I woke up this morning to the news that Father Frank Yaniak had passed away Christmas Eve.
That this shocked me was more surprising than the news itself. He was eighty years old and in declining health for years. It was only a matter of time.
But I couldn't imagine it happening.
Fr. Yaniak was a short, stern faced man with a no-nonsense manner. He wasn't the kind of priest you see advertised today, not when the Church is struggling to restore its tarnished image with kinder, more accepting clergy. In the years I attended his parish there was no holding hands during the Lord's prayer, no showy outpouring of "Amen!" by the congregation, and certainly no new-age philosophy to be had.
But there was another side of Fr. Yaniak, one I had the pleasure of being introduced to the year of my marriage.
Our first attempt to get married was quickly - and rudely - rejected by a priest, allegedly because my wife was Lutheran, but more likely because of our ages (my wife had only just turned nineteen). The chances of finding a Catholic church to marry us appeared slim, and I have no idea why it ever seemed like a smart idea to approach the strictest priest I knew.
But it was.
Mind you, he never wavered on his principles. Because we were living together he had us move up the wedding an entire year. When we argued that we could stay (cough) celibate if it meant an extra year to save up money, he smiled and said "you will never convince me that such a thing is possible with a young couple like you."
Over the next few months we grew to enjoy his company. He was a well-read man that could speak Latin, Greek, and Polish, yet his home was strewn with mystery novels. In an age of Surgeon Generals warnings he was never without a cigar, and he proudly boasted that when he moved in he'd replaced every no-smoking sign with an ashtray.
And in a time when - spoken or not - everyone doubted the wisdom of our wedding, Fr. Yaniak never once gave the impression of anything but absolute faith in our future. Nor did he ever single out my wife's religion, quickly and smoothly suggesting accommodations for a service where half the congregation was Lutheran.
At our wedding, after he spoke a Polish blessing, we re-enacted a German tradition where the groom kneels on the bride's dress and she stands and steps on his shoe to reassert her independence. My wife's actions were not believable to Father. He made her do it again, and she stomped on my foot with gusto. "Now we know who'll wear the pants in the family," he told the audience.
We were the last couple he ever married.
Five years later I asked him to come out of retirement for my first child's baptism. He was shockingly frail, but happily performed the ceremony. At the end he addressed our family.
"There's an old joke I used to tell at the end of these things. See you the same time next year. I don’t think I'll get that chance, but all the best to you."
He was wrong. He lived three more years, long enough to get one last Christmas card from a family that will soon include three children. My oldest, on whose bed his baptismal gift of a religious medal still hangs, came to the funeral with us and said a prayer over his casket.
Rest in peace Frank Yaniak. We'll miss you.