‘The Best is Yet to Come’: Advice from HNP’s Senior Friars

Johann Cuervo Friar News

From left to right, top row: Emeric Szlezak, Pius Liu, Mario Di Lella, and Julian Davies. Bottom row: Roderic Petrie, Claude Lenehan, and Hugh Hines.

The Bible reminds us that there is honor in the aging process, because growing old is normally accompanied by increased wisdom and experience. Proverbs 16:31 reads, “Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained by a righteous life.” Ultimately, the question of growing old cannot be separated from the question of the meaning of life and the concept of the legacy we leave.

Several friars who have winter birthdays – two who are near 100 years of age – recently shared their thoughts on living a long and happy life. Many emphasized the importance of exercise, prayer and rest.

Emeric Szlezak takes a walk around St. Petersburg. (Photo courtesy of John Anglin)

The Province’s oldest member, Emeric Szlezak, OFM, turned 99 in December “and counting,” he said from his home – St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, Fla. – where he has lived since 2005. When asked about his secret for a long life, he said, “I don’t worry, and I eat and sleep well.”

His daily routine includes walking and feeding the pigeons. “I take a walk in the park – about 20 to 30 minutes – each day. My health is good, except I’m hard of hearing,” he said with a chuckle.

Emeric, who made his solemn profession as a Franciscan in 1942 and was ordained a priest in 1944, commemorated his birthday with two celebrations – a party at the friary that was “low key,” he said, and a dinner with his brother who lives nearby. The nonagenarian, who was born in Hungary, spent more than 40 years at St. Stephen of Hungary Parish in Manhattan, serving as associate pastor and caring for the primarily Hungarian community. Emeric also served as a chaplain to Catholic veterans on both state and national levels, as well as to local sheriff departments.

Pius Liu celebrates his 96th birthday. (Photo courtesy of Pius)

On Jan. 24, Pius Liu, OFM, of Taiwan, reached his 96th birthday and celebrated the milestone with several groups of people.

“My secrets of enjoying relatively good health up to now are the following: the grace of God, early sleeping and early rising, regular and reasonable meals and persevering daily physical exercises, as well as practicing humility, gratitude and joy,” said Pius, who professed his first vows as a Franciscan friar in 1956 and in 2014 commemorated 60 years as a priest.

Pius, who last visited the United States in 2007, spent roughly 10 years after his 1956 profession in New England. Since 2011, Pius has been officially retired, and, as he said in the homily at his jubilee Mass, he is not idle. “It is three years and seven months since I was told to leave Our Lady of Assumption Church and live in Taishan Friary. I am retired but not resting. I still drive and say Mass daily – two Masses on Mondays.”

“I stick to the Chinese wisdom: The longer you live, the more you learn,” Pius added. “The three most important and precious ingredients of life are gratitude, joy and hope. By having gratitude, joy and hope, the heart will consequently possess peace.”

Roderic Petrie, OFM, also a resident of St. Petersburg, turned 88 on Feb. 11. He retired last year after working for 32 years as a member of the Province’s Ministry of the Word. Rod’s secret to living a long and happy life, he says, is to “respect and care for your body. God gave us only one; so don’t abuse it by eating too much. Don’t drink alcohol to excess or sugar-based stuff; adopt a daily exercise program like walking. We are made of body and soul, so give priority to the care of your soul with prayer, reading, quiet time, attending Mass and the sacraments.”

He added, “have a positive attitude about life, your vocation, your health, and your work. This helps you, but also is a healthy contribution to those around you.”

Another St. Petersburg resident, Mario Di Lella, OFM, will be commemorating 90 years of life this spring. He agrees with many of the other friars when he says, “living a long and happy life is totally in the hands of God himself.”

Ordained to the priesthood in 1953, Mario’s daily regimen consists of “solitary prayer, meditation, and contemplation.” He also makes sure to exercise every day “in the form of morning calisthenics and a two-mile walk” and follows “a good and wholesome daily diet.”

Mario counts “ministering to God’s wonderful young people” as another way of remaining young. In 1970, Mario accepted the appointment as Catholic campus minister at Georgia Tech. He recalls, “I was not sure I could reach young people who, in those days, were so often depicted in the media as materialistic, rebellious and self-centered.” He remained there for almost 40 years before retiring to St. Anthony Friary and volunteering his time at campus ministry for four years at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.

Mario told HNP Today that he is “still open to whatever the Holy Spirit and my superiors want me to do. Meanwhile, I continue praying, making my daily Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament and taking long walks in the Florida sunshine.”

A retired friar who lives in Butler, N.J., Claude Lenehan, OFM, who is turning 89 on March 23, summarized what others friars mentioned. His advice is to “roll with the punches, keep praying, and get a walk in every day.”

Stationed at Siena College, in Loudonville, N.Y., Julian Davies, OFM, celebrated his 84th birthday on Jan. 25. “I think long life is a matter of genes, assisted in my case by abstinence from alcohol and tobacco and from the worries of family life or huge responsibility,” he said.

He added, “Doing what I like and liking what I do” has also helped him live a long life. A native of Utica, N.Y., Julian arrived at Siena in 1969 and worked as an instructor in the philosophy department. Throughout his 46 years at the college, he said that he was “gifted with the loves of teaching, editing, working with laity in marriage encounter, Retorno and Secular Franciscans, friends in and out of the friary and a growing appreciation of the priesthood, and a fraternity that was content to let me grow at my own pace.”

Former Siena president Hugh Hines, OFM, who has a milestone birthday next month, described being inspired by his fellow brothers and the gratitude he has for his life. “When I was a freshman at Siena in the fall of 1960, I used to park my car in a parking lot behind the friary. As I waited there, I never dreamed that someday I would be a friar, and later the president of the college and that the friary would be named after me. I never dreamed that I would still be around at this age. I never dreamed of the many good things I would experience in the years to come in my friar life – the different ministries, the various assignments and, most of all, the wonderful people, the friars that would share their lives with me,” he said. “What an amazing group of men: Men of deep faith in God; men of charity and kindness. Friars of generosity to the community but also to the people they served. They have been an inspiration to me over these many years.”

When he prays, Hugh said, he thanks God “for his blessings of my Franciscan life, the friars and the people I have come to know over the years.”

Hugh, who now lives in Boston, said that when he retired from Siena, he ended his letter of resignation with “It’s been fun.” He said that he can only repeat those words as he celebrates his 85th birthday, adding, “And the best is yet to come.”

— Johann Cuervo is communications assistant for Holy Name Province. Jocelyn Thomas provided research for this article.

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