By John W. Miller
November 2, 2023 — My mom grew up in the 1950s in a neighborhood in west Baltimore that was a cauldron of 20th-century religion and community-building that was meant to produce, in every big Catholic family, at least one priest.
In my mom’s family, that was Fr. Lawrence Hunt, SJ. My grandmother’s little brother had joined the Maryland Province Jesuits around 1944 after high school and stayed in the Society of Jesus until his death at age 81 in 2008. His obituary noted that he’d been in the Jesuits for 64 years.
Uncle Larry, as I knew him, was a sweet, kind, funny man who wore short-sleeved white dress shirts badged with a pack of cigarettes and reading glasses. It was lung cancer that killed him, but I once heard him say he’d enjoyed every single cigarette.
After his Jesuit training, he was assigned to work in India, where people still remembered him when he died. “He was the rector of De Nobili School in Jealgora, India, in the late 1960s,” wrote one former student on his online obit page. “He left a lasting impression on me by his sincerity, caring personality and by being a very kind man.”
My parents had moved to Brussels from Maryland in the 1970s, and Fr. Larry visited whenever he was traveling between India and Baltimore. I got to know him as out-of-town family, dropping in for museum visits and dinners.
He first impressed me by cracking jokes in church. Once, when I was a boy, we were visiting the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, and admiring the funny-looking gargoyles. Uncle Larry looked down at me and said: “I just think God has a great sense of humor.” But that wasn’t his only theological insight. One of his famous sayings was: “God can’t count and has a bad memory.”
The last time I saw Uncle Larry, around 2006, he said Mass in a small parish in Millersville, in western Maryland. During his homily, he welcomed me and said: “My great-nephew John is here and is writing an article on Millersville for the Wall Street Journal.” I was not, in fact, writing an article about Millersville, and Uncle Larry watched with a smile and raised eyebrow as church ladies lined up after Mass to tell me about Millersville.
After Mass, I invited him to coffee at McDonald’s. Together, we dissected the Mass. He chuckled about a family of eight children who had lined up to take Communion in order of height. “How about that Catholic family?” he said. “Just like in the old days.” He wasn’t making fun of anybody, just noticing in a neutral way who and what was around him and laughing in wonder.
I proposed taking a Polaroid of the two of us, the selfie of two decades ago. He agreed, but wasn’t going to let me get away without glorifying our coffee. “We have to commemorate our big day at McDonald’s,” he said. He loved to puncture people’s seriousness and formality.
That habit sometimes got him noticed by his Jesuit colleagues, and not always favorably. When I brought him up to older Jesuits I met later in New York, they told stories about how he got in trouble with the order for appropriating Hindu prayer gestures while saying Mass.
But, by all accounts I’ve heard, Uncle Larry was a good priest and a good man, willing to serve whole-heartedly wherever he was called. After leaving India in 1984, he served as dean of students at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Then he lived in small communities and served small-town parishes in North Carolina, Delaware, the District of Columbia and Maryland, and even said Mass on WBAL radio.
“Fr. Hunt had the uncanny ability to see right inside you,” wrote an admirer after his death. “His intuition was profound and at times could even be somewhat unnerving. How could someone be so in tune with people, so understanding?”
Uncle Larry turned up at family reunions and offered Mass to whomever might be interested. At least once, that was my mother, grandmother and me, squared up around a table. Fr. Larry said Mass quickly and earnestly, looking us in the eyes to share the deep meaning of each line. Only say the word and my soul shall be healed.
By the time Uncle Larry died, he wasn’t just the only priest in the family. He was one of the only Catholics. His generation was faithful to a fault. Everybody went to Mass and nobody questioned the authority of the church. When the grand jury report on the clergy sexual abuse in Maryland came out last year, I read with horror that St. Mark’s in Catonsville, where my mom attended Mass as a child, had the most abusive priests in the entire state. Five clerics had abused children while at St. Mark’s, and seven had abused children before or after serving there.
In my mom’s generation, only she kept going to church. And in my generation, 15 cousins, I’m the only one who still attends Mass.
It’s hard not to mourn the loss of religion in the family and its last priest, Uncle Larry, but I’m not sure what it is exactly that I’d like to mourn. We’re still humans wrestling with the human things that religion and its ordained leaders are supposed to address. In a lapsed family, does it matter that we no longer share a church? Who is our Uncle Larry? Even if we’re not Catholic, shouldn’t we live with structures that encourage holy lives?
Sometimes, when I’m in crisis and worrying about these things, I pray to Uncle Larry. He is the family saint. I ask for guidance about vocation: How can I be more holy and more loving?
I find an answer in the Jesuit-trained inner freedom Uncle Larry developed. He had let go of his attachments to the institutions that molded him. “He said that when it came his time to go to just turn on a good ball game and give him his favorite Bible,” wrote a friend after his death.
He didn’t mean that literally. He wanted a Christian burial and last rites, but his theology was so firm he could make jokes like that. And I take inspiration from his commitment to the priesthood that gave him that freedom, as I seek God every day in my chosen ways of life, my marriage and my vocation as a writer, to name two. I know Uncle Larry would understand — and laugh with me about it.
John W. Miller is a writer and filmmaker from Brussels. He is currently working on his first book, “The Last Manager” (Avid Reader/Simon & Schuster), about Earl Weaver and the role of the baseball manager. He is the co-director of the 2020 PBS film “Moundsville,” and creator of the Moundsville online magazine.