Bishop Joseph Potocnak shares the funeral homily he gave for fellow South African bishop Evert Baaij. “It’s funny how sometimes it is only after someone is gone that you know what an impact a person has had on your life,” said Bishop Potocnak. “Thinking about Bishop Baaij a month after his funeral I am still struck by what a good and holy man he was and how lucky I was to have known and worked with him.”
Homily for the Funeral Mass of Bishop Evert Baaij, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, February 9, 2012
I greet each one of you in the name of the Lord Jesus. We know that the homily at a funeral is not supposed to be a eulogy, but the church in all her wisdom allows us to speak about holy people. Bishop Baaij was a very holy man. But like many very good people, he felt that he was a great sinner.
He was the most catholic – universal — person I ever met. He was born in Holland, was a priest and teacher in Canada, and was a Canadian citizen. He taught in the Priests of the Sacred Heart’s seminary and was member of the U.S. Province of Priests of the Sacred Heart until his death. He was a parish priest in Middelburg, Noupoort, and Colesberg. While in Colesberg he was the parish priest to all the foreign workers building the Gariep Dam, the largest dam in South Africa.
He was named bishop of the Diocese of Aliwal North and consecrated bishop in May of 1974. After a number of years, he became ill and retired in 1981. He went to Mariannhill and then served in help-out ministry on the South Coast. Over 25 years ago, he came to the Diocese of Port Elizabeth, first in parish work.
When Bishop Baaij was down he said that he “picked myself up, brushed myself off, started all over again, and visited the sick, and needy.” That spirit is probably what made him so compassionate.
He became a chaplain at Nazareth House here in Port Elizabeth and continued to visit the sick and dying. When he was Bishop of Aliwal, he visited the hospital twice a day. He was always available on the South Coast for the hospitals there. In Port Elizabeth I was told by many people that if there was a sick person who needed a priest, Bishop Baaij would come immediately. He always had time for those in need. He loved to work with religious women; he admired and respected their dedication, and especially, their prayer life. He loved Nazareth House and the sisters, as well as the Holy Cross Sisters at Fatima House in Aliwal North, the Sacred Heart Sisters with their hospital and hospice work, and the Dominican and Assumption Sisters.
Bishop Baaij was a very intense man. However, he never made you feel uncomfortable. He was always completely honest. Humility is a virtue. Bishop Baaij was humble. His actions matched his words. He was a priest’s priest. He was always happy to be with his fellow priests.
Bishop Baaij embodied the founder’s words to “Go to the people.” I was with Bishop Baaij in Colesberg the early part of 1974 before he became the Bishop of Aliwal North. He was a great priest, a real pastor. Once a month on a Friday night we would go to the farms in the Colesberg district, stay overnight and have the Eucharist on one of the farms. The next day we would celebrate Mass at three or four other farms. We would return to Colesburg about 6:00 p.m., then Bishop Baaij would make a Holy Hour before going off to visit the sick. I never heard him say that he was tired or needed a break. He was a big and confident man. He knew everyone in Colesberg, the elite and rich, but he enjoyed going to the shacks of the poor, and being with them. He treated all people the same.
Colesberg had a lot of horse breeding farms. He ended up naming many of those newborn horses when he was with the people.
Bishop Baaij never gave boring homilies because you never knew what he would say. With his permission, I will repeat a story from one that he gave at Nazareth. He talked about how he was going to be confirmed as a teenager in Holland, and the catechism teacher said, “the one who writes the best essay on confirmation gets a prize.” Bishop Baaij knew he was a good writer and guessed that his competition was a fellow student who later became the minister of finance in Holland.
Anyway, after the confirmation Bishop Baaij said that the teacher never told them who won the prize. But about a month later it came to him that they all got a prize: the prize they got at confirmation was the Holy Spirit.
When he retired from Aliwal North he helped on the South Coast. He also helped and ministered in Ixopo. I went to visit him there and on the way, because of rough roads, I blew out or ruined three tires. In those days, they used old inner tubes to fix tires, and used a “solution” to patch up the patches. So Bishop Baaij took me down to the gas station to fix the tires and we both remember what the owner said: “Boys we have no solution, sorry.”
They had run out of the tire solution. Literally, no solution! It’s a funny memory I have that includes Bishop Baaij.
Bishop Baaij was loved by everyone. I am not sure if he knew this. We never told him. For myself I think I always had love for this good man. However, I didn’t realize how much until he passed away.
Like Saint Paul he never boasted about all the many people he touched with his healing presence. Divine Providence was truly present in his life. If he had remained healthy as bishop of Aliwal perhaps his true vocation as a healing pastor would have never fully been fulfilled.
“I have chosen you to go and bear fruit that will last,” writes John in his gospel. Bishop Baaij was chosen and he did bear fruit that will last. I am sure Bishop Baaij never realized how much good he did, how many people he touched in his life.
“I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brother of mine, you did for me,” writes Matthew. I am sure Bishop Baaij heard the words when he passed away.
God bless you our dear brother, our dear father, Bishop Baaij. May you always rest in the peace of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.