Sunday, April 15, 2001

His greatest sermon

Through his suffering, cancer-stricken priest inspires thousands to know God

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        READING — Every so often comes a man whose hope brings new life, whose faith changes a community.

        Tristate Christians know the Easter story. Today they celebrate Jesus, his suffering on the cross to pay for the sins of man and his resurrection from the dead.

        Inside the yellow stone walls of SS. Peter and Paul parish in Reading, the Easter story has renewed meaning.

        There's no crown of thorns for Father Jim. It is cancer. And it riddles his body. It was found in July 1999 — a football-sized tumor in his kidney that unleashed deadly cells into his lungs and legs, his liver and brain.

[photo] Father Jim Willig, despite being wracked with cancer, celebrates Mass at SS. Peter and Paul Church in Reading on April 1.
(Gary Landers photos)
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        Yet people come from Northern Kentucky and Springfield Township, from Evendale and Blue Ash, just to hear Father Willig utter the words of God. They park along the neat brick and clapboard houses and walk past wire garden fences that protect the buds of spring. About 500 people sit shoulder to shoulder in every pew, lean against the walls and stand in the balcony.

        They come Sunday after Sunday, day after day, inspired by the faith of a priest who could have despaired his illness, could have blamed God. Instead, he embraces the suffering — believes it brings him closer to God.

        Members have always loved one another, but stoic German roots kept them from showing it until Father Willig came three years ago from another local parish. Now they hug and laugh. Talk goes beyond the weather and sports. The members are a part of one another's lives.

        They are a community resurrected by a man carrying his own cross.

        From the graceful suffering of a middle-aged priest, the community has learned much. Everyone faces struggles. But, from this priest whose cancer has grown his faith, not weakened it, they've also seen the promise of Easter, that joy comes after sorrow.

"He brought peace ...'
[photo] Laughing with Father Willig are (from left) Meg Hopple of Anderson Township, her mother, Allie Maggini, and her brother, Michael Maggini.
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        Roy Wiehe, a parishioner at SS. Peter and Paul, was diagnosed with cancer the same time as Father Willig.

        The two men sent notes back and forth, encouraging each other. Father Willig gave Mr. Wiehe a wooden cross to hold, to offer up to God the pain and suffering.

        Mr. Wiehe had never been the type of man to talk much about his faith. He went to Mass, but it wasn't until Father Willig's frequent visits that he looked into his heart and found peace with God.

        He told his family he was ready to go, that God wanted him. Mr. Wiehe was 58.

        On a Friday morning about a year ago, Father Willig found out his own cancer had spread to the bones in his legs.

        On the same day, Mr. Wiehe was unconscious and dying.

        Father Willig came to the hospice center and gathered the family around Mr. Wiehe's bed. He held their hands and knelt on the floor — despite what must have been excruciating pain.

        He prayed that “God would be gracious and welcome Roy into the kingdom,” says Lois Wiehe, Roy's wife of nearly 35 years. “It was just beautiful. He brought a peace to everyone.”

[photo] Parishioners and friends of Father Jim Willig pray for him during his birthday celebration at SS. Peter and Paul Church earlier this month.
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        Mr. Wiehe held the wooden cross until his death that night.

        Father Willig never mentioned that his own cancer was worse.

He resurrects faith
        Don't misunderstand. Father Willig prays every day God will heal him.

        He's tried chemotherapy, immunotherapy, thalidomide. He's always looking for the newest experimental drugs and therapy. The latest: taking zinc to deplete his body of copper.

        He's had operations to remove the tumor and his kidney, to replace his right hip and 5 inches of his femur.

        Father Willig went from a man with boundless energy to needing at least three naps a day. He sleeps with his bed at a 45-degree angle so he can breathe. Fatigue is a constant companion and dreaded enemy.

        Soon after his diagnosis, a parishioner prayed with Father Willig. The parishioner said, “God's will be done.”

        Father Willig thought to himself, “No, don't say that.” He wanted a miracle. He still does.

        But Father Willig also wants what God wants. If that means his work on earth is done, Father Willig is at peace. He loves being a priest. He wants to stay here. But he prays every day, “I give my life to you. Take me. Use me.”

        On Monday, doctors told Father Willig more bad news. The cancer has spread for the first time to his liver and brain. They decided to stop the chemotherapy and thalidomide treatments. Father Willig still takes the zinc.

    Age: 50.
    Home: Reading. Grew up in Western Hills.
    Family: Third oldest of 11 children of Alice and Ed Willig of Western Hills.
    Accomplishments: Ordained in 1977 by then-Cincinnati Archbishop Joseph Bernardin. Spent his career in Cincinnati and served local parishes, including the Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains and St. Joseph.
    Father Willig's Gospel lessons can be heard Sundays from 10 to 10:30 a.m. on WOBO radio (88.7 FM). He also is on Saturdays from 5:30 to 6 p.m. and Sundays from 7:30 to 8 a.m. on Sacred Heart Radio (WNOP, 740 AM).
    He will hold a book signing April 29 at 11:30 at SS. Peter and Paul parish, 417 W. Vine St. The book is $6.95.
        “I want to live longer and do more for the Lord,” he says. “But if it's the decision I can do more by dying, so be it.”

        Close friend Dan Gibbons has sat with Father Willig after chemo. The priest's legs and feet cramp. He is bent in pain from nausea.

        “Father Jim never despaired. He never showed anger,” says Mr. Gibbons, 60, of Springfield Township. “The man is in absolute agony, and he's embracing his cancer because it's drawing him closer to Christ. It's the most extraordinary thing I've ever witnessed.”

        Mr. Gibbons has been angry with God. He's gone through the questions and doubt and grief. He doesn't want to lose his good friend and priest.

        The diagnosis “kind of shook us up. It's like, "Wait a minute, Lord. Here's one of the good guys. Why cancer for him?'”

        Mr. Gibbons still doesn't have all the answers. It still doesn't seem fair.

        But one thing he believes. Through Father Willig's suffering, people have come to Christ. The past 20 months have been Father Willig's greatest sermon.

        “Some people have said more has been accomplished through this cancer in the past two years than would have been possible without it,” Mr. Gibbons says. “I believe Christ is speaking directly through Father Willig. God is using the suffering of Christ and the suffering of Father Jim to produce a resurrection in all of us. His cancer is resurrecting the faith of thousands.”
[photo] This banner was flown above SS. Peter and Paul Church during Father Willig's 50th birthday celebration.
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"An energy force'
        Since the diagnosis, members of SS. Peter and Paul pray and turn to the Bible more often. They come to daily Mass, at least 100 a day when there used to be 20.

        Parish members believe in the power of God to perform a miracle — that their beloved priest will be healed.

        They also accept God's will that he may not.

        “I pray for (physical healing) every day, and I hope it happens,” says church member Rose Lindeman, 54, of Reading. “God does know best — and if God doesn't think that's best, it's not going to weaken my faith. We would just have another saint in heaven to pray to and to intercede for us.”

        Father Willig musters each Sunday all the energy he has to do what he loves. He's cut back some of his work at the parish. He no longer teaches a Bible study that drew hundreds each week. Father Willig isn't as involved in the school or as much of the day-to-day administration of the parish.

        And occasionally another priest will fill in on Sundays. But most of the time, Father Willig fights the pain that shoots down his legs and the cramps that curl his toes. He pushes aside the fatigue that makes him so tired he sometimes can't turn over in bed.

        Pale and frail, Father Willig often rubs his hand nervously over short, brown hair. His thumb and index finger wipe sweat off his lip.

        He sits on a stool to preach the word of God. He leans on a walker to celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist. He smiles and shakes hands, asks about the new job and the family vacation.

        “I've seen him some Sundays,” says Judi Hostiuck, 48, of Evendale. “He's so weak. His eyes are closed; his shoulders are slumped. His face looks drawn. Then when he gets up to preach his homily, it's like an energy force comes into him. I believe it's the Holy Spirit coming in.”

Reaching thousands
        Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk last year asked the more than half a million Catholics in the Archdiocese to pray for a miracle of healing for Father Willig. The requests went to parishes from Bond Hill to Dayton, Yellow Springs to West Chester.

        Non-Catholics all over the region pray, too. Father Willig has touched thousands of people over the years. He's a frequent speaker at Christian events and has made available tapes of his sermons and inspirational messages for two decades.

        He offers Gospel lessons on two radio stations. A new book by Father Willig is due out at the end of this month.

        Lessons from the School of Suffering: A Young Priest with Cancer Teaches Us How to Live was written with parishioner Tammy Bundy. Published by St. Anthony's Messenger Press, the book shares what the disease has taught Father Willig.

        “I believe suffering can be a great blessing,” Father Willig says, “if we allow it to teach us.”

        He's learned more empathy for others who are suffering, how to have priorities in his life and nurture his spiritual journey.

        After his diagnosis, Father Willig set three goals for what could be his last days. He wanted to love God more. To help others love God more. And to love people more.

        By all accounts, he's exceeded his goals.

Surrenders to God
        Diagnosed at age 48, Father Willig wasn't sure he'd see his 50th birthday.

        He beat the odds April 2. The day before, his parish threw a birthday party.

        During Mass, Father Willig stumbles to the altar, his legs buckling. In a lullaby of a voice, he prays over the Eucharist.

        A plane's engine is a distant hum. Against the blue sky and white clouds is a banner, “God bless Fr. Jim.”

        At the time, Father Willig is oblivious to the banner. He is inside the church, doing what he lives for: Worshiping with his flock.

        After Mass and across the street in the parish school cafeteria, Father Willig greets hundreds of members. His nose wrinkles when he smiles. His eyes sparkle.

        People arrive in wheelchairs. Architects and teachers come. Full-time mothers and grandfathers. Little girls with pink bows and boys in black suspenders.

        Friends help Father Willig to a wicker-backed stool in front of the crowd.

        “This has been the most difficult year of all the 50 I've lived,” Father Willig says. “It's also been the best year. I've never experienced so much love, so much support, so much kindness and goodness in all of you.

        “I've learned to surrender my whole life in the Lord. No matter what happens, I know God's going to take care of me and this parish.”

        Father Willig stretches out his hands and prays. Then he rises.

        And celebrates life with the people he loves.

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