Yesterday, Fr. Jerome Vereb took three of us on a trip through Brother Jim Fitzgerald’s Pittsburgh. We went first to Knoxville, where Jim as little boy of 5 or 6, studied in the 1930s under some teachers from Pittsburgh’s famous King’s School for Oratory and began his career as a child actor in radio. Pittsburgh then was a center for commercial radio broadcasting in the United States.
Jim’s mother, sensing possibilities for her talented child, got him jobs on KDKA and WWSW. When World War II broke out, Jim became a regular announcer at WWSW as a high school student and in his later years had his own show and worked in different radio stations in the northeast. He died a Passionist brother last December 15th.
On Sunday, we celebrated a memorial Mass for Jim with his family and friends at St Paul’s Monastery, Pittsburgh.
Jim was an extraordinarily talented man, intelligent, a gifted speaker, and yet simple and deeply spiritual. I suppose his simplicity was the reason he liked stories of the desert saints, who lived in Egypt and deserted places in the middle east from the 3rd century onward.
One of the saints he liked was John the Short. A little man. Stories describe him as very human and very heroic. Here are two:
It was said of John the Short that one day, fed up living with others, he decided to live an angelic life by himself, so he left his monastery and went into the desert. Night came, and sounds of wild beasts and strange movements in the dark. There was no place to sleep or food either, so John decided to go back to his community.
His knock on the door was answered by a voice from within: “Who is it?”
“It’s me, John,” he answered.
“John doesn’t live here any more.” The voice inside said. “He’s living with angels.”
“No, no,” John said, “ It’s me. Please let me in.”
“Well, all right, I’ll let you in,” the voice said, “ But remember, we’re not angels here, we’re human beings. If you want to live with us you have to take us as we are.”
It was said of John the Short that he went to his spiritual guide one day and asked, “What shall I do? And his guide gave him a stick and told him to go plant it in the desert and water it.
John went and planted it in the desert and watered it, for three years.
After three years, the stick began to sprout green leaves, then new branches and finally lush grapes.”
His guide came and took the fruit into the church and holding it up before everyone said: “Behold, the fruit of loyalty.”