When a Pastor Dies

When a beloved member of the clergy passes away, a faith community feels the impact of that life.

Father Bert Mello.  Photo from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Bakersfield

Father Bert Mello.  Photo from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Bakersfield

Bert Mello of Atwater, Merced County came to his decision on becoming a Catholic priest late in life.  He entered the seminary in his fifties.

He was ordained in 2013 just a few weeks before celebrating his sixtieth birthday.

So when he passed away March 21 just a few months short of turning sixty-five, there was surprise and shock that this tenure in parish ministry was seemingly cut too short.

I first saw Bert Mello serve in the Lector ministry at St. Patrick’s Church in Merced shortly after arriving in the community in 2006.  

The Lector reads scripture out loud before the congregation during Mass.

What impressed me about Bert’s style of oral interpretation was his apparent memorization of some of the readings he delivered.  

A friend told me this was one of Bert’s signature habits as a Lector.

He would practice the readings so intently that by the time he read to the congregation, he usually knew the text so well that he could deliver it without looking at the written page.

The faith community at St. Patrick’s Church would see Bert during his years in the seminary.  He would come back to visit family and help out at the church during breaks from his studies.

While I did not know him well, his presence was felt in a positive way.

That presence was more than just being a familiar face.  In church, he was full of enthusiasm. When we learned of his backstory, we understood why he was so passionate about his faith.

At age 50, divorced from his spouse and separated from his church, Bert turned back to his faith.  He sought and received reconciliation. In that process, he found his life calling.

He entered the seminary at a relatively older age.  His enthusiasm came across as a man in a hurry to make up for lost time.  

My wife and I attended his first Mass as an ordained priest in 2013.  

The church was packed. I remember how everyone was proud that someone from our parish had become a priest.  

Father Bert gave a powerful homily describing his faith journey that led him to that very day.

He was immediately assigned to a church in Fresno and would eventually accept a post in Bakersfield.  The congregation in Merced would see him once or twice a year when he visited family and celebrated Mass.

In my forty-plus years of adult life, I have attended the funeral Mass for three priests.  While there is joy through our faith in knowing the soul lives on in heaven, there is sadness with the earthly reality of a special person separated from us.

People develop some kind of relationship with their pastors.  They are present at some of the most important times in family life:  marriages, baptisms, even funerals. Some become close personal friends.  

Some feel there is a comfort in life personified through the person who leads a faith community.

Many pastors generally work to keep some distance from their flocks.  Transfers in assignments are common. There’s a realization that the person serving in that role is loyal first to the church.  They go where they are needed.

Still, they are people.  They appreciate the kindness we show.  We acknowledge the sacrifice they make when they choose to enter church ministry.

And that takes us back to Father Bert Mello.  He was a man who came into religious life at a later age.  

A man described by some of his parishioners in Bakersfield as intent on cramming in as much activity in his church as he could possibly give.   

He did just that.  And for those who knew him, even for a brief amount of time, we are feeling the impact of his service and expressing our gratefulness for having him cross our path.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced.  

His 2007 book Go Where You Are Needed is about a group of Sisters dealing with the closing of their convent.  

It is available at Lulu.com