The following was written by John Clark, a classmate of mine from Christendom College and an author and blogger on Catholic and family issues (among other things). We both had Fr. Pilon for THEO 101, and I thought many of you would enjoy John’s reflection on the impact Fr. Pilon had on him as an undergraduate (which has endured through the years). Thank you, John, for sharing this with us.
— Stephen Pilon
A Reflection by John Clark
Father Mark Pilon, priest for over forty years and longtime friend of Christendom College, passed away on March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph, the patron saint of a happy death.
When I was a freshman at Christendom College, Father Pilon taught a course called Fundamentals of Catholic Doctrine, and I have many fond memories of the class. “Doctrine” was the first class that Lisa and I took together; even though Lisa transferred to Christendom as a junior, she was required to take the course along with the freshmen like me. Being homeschooled in religion for many years put me in a position to help Lisa study for the class. So Lisa and I got to know each other over Father Pilon’s lecture notes and books like The Church Teaches. (You can call that unromantic if you want, but here we are, nine children later.)
As for Father Pilon himself, he was an imposing figure to a classroom of teenage freshmen. It is said that some people have a presence when they stand in a room, and whatever set of charisms and attributes composes the thing we call presence, Father had it. Although he was only slightly above average height, my memory was that Father stood about six-foot-four; and I would guess that if you asked the other freshmen in the class, they would have agreed with me on that height assessment. For the first few classes, we would scramble for desks in the back of the small room; once class had begun, the official pronouncements of the church throughout two millennia echoed throughout the building through Father’s deep voice. Father was not shy about his Faith.
Coming from the homeschooling world where there were no lectures, I didn’t know how to take notes as I sat in most of my freshman courses; I wasn’t always sure what were the uniquely important points that would compel me to put pen to paper. But in Father’s class, I knew. In fact, I still remember Father Pilon’s opening lecture of that first class, in which he announced: “If you deny one truth, you deny them all.” I wrote that down, and then engraved it on my soul. Father’s point was simple: a person either accepts truth or rejects it. Each person has the freedom to either seek the truth or not, but make no mistake: it’s not the freedom that makes us happy, it’s the truth.
When you are discussing doctrine and truth and happiness, this is profound stuff, and Father Pilon was a serious-minded teacher. Father Pilon never mistook Catholic Doctrine for finger-painting; instead, he realized—and communicated to us—that dogma was serious business. Rather than a malleable and amorphous lump of clay waiting to be shaped in the hands of a would-be artist, or a forum teeming with penumbras and emanations, defined doctrine was just that: defined, precise, true. As a student, you either knew the answers or you didn’t. Period. Perhaps that was his way of telling us that, at the end of the day, there’s no such thing as half-credit in dogmatic theology. And yet, when Father Pilon spoke about subjects like the penitent’s lifelong struggle against sin, this strong and serious man expressed his kindness and patience, as well as an unshakable, joyous, and childlike sense of hope in the mercy of God. Perhaps more than any other teacher, Father helped me understand how God is both just and merciful. Thirty years later, I still remember.
A few years ago, Father Pilon retired to Front Royal, and regularly said Masses at Christendom. At the Feast of the Ascension last year, Lisa approached him after Mass and told him how much she enjoyed his sermon. Unexpectedly to Lisa, Father Pilon handed her his original freshly-printed copy. In that sermon, Father Pilon commented on Ephesians 1 and Corinthians 2 regarding what Heaven will be like for us. I conclude by quoting part of that sermon, the veracity of which is known to Father more now than ever before:
We poor mortals might understandably be perfectly justified just to escape the pains of Hell and live on in some sense with God forever. But Paul is trying here to raise our sights even much higher, to make us understand at least in some partial way what can never be fully expressed or understood in this world. The astounding truth that Paul is preaching here is that where Jesus as man has gone in His Ascension, He has truly called us to follow. The final destiny of every person who is “in Christ” by faith and baptism, and who truly loves Christ in the Spirit, is nothing less than to follow where He has gone, as the God/man, right into the very heart of the Triune God. As He Himself has told us, He has ascended not just to return to His Father but to prepare a place for us in Him, there, in God, in Heaven. For in the final analysis, God is our heaven, and our heaven is in God.