By Janelle C. Gergen
I was surprised by an early morning notification on Thursday, July 18 alerting me that Father Don Braukmann had passed away. Just as you, his faithful readers, were expecting to read his words on this page a few more times, I, too, experienced a jolt when coming to the realization that Father Don’s OND column, “Life First”— penned for nearly 30 years — had come to an end.
I can attest to the fact that “Life First” was well-loved and thought-provoking for you, the readers, as you have told me through the years in opinion surveys, emails and hand-written letters. The digital metrics for the column’s online engagement have soared since this publication’s 2017 diversification.
As you know, “Life First” was a much-needed voice for the “least” in our midst, not just the unborn but those often marginalized and labeled “less than” for myriad of reasons in the ever-polarized, over-politicized, yet increasingly connected-through-digital-methods society in which we live. Indeed, “Life First” spoke up for those who exemplify “Christ-like” in their suffering or vulnerability, the ones whose inherent dignity is all too often ignored. “Life First” also challenged directly those who do not clearly see the extraordinary value of each human life gifted to this world by God and God alone.
At the time of his ALS diagnosis, Father Don asked me, “Should I write about my situation right away or hold off a little bit and focus on other topics for a while? I don’t want this column to become solely about my illness.”
I responded by encouraging him to be up front about the diagnosis and allow it to be a vehicle for evangelization and conversion as time passed and as the Holy Spirit prompted him. I reassured him that sharing the news with immediacy would be courageous and authentic so the dignified “womb-to-tomb” melody of not only the pro-life movement, but of our Catholic faith could be lived as whole-heartedly as possible in his final months and writings.
In other words, I invited him to share as he was able, the crosses of this mortal life while emphasizing the point that this place on earth is not meant to be our final home. Father Don offered that message well over 30 years of column writing and priestly ministry, yet somehow, was a bit hesitant when first faced with the opportunity to embrace the ALS journey in front of OND’s readership.
And that’s okay. Because like each of us, Father Don was a human being with strengths and weaknesses; his dignity was not defined by the good or bad in this life, his own moments of struggle or hesitation, or even the illness he endured at his life’s end.
On January 10, 2018, Father Don shared a prayer with OND readers from one of his favorite authors, Father Henri Nouwen:
Dear Lord, I will remain restless, tense, and dissatisfied until I can be totally at peace in your house. But I am still on the road, still journeying, still tired and weary, and still wondering if I will ever make it to the city on the hill.
I keep asking your angel, whom I meet on the road: “Does the road go uphill then all the way?” And the answer is: “Yes, to the very end.” And I ask again: “And will the journey take all day long?” And the answer is: “From morning till night, my friend.”
So I go on, Lord, tired, often frustrated, irritated, but always hopeful to reach one day the eternal city far away, resplendent in the evening sun.
There is no certainty that my life will be any easier in the years ahead, or that my heart will be any calmer. But there is the certainty that you are waiting for me and will welcome me home when I have persevered in my long journey to your house.
O Lord, give me courage, hope, and confidence. Amen.
Thank you, Father Don, for showing OND readers the courage, hope and confidence you had in God, our loving Father. Your “Life First” column was necessary leaven in a broken and truth-starved world. May you rest in eternal peace.