An oblate of St. Francis de Sales takes priestly vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He prays to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.
Few who pray that prayer could have ever imagined the fate that befell Father Charles Engelhardt.
That was the message of the homily delivered today by Father Michael Connolly at the funeral of Father Engelhardt, his friend and fellow oblate of nearly 50 years.
An oblate wears a silver cross around his neck, Father Connolly said. He fished his own cross out of his priestly garments to show the crowd. It's a cross an oblate receives on the occasion of his first presentation of faith, the priest said. It's not a crucifix; there's no body on it.
"Charlie was the body on that cross in his life," Father Connolly said. Like Jesus, Father Engelhardt was falsely accused, tried, and convicted, Father Connolly said. Like Jesus, "Charlie endured his suffering" with patience and humility, Father Connolly said. Like Jesus, Father Engelhardt was repeatedly humiliated before he died as a prisoner.
What was Charlie Engehlardt's response to his fate?
"I accept this injustice believing God will make it right in the end." That's what Father Engelhardt repeatedly told his lawyers and fellow oblates, Father Connolly said. It would be Father Engelhardt's parting message on the day that his family and fellow oblates gathered to bury him.
Charle's two sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews, all gathered to say goodbye. His 89-year-old mother was too ill to attend.
If he had to pick one word to sum his uncle's life, it would be "devout," Michael Boyle, his nephew, told the crowd in the pews. Boyle said he always admired how Uncle Charlie [pronounced Uncle Chollie] prioritized his life.
God and the oblates came first, Boyle said. A close second was Uncle Charlie's love of family. Finally, there was his sometimes misplaced loyalty to Philadelphia's frequently disappointing sports teams.
Uncle Charlie never missed a family gathering, whether it was a communion, baptism or picnic, his nephew said. Or just a weekend gathering in front of the TV to cheer on the Phillies or the Eagles.
Growing up with an uncle as a priest was a big deal, said Richard Stever, another nephew.
"We felt like we were so important," Stever said. At his first communion, Stever recalled, the parish priest had to step aside and let Uncle Charlie officiate.
"Yeah, I'm special," Stever said he felt like telling the other kids. "Uncle Charlie we love you and we miss you."
Today was the feast of the presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the day that Mary at three years old was presented in the temple at Jerusalem. It was on this feast day that Father James J. Greenfield, the provincial, or leader of the oblates, led some 80 priests clad in white in the renewing of their vows.
Father Greenfield thanked Father Engelhardt's family for their loyalty during the priest's ordeal. It was an "inspiration to all of us," Father Greenfield said. "Thank you for your example of love."
Then Father Greenfield turned his attention to his fallen colleague.
"Charlie was a happy guy, he was a steady guy, reliable and predictable," Father Greenfield said. If he had a fault, Father Greenfield said, it was "his inability to express rage."
And in Charlie's case, rage would have been appropriate.
"He was an innocent man," Father Greenfield said. The district attorney offered Father Engelhardt a plea bargain but "He would not perjure himself," Father Greenfield said. Father Engelhardt refused to say he had done something he didn't do, even if it would have meant staying out of jail.
It's been brutal, Father Greenfield said, watching Father Engelhardt's ordeal in the criminal "justice" system. It began in January 2009, when a former altar boy named Billy Doe came foreword to claim that the priest had abused him a decade earlier.
Father Engelhardt did not recall the alleged victim's name. If he was in the room, the priest said, he could not pick him out of a crowd. There wasn't a shred of evidence or any witness to confirm the alleged victim's improbable allegations.
But he was presumed guilty. Within hours, the priest was taken out of active ministry. He was subsequently indicted, convicted by a jury, and sentenced to 6 to 12 years by Judge Ellen Ceisler.
It was a railroading "fueled with false judgements," Father Greenfield said. "Like our church our courts are not perfect."
After he was convicted, Father Engelhardt told his lawyers and fellow oblates that "the only judgement that matters" is what Jesus thought of him.
Charlie Engelhardt had an easy-going manner and a "boyish grin," Father Greenfield said. But beneath the surface calm he had "an iron commitment to the gospel."
Father Engelhardt had a dizzy spell the week before he died. He wound up in the hospital, where he was handcuffed to a bed and under armed guard. The day he died, the priest was inexplicably discharged and sent back to prison. He collapsed there after having some kind of a "cardiac episode," Father Greenfield said.
The priest was rushed by ambulance back to the hospital but it was too late.
"His heart finally gave out" on Nov. 15th when he died, Father Greenfield said. "He left behind a soft, calm soul bearing the image of God."
"He was a good man and a good priest," Father Greenfield said. The provincial told the church that Father Engelhardt's death would not end his legal battle in appeals court.
Father Engelhardt's lawyers will continue the fight to clear his name. "Every effort will be made to set the record straight," Father Greenfield said. But in heaven, Father Greeenfield said, the matter is already settled.
The God that Father Engelhardt prayed to "for truth and justice has at last set him free," Father Greenfield said. Regardless of his earthly struggles, Father Engelhardt is "where he always wanted to be."