SAN FRANCISCO — Auxiliary Bishop Robert F. Christian of San Francisco was eulogized by a longtime friend and fellow Dominican as a world traveler who “lived for others,” intentionally seeking out new experiences and encounters with others as he moved toward his ultimate destination with God.
“Connecting with the locals, be it in the Dominican community or with a student priest, he would always say it was a wonderful way to get a sense of our own destination,” said Dominican Father Alejandro Crosthwaite, homilist at Bishop Christian’s funeral Mass July 23 at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco.
“This fundamental connection between love and friendship was essential in understanding who Robert Christian was and how he journeyed with Christ throughout his life and throughout the world,” he said.
Christian, 70, died unexpectedly July 11 at his home at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University in Menlo Park. A Dominican priest, he was ordained June 5, 2018, as the 18th auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. He had served as the seminary’s rector-president since January.
Cardinal William J. Levada, a former archbishop of San Francisco and retired Vatican official, and 11 bishops and nearly 100 priests and deacons joined members of the Dominican community, interfaith leaders and others at the morning Mass celebrated by Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco.
Cordileone offered his condolences to Christian’s family, including his brothers, Joseph, James, Michael, John and Thomas and his sister, Mary Gloria Christian.
“You shaped the person he was,” the archbishop said.
Crosthwaite, an academic dean at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, where Christian taught for more than 30 years, said the two shared a zest for traveling together to exotic places such as the Galapagos Islands, Istanbul and Machu Picchu in Peru.
He noted the difference between a traveler and a tourist and emphasized that Christian was the former in his journeys as well as his life.
Travelers, he said, intentionally choose the unknown over the familiar while tourists tend to be “pleasure seekers” who generally prefer comfortable, made-to-order experiences.
“The word travel comes from the same root as the word, “travail,” which means trouble, work, and sometimes even torment,” he said.
He called travel “the Christian life in miniature.”
“As we travel, we have a spiritual purpose and we grow in friendship and community with others,” he said. “We encounter, sometimes in surprising and unexpected ways, Jesus, along our journey.”
Crosthwaite said his friend’s way of traveling and following his life’s journey serves as an invitation to consider whether we are “engaged travelers” or “passive tourists” on the journey of life God has given us.
“We should keep our sights always fixed not just on our next destination here on our earth, but we keep our eyes fixed as Bishop Christian did, on the fact that our destiny is eternal life and not just death,” he said.
At a reception following the service, Juan Carlos, a seminarian at St. Patrick’s, told Catholic San Francisco, the archdiocesan newspaper, he considered Christian a “great role model as a priest.” He said Bishop Christian encouraged seminarians to include prayer whenever and wherever they can.
“I appreciated all that he gave to us,” Carlos said.
St. Patrick’s classmate Gerardo Vasquez said Christian was a “joyful” man who was straightforward and optimistic. Every two weeks, he said, he held a rector’s conference, sat down with the students and gave his thoughts on the priesthood.
Father Charles Onubogo from Our Lady of the Pillar Parish in Half Moon Bay recalled Christian’s talk on “forgiveness” to priests on retreat at Vallombrosa Center in Menlo Park just a few weeks before his death.
“He told a story about someone who wrote something about him that wasn’t true,” said Onubogo, and how he chose to “let that go.”
Father Anthony Rosevear, novice master for the Dominicans’ Western province, based in Oakland, California, said Christian introduced him to the Dominican order. They met as college students studying abroad in Italy, neither on a priestly track at the time.
After both completed their degrees and Christian entered the novitiate at St. Albert’s Priory in Oakland, Christian wrote his new friend a three-page typewritten letter detailing why he was well-suited to become a Dominican. “He listed point-by-point and he was right all the way through,” Rosevear said.
Deacon Chuck McNeil of St. Dominic Parish said Bishop Christian “was grounded in tradition but in many ways embraced the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.”
And, McNeil added, “he was the most organized priest I have ever met.”
In addition to his siblings, Christian is survived by a large extended family that includes his brothers’ spouses, dozens of cousins and many nieces, nephews and grandnieces and grandnephews.
Bishop Christian was laid to rest July 24 at the St. Dominic Cemetery in Benicia.
Gray is associate editor of Catholic San Francisco, newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
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