Father Cuneo remembered as a man of great humility who virtuously ‘wore three hats’

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As parish priest, military chaplain and teacher — these were the three ways in which Father James J. Cuneo served the Church during his 55 years of priesthood, leaving a legacy of humble and sacrificial love to God, family, country and everyone he encountered. He passed away April 1 at the age of 82.

“Father Jim was a devoted priest and servant of the Lord.  He truly loved his vocation.  He enjoyed life and was humbly proud of what he was able to do and accomplish through the grace of God,” said Bob Cuneo, his younger brother. “He strived to use the time, talents, and treasures that the Lord gave him for the benefit of others. He wanted others to enjoy life the way he did.”

Father Cuneo was born on April 18, 1937 in Denver. He graduated from Holy Family High School in 1955, and subsequently entered St. Thomas Seminary in Denver. He was ordained to the priesthood on May 25, 1963, at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver by Bishop David M. Maloney.

After serving as assistant pastor and high school teacher at several parishes including Holy Ghost in Denver, Holy Cross in Thornton and St. Mary’s in Colorado Springs, an experience would kindle in him the desire to serve soldiers and their families.

“Two of my students were killed and several wounded in the Vietnam War. That started me to thinking about the spiritual needs of these young people facing injury and death far from home,” Father Cuneo told the Denver Catholic in an article published Aug. 22, 2007.

He received permission from the archdiocese to join the Air Force for a span of 20 years, during which he served in Korea, Germany and Turkey during the Gulf War; and even as the only priest in Thule, Greenland. He also served as chaplain at Edwards Airforce Base in California and the Lowry Air Force Base in Denver. He attained the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Upon his return to the Archdiocese of Denver, he served as pastor of St. William Parish in Ft. Lupton and St. Stephen Parish in Glenwood Springs; and as parochial vicar at St. Therese Parish in Aurora, Spirit of Christ Parish in Arvada and St. Joan of Arc Parish in Arvada.

Bob believes his brother’s legacy includes his strong love for God, his deep love for his family, his patriotic love for his country and soldiers, and his love and compassion for people. All these things he did with a combination of seriousness, humor and humility.

“Father Jim had two sides that blended well together,” Bob said. “He had the serious side of him, in which he wanted to be a priest and a chaplain, and help people in whatever struggles of life they had … But then he had the fun side of him, where he loved to tell jokes and play pranks … I think that’s what made him a complete person. He loved his life so much that he wanted others to enjoy life the way he did.”

Father Nathan Goebel, pastor at St. Joan of Arc Parish — where Father Cuneo assisted as a retired priest — admired the priest’s humility.

“For a [person] who had every reason to talk about himself, he would normally just talk about the way in which he was able to serve… He was grateful for what he had received instead of bragging about what he had done,” Father Goebel said. “So, to me it was a great reminder that a priest is a minister of service and not just one who just lives an exalted life… He will certainly be missed.”

“He wore three hats: He was a priest, a chaplain and a teacher. And I think he wore them effectively and successfully… And he didn’t do it out of glory for himself; he did it for the glory of God,” Bob concluded.

“Father Jim truly emulated what St. Paul said: ‘Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord’” (2 Cor 10:17).

COMING UP: A time to reflect on death

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November is a month when the Church asks us to pray for the dead. After celebrating those in heaven on Nov. 1, we pray for all the faithful departed who await heaven while undergoing purgation on Nov. 2, All Souls Day. The Church encourages us to pray for the dead by granting special indulgences in November to assist the souls in purgatory. A plenary (or full) indulgence can be received November 1-8 and then a partial indulgence the rest of the month when we “devoutly visit a cemetery and at least mentally pray for the dead” or “devoutly recite lauds or vespers from the Office of the Dead or the prayer Requiem aeternam”: “Eternal rest grant unto him/her (them), O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him/her/them. May he/she/they rest in peace. Amen.”

November, therefore, provides an opportunity to reflect upon death. Even the readings at the end of the liturgical year and the beginning of Advent point us to the coming judgment and end of the world. We may not relish contemplating death but doing so constitutes an essential element of a life well lived, realizing that our life on earth will decide how we spend eternity. Socrates described philosophy as a preparation for death and the same has been made for monasticism.  “Remember to keep death before your eyes daily,” the great Patriarch of monks, St. Benedict, directed in his Rule (ch. 4). A French writer, Nicholas Diat, put this maxim to the test in his new book, A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life (Ignatius, 2019). Diat, known for his three interview books with Cardinal Robert Sarah, visited eight monasteries in France — Norbertines, Benedictines, Cistercians, and Carthusians — to talk to the monks about their experience of death.

He describes why he wrote the book: “The West has worked hard to bury death more deeply in the vaults of its history. Today, the liturgy of death no longer exists. Yet fear and anxiety have never been as strong. Men no longer know how to die. In this desolate world, I had the idea to take the path of the great monasteries in order to discover what the monks might have to teach us about death. Behind cloister walls, they pass their existence in prayer and reflection of the last things. I thought their testimonies could help people understand suffering, sickness, pain, and the final moments of life. They have known complicated deaths, quick deaths, simple deaths. They have confronted death more often, and more intimately, than most who live outside monastery walls” (13).

I found that Diat achieved his objective. Although the monks live very different lives, they still face similar human struggles, sometimes magnified by lack of distractions, including the dominance of technology in sickness and the last stages of life. The Benedictine Monastery of En-Calcat experienced many difficult deaths and the superior, Dom David, related how sedation can make it hard to die: “We no longer feel life. We no longer feel humanity. We no longer feel God approaching” (55). When death approaches more naturally (or should we say supernaturally), the monks can die the “most beautiful death.” Such was the death of Father Henri Rousselot, who died at 96: “His face in death was magnificent. He was supernaturally radiant. The monks had the impression that his features had been drawn by God. Everyone who entered this room was struck by his beauty. Each found the child that Father Henri had always been” (72).

Some monasteries experienced difficult deaths — young monks whose lives were cut short by cancer, or, in the case of the canon Brother Vincent, multiple sclerosis, sudden deaths, even in chapel, or cases of dementia or mental illness. It did seem, however, in my own assessment, that the more a monastery was withdrawn from the world and its cares the more peaceful the deaths of its monks. This was true especially of the Grand Chartreuse (see the film Into Great Silence), where the monks live like hermits in the silent seclusion of prayer. Here the monks, already anticipating heaven, seem to die miraculously by slipping away peacefully. “The beauty of Carthusian deaths, sweet and simple, seems to bear witness to the fact that the spiritual combat of the sons of Bruno is so powerful that, in the final hour, fears are abolished. In the last moments, the peace that dwells in them is so profound that the majority of them are not afraid to die alone. They have spent their lives in the silence of an austere cell that sees them leave this earth” (165).

The book does not treat simply the experience of monks, but a central question for us all: “No one knows how he will live his death. Will we be courageous, fearful, happy? Will we be cowards or heroes?” (114). It’s time to start preparing now!