Leo G. Bonacci passed away on January 21, 2023. He was two months shy of his 100th birthday.
There is so much I could say about my amazing father. He was the smartest guy in pretty much any room. And perhaps the most quirky. He couldn’t remember what he had for breakfast, but he remembered pretty much everything that happened in America in the past 100 years. (“The Dust Bowl? I remember that.” “The Hindenburg? I remember that.”)
But, when it comes right down to it, only two things matter. He was holy. And he loved.
There was no rational reason for Dad to come to deep faith. He grew up in a coal mining camp. His parents were good people, but not “church people.” In fact, I recently unearthed an interview my grandmother gave the Historical Society in which she said, “Our son married a real nice girl. They have four real nice kids. He’s real religious. We don’t know why.”
But, for some reason, God chose him. And he chose God. Over and over.
To me, Dad’s holiness demonstrated what true holiness is supposed to do. It makes us more of what we already are. It takes our best traits and magnifies them.
Dad was cheerful by nature. A World War II Army evaluation said that he “radiates enthusiasm.” And he did. He was a lifelong photographer who saw God’s hand in all of the beauty around him. The fact that his offspring didn’t always share that sense of wonder didn’t deter him. I can still see him on a road trip, enthusing to us unenthusiastic teenagers in the back seat: “Hey kids! We’re in the Badlands! Isn’t this incredible?”
He loved everything. He loved the meal he was eating. He loved the day he was having. To me, his final years looked pretty boring. But when I would ask him how his day was, he would respond, “Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.”
He really, really loved his family. I know, every parent loves their family. But he took it to an entirely different level. In conversation, most people toss off a quick “love you.” Not my Dad. Saying it once wasn’t enough. He had to say it three times — each time with fervor, like he had never said it before. “I love you, love you, love you.”
Dad’s love for us was absolutely unconditional. We knew it because he told us. All the time. As a kid, one of my most distinct memories was of my Dad saying, “Mom and I will love you no matter what.” And he lived it. Agree or disagree, right or wrong, he loved us. Every minute of every day, year in and year out, all the time.
That love extended out from our immediate family. He loved his grandchildren just like he loved his kids. Fervently and unconditionally. The same went for his extended family. Loved each one like they were the only person in his life.
Dad never met a stranger. People he didn’t know would come to the house, and he had to know all about them. Where were they from? Were they married? What did they do? He even wanted to get to know Alexa better. He insisted on thanking her every time she did something for us, despite my constant reminders that she was a computer. To him, she was somebody generous enough to help us, and that deserved acknowledgement.
Above all, he loved Mom. After she died, he would sit quietly, and then simply say, “I miss Mom.” He would kiss her picture has he walked by. And, shortly before he left us, he said, “I’m going to see Mom again, and she’s going to be my sweetheart.”
There are a lot of loving people in the world. But I have rarely seen anybody love as wholeheartedly and as unselfishly as my father did. I think the reason is simple: he saw the image and likeness of God in everybody he met. Everybody. Not just the people he liked, or hit it off well with. Everybody.
Dad understood, probably better than anybody I ever knew, that this life isn’t our final destination. It is preparation for the next. And he spent his life preparing. He had his eye on the finish line. As kids, he told us, “I don’t care if you grow up to be ditch diggers, as long as you save your souls.” His favorite scripture was: “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the hearts of man what God has in store for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).
That was the prize he was working toward.
Dad offered up his sufferings. Cheerfully. In later years, macular degeneration took the sight from his right eye. Once I said, “We need to keep that left eye healthy.” He smiled and replied, “If I went blind, just think of the suffering I could offer up!”
We saw him live that out in the last four weeks of his life. Just days before he died, I asked him how he was doing. He responded “Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.”
He never complained. I mean never. He expressed no fear of death. His trust in God was absolute. His last spoken words were, “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” And when he could no longer speak, I saw him fold his hands and move his lips in prayer.
It’s not surprising. He had been preparing for that moment his whole life. He, more than anyone I have ever known, was ready to go.
I look at him and think “I want to be like that.” But then I see how I handle difficulty in my own life, and I realize that it is much easier said than done. In fact, under normal human conditions, it is impossible.
So how could Dad do it? Holiness. It wasn’t him doing it. It was the Holy Spirit working in him. It was the fruit of years of Masses and sacraments and surrendering to the will of God.
Despite that holiness, please pray for the repose of his soul. I know it’s easy to canonize the deceased when they lived such a holy life. But he didn’t want that. He made it very clear that he wanted prayers. So I’m asking for them. They aren’t wasted. If he doesn’t need them, someone else does. And that would thrill him.
Lately, I have been getting the feeling that Dad’s life is the seed that falls to the ground and dies — that his beautiful faith is going to bear a lot of fruit in death.
We’re praying for you, Dad. Please pray for us.