An adept horticulturist, Father J. James Offutt Jr. maintained that there are only two good times for planting: “when you should … and when you have time.”
He applied a similar calculus of ideals and reality to leading people to Christ.
“He tried to meet you where you were and take you where he thought you should be,” observed Harvey Million, a longtime friend from Holy Spirit parish in Centralia.
Fr. Offutt, 81, an Audrain County native and retired priest of the Jefferson City diocese, died peacefully on Tuesday, Jan. 14, in Columbia.
The Mass of Christian Burial was offered on Jan. 21 in St. Brendan Church in Mexico, with Bishop W. Shawn McKnight presiding, Father Russell Judge preaching the homily, and other priests of the diocese concelebrating.
Visitation and an ecumenical prayer service took place the previous evening in Holy Spirit Church in Centralia.
Burial was in St. Brendan Cemetery.
Fr. Offutt was one of only a handful of priests to have served actively under all four bishops of this diocese.
Through 57 years of Priesthood, he ministered as an assistant pastor in Glasgow and a high school teacher in Salisbury; as a chaplain at the University of Notre Dame; and as a pastor in St. Thomas, Columbia, Linn, Lake Ozark, Jefferson City and Centralia.
He retired from active ministry in July 2018 but continued to offer adult education classes in his home.
Friends remember Fr. Offutt as a gifted teacher, fervent reader, gentle confessor, attentive conversationalist, avid golfer and consummate minister of the Most Holy Eucharist.
“He loved to teach,” said Fr. Judge, a friend of many years. “If he could research it, he could teach it.”
Fr. Offutt impressed many Catholics and non-Catholics alike with his passion and insight into Sacred Scripture.
“He had a better understanding of the Bible than anybody I ever met in a parish,” said Fr. Judge. “He was always reading, always educating himself.”
His quick wit and dry sense of humor opened him up to conversations on just about any subject.
“He would let you set the topic,” said Fr. Judge. “He always wanted to think about who could be included rather than who you were going to exclude.”
Even when weakened by pain and illness, Fr. Offutt resolved to let nothing keep him from offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
“The man gave his life to the Priesthood and particularly to the celebration of the Eucharist,” said Mr. Million. “He epitomized the meaning of community and sacrifice.”
One of Fr. Offutt’s favorite phrases was “Hear and heed.”
“He was one of the best listeners I’ve ever been around,” said Mr. Million. “He stressed listening to the Lord and paying attention to where you’re going to hear Him: Will you hear Him speak through your friends, through your family, through the people you meet in your daily life?”
A time to sow
Preaching and teaching were in Fr. Offutt’s DNA.
He was related to several Catholic priests from northeastern Missouri.
His grandfather was superintendent of the Audrain County School District.
His great-uncle died of scarlet fever while studying at Hannibal-LaGrange College to become a Baptist preacher.
“I cherish the people and places of my roots,” Fr. Offutt once stated.
He was born on June 19, 1938, in Mexico, a son of the late Joseph J. and Martha Jane Offutt.
He started school at St. Brendan in Mexico before moving with his family to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, for eight years.
He continued at St. Brendan High School in Mexico when his family moved back home.
He entered seminary formation at Cardinal Glennon College in St. Louis, followed by four years at the Pontifical North American College (NAC) in Rome.
He graduated in 1963 with a licentiate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
On Dec. 19, 1962, in Christ the King Church in Rome, Archbishop Martin J. O’Connor, rector of the NAC, ordained him to the Holy Priesthood.
He offered his First Solemn Mass in the United States on July 28, 1963, in St. Brendan Church.
He later earned a master’s degree in English from the University of Missouri; and a master’s degree and doctorate in sociology from the University of Notre Dame.
He cultivated an interest in contemplative prayer and meditation while serving as pastor of what is now St. Thomas More Newman Center parish in Columbia.
“The key to the whole mystical tradition, going back to medieval times, is to be open to, aware of and conscious of the power and presence of the Lord, all the time,” he stated in 2012.
He believed that planning for the future is a deeply prayerful, spiritual activity.
“Face it,” he said in 2012. “We don’t’ know much about the Church. It’s a mystery. But seeing how the Church has endured for all these years in spite of its all-too-human failings, we do know that the Holy Spirit mysteriously provides.”
He was adamant that the Church’s response to those who leave is an essential part of its evangelization.
“You don’t plant a seed if you don’t expect it to grow,” he said. “So when people drop off or drop out, we need to start with a good examination: Can I do something better to make myself a better instrument of God’s grace? What can I do to make it easier for people to come back or to not leave in the first place?”
“Keep getting better”
Fr. Judge noted that Fr. Offutt loved the Eucharist, loved plants and flowers, loved people and loved golf.
“When you look at all of that together, it was a matter of him believing that no matter what, you had to keep getting better,” said Fr. Judge.
“He played golf to get better at it. He watered his plants and took care of them because he wanted them to grow.
“He spent time with people in order to help them grow. And he offered the Eucharist so we could all get better.”
Fr. Offutt promoted setting up pastoral councils and finance councils in every parish after the Second Vatican Council called for them.
In the mid-1970s, he helped establish the diocese’s program for preparing candidates for the permanent diaconate and taught many of the courses.
His served in numerous diocesan roles through the years, including 26 years as executive director of the Diocesan Pastoral Planning Committee; 25 years as a judge on the Diocesan Matrimonial Tribunal; 10 years as executive secretary of the diocesan Pastoral Council; and five years as diocesan director of campus ministry.
He wanted his parishes to be welcoming and engaged in lifelong learning and authentic worship.
Each year at Mass on the Feast of the Holy Family, he would invite all married couples into the sanctuary to renew their marriage vows.
He was proud of having worked with the people of Our Lady of the Lake parish in Lake Ozark to make their church stand out to visitors to the Lake of the Ozarks.
They commissioned a shimmering, life-sized image of the Blessed Mother under her title “Star of the Sea,” and placed it on the roof above the entrance.
“Now, no one misses it,” he stated.
Later in life, he set up two endowment funds: one to underwrite an hourlong weekly program of contemplative music on KBIA radio’s HD channel, the other to “enrich adult spiritual development and adult religious education,” specifically in the parishes in Mexico, Glasgow, Salisbury, St. Thomas, Linn, Lake Ozark, Centralia, and Etobicoke, Ontario.
Holy Spirit parish in Centralia named its education building in his honor in 2015.
“The world is a better place because of this man!” Anita Kiska said of Fr. Offutt on the diocese’s Facebook page.
“Bumping into the Lord”
Bernard McGinn, who studied with Fr. Offutt in Rome, remembers him as “a very good friend, a devoted priest, and a model of kindness and generosity.”
“He was always optimistic and open to others,” said Mr. McGinn. “... He will be much missed by many, including all his Roman classmates.”
“I loved his intelligence and his humor,” stated Teresa Emanuel Thrasher. “A gentle soul to be sure!”
“Loved his laugh!” stated Tammy Wolfe-Kliethermes, at whose wedding Fr. Offutt officiated 38 years ago.
Juanita Kunzler was principal of the school when he was pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Jefferson City. She said ministering with Fr. Offutt helped her realize “that each of us is different, as were the Apostles.”
“He had and used his many gifts in God’s service, inspiring many people’s lives,” she said.
Mr. Million recalled that Fr. Offutt often spoke of mysticism as “recognizing when you’re bumping into the Lord.”
“By his example, he helped me to be more aware of those moments,” said Mr. Million. “It really made me more aware of God’s love for me and for all humanity.
“He could explain things in such a way that you could see the Incarnation,” he added. “He guided me to explore my faith in a way that really deepened my understanding and helped me become a better dad, a better son, a better husband, a better man.”
Through his last years, Fr. Offutt battled with infirmity including arthritis, shingles, cancer and the side effects of treatment.
None of that dimmed his desire to continue ministering as a pastor.
“He was here to serve, in spite of whatever pain he might have been in,” said Mr. Million.
His message to parishioners upon retirement was simple: “Thank you for 19 years of wisdom and peace. To those who I have offended, I am sorry!”
“Something to offer”
Edward Bode, a member of Cathedral of St. Joseph parish in Jefferson City, remembers the days when Fr. Offutt would drive a school bus from Glasgow to the old St. Joseph High School in Salisbury, where he taught and coached basketball.
“In the early 1960s, he travelled to Mexico,” Mr. Bode recalled. “The highlight of Mexico City was a short trip to the outskirts for a visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
There, he celebrated Mass in the old basilica altar beneath the ‘tilma’ of Our Lady.
“Fr. Jim had this great vision of the Church,” Fr. Judge stated in his homily, “and he always wanted to get us all involved in it: The more you could bring in, the more you could include, the better the Church was going to be.
“To Jim, strength lies in our diversity,” said Fr. Judge. “That each of us brought something to the table. That everyone, no matter where they are in life, had something to offer.”
He was pleased to return to St. Thomas the Apostle parish in St. Thomas this past October for the parish’s 150th anniversary celebration, having served as pastor there during the parish’s centennial.
For posterity, he returned the plaque the parish had presented to him at the end of his tenure there almost 50 years ago.
“It’s time to bring it back home,” he said.
“Teach us to pray”
For the Gospel reading at his Funeral Mass, Fr. Offutt chose the first verse from Luke, Chapter 11:
“He was praying in a certain place, and when He had finished, one of His disciples said, to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.”
“That’s Fr. Jim for you,” said Fr. Judge. “He was always teaching people how to pray.”
Surviving are a brother, Edward C. Offutt; and four sisters, Jane Y. Offutt, Dorothy (Offutt) Arnold, Joan (Offutt) Honeyfield and Catherine A. Offutt.