ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — A Florida priest found slain in Burke County earlier this month was remembered Tuesday for his kindness.
Throughout his life and work, the Rev. Rene Robert was “witness to the gospel of mercy.” That was the message from the Most Rev. Felipe J. Estevez, bishop of St. Augustine, at Robert’s funeral Tuesday.
“You know it is quite fitting that what we say about Father Rene is related to the extraordinary year of mercy which capitalizes so much on the encouragement of Pope Francis to encourage us all to expand the works of mercy,” Estevez said during his brief remarks near the close of the funeral Mass at San Sebastian Catholic Church.
Authorities say Robert, 71, was killed on April 11 in Burke County, Ga., by 28-year-old Steven James Murray, whom investigators believe Robert met as part of his ministry to those recently released from jail.
Murray had just been released from the Duval County jail on April 6. He is currently in custody in Georgia and has been charged with murder in connection with Robert’s death.
It is estimated that nearly 1,400 people attended the 11 a.m. service. More than 40 priests, seven deacons and three bishops attended, said Diocese of St. Augustine spokeswoman Kathleen Bagg.
In Tuesday’s homily, the Rev. Timothy M. Lindenfelser, pastor at St. Anastasia Catholic Church, said that work was only a part of a very active life of service that is difficult to match.
“We are challenged by his concern for the environment,” Lindenfelser said. “Father Rene dumped the cathedral trash cans out on the floor, looking for things to recycle ... long, long before recycling became acceptable. And he never stopped.”
He joked of Robert’s tenacious spirit, his disorganization and his tendency to show up unannounced for meals at people’s homes. “We treasure these things,” he said of people’s willingness to share such memories.
“In our sharing with the strangers among us, we have tried to convey that Father Rene believed with his whole heart, soul and being that every one human being is a child of God,” he added.
That belief led Robert to the many ministries for which he was known.
“Father Rene sought out anyone who was neglected, marginalized and felt unloved or abandoned,” Lindenfelser said. “Father wanted to provide them with an experience of God’s love, knowing that once they had the experience of being loved by him and God, their lives would be forever changed.”
Lindenfelser went on to list Robert’s many areas of service, including his work with the deaf and blind community, his efforts to establish a weekly Mass in Spanish rather than just once a month, and his outreach to the community’s depressed, addicted and needy.
“He protested, either on street corners or at the prison, every time there was to be an execution,” he added.
But it was Robert’s efforts to “offer love, healing, reconciliation and new hope to those recently released from jail” that set him apart from others and put him at risk, Lindenfelser said.
“Many who are released have been abandoned by their families, are unable to obtain work and have no place to live – leaving them to commit more crimes,” he said.
“Our local law enforcement community has on more than one occasion set up transitional housing for those released, only to be forced to shut down the operation by the community’s fears,” he went on. “Father Rene tried to help one individual at a time start over their life.”
There were risks involved that Robert was well aware of.
“If Father Rene had a chance to go back in time with full knowledge of how he died, and choose between reaching out to Mr. Murray or avoiding him, I can say with complete confidence he would still reach out to offer his love and a helping hand to Mr. Murray,” Lindenfelser said. “This is the child of God, the man and priest we remember.”
The Most Rev. John J. Snyder, bishop emeritus of St. Augustine, said it was Robert’s ties to the Franciscan community that inspired his work.
Robert came to St. Augustine in the 1980s as a Franciscan brother. When the members of the Franciscan community at San Sebastian decided they would return to their monastery, Robert chose to stay on at the church, Snyder told those in attendance Tuesday.
“He continued to minister to people with hearing disabilities and the blind,” he said.
Snyder suggested then that Robert become a priest. It was advice he took. Robert was ordained on August 19, 1989. “Even though he left the Franciscans, he never left the spirit of Francis,” Snyder said.
“He was a gift and a blessing to us,” he added. “He didn’t care about anything material. He cared about people – he cared about them in an incredible way.”
And that is the example San Sebastian pastor, the Rev. John Gillespie, suggested others follow. “I hope that you will not feel too sorry for yourselves,” Gillespie said as the service ended. “Every time you start to say, ‘Poor me, Rene is gone,’ do what Rene did: Pick up the slack, make a difference yourself.”