Obituary: Fr. Thomas Eastermann OSB

IN THE COLLECT for the Mass of Christmas night, the Church prays with all the faithful throughout the world in these words, “Lord, our God, the true light is made radiant for us in this most sacred night. Let us grasp and safeguard this mystery in faith until we see the unveiled splendor of your glory in heaven.” With these words Fr. Thomas, too, began the celebration of Christmas that in fact let him “see the unveiled splendor of your glory” on the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. And so it seems these last days of our deceased confrere, which were lived in the context of the cycle of Christmas feasts, were like a summary of his life.
Fr. Thomas was born on 23 August 1932 in the Lucerne Canton Hospital to his parents Leo and Agatha Estermann-Süess and baptized with the name Johann Balthasar on 25 August in the hospital chapel. As a small child he was placed into the arms of his parents, as was Jesus himself. The crib at first was in the hospital in Lucerne, however with the birth of Johann Balthasar as the second of five children, a “true light must have radiated,” as the prayer from Christmas night so fittingly formulates it. Johann Balthasar then spent his youth at the Herrenmühle in Hohenrain; this fell during the austere 1930s and the war years that followed. However, it was not only the externals of everyday farming life in Lucerne country that marked the young life of Johann Balthasar, but also “the desire to grasp and safeguard the mystery in faith” as the Christmas collect says. Our confrere experienced both earthly and heavenly joys in Herrenmühle and these experiences lit up more and more the “unveiled splendor of the divine glory” so that from the primary school in Hohenrain there followed eight years in the gymnasium from which he graduated in 1953.

After the military training school in Frauenfeld and a three-week refresher course, a second chapter in the life of Johann Balthasar began, which, however, would only be a transition period. On 19 October 1953 he entered the Benedictinum in Fribourg at the age of twenty-one. A year later, on 17 October, Frater Thomas, as he was now known, made his temporary profession and on 20 October 1957, his solemn profession. In the meantime he began his theology studies in Fribourg, which finished in Munich because of his somewhat weak physical constitution. After that everything progressed quickly for all intents and purposes: Frater Thomas was ordained a deacon on 17 November 1957 by Bishop Josef Freundorfer of Augsburg. On 20 July 1958 Fr. Thomas was ordained a priest in Fribourg. A great day of joy for his whole family and the monastery community was that of his First Mass on 27 July in the parish church of Hohenrain.
Now Father Thomas was geared up for the third and long-desired chapter of his life. After two study visits at St. Meinrad Archabbey, USA and in England, he received the mission cross on 15 August 1959 in the parish church of Hohenrain. For a full fifty years he would now realize in his prayer and work exactly those words which the Church prayed on the day of his death, the solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, “Almighty God, on this day you have revealed your Son to the nations through the star that the wise men followed. We already know you by faith. Lead us from faith to the unveiled vision of your glory.” Indeed, for this calling, Fr. Thomas set out on 21 September 1959 via Venice for Ndanda where he arrived on 10 October. By 17 November he had become an assistant in Luagala. In 1962 he shifted to Mtwara. But in these years he not only worked as a missionary, but more and more came to know the thought and behavior of the African peoples. Thus “the star,” which Fr. Thomas had followed, not only became a gift of faith for the non-Christian people, but also for our deceased confrere as well. The sharing of faith in Jesus Christ allowed him very concretely the experience of being gifted. The naturalness of the Africans, their joy in life and the rhythm of their music moved the heart of Fr. Thomas. It certainly had the effect of awakening in him a great love for these people. He then gave back this love from 1967 on in the catechetical school at Mnero. For fourteen years he taught the faith to adult men and women so that these, together with him, came to an ever deeper faith in Jesus Christ.

However, the missionary work undermined his strength. So in 1975 he went looking for a rest in Sakharani. There in the temperate climate of the Usambara Mountains, he was reinvigorated. Only four years later Sakharani was to become a second home for Fr. Thomas. In 1981 he was assigned by Abbot Siegfried to take over this dependent house of Ndanda Abbey. Fr. Thomas writes about that, “In May 1981 I received the order to transfer to Sakharani ‘in order to look around for monastic vocations for Ndanda Abbey’.” Fr. Thomas carried out this task for 28 years and he was a true master in doing this. If all beginnings are difficult, it was so for him also, but in all the years, of the 44 African confreres of Ndanda Abbey, 29 passed through his hands, including all the present-day Tanzanian priest monks. A number that may astonish us and perhaps lead us to question one or the other calculation. Fr. Thomas himself gives us the answer in an interview: “I observed them to see if they have zeal for prayer and have prepared themselves well. Then I see how they work: willingly, diligently or carelessly. Neatness is also important, whether they are dressed properly, concerned about cleanliness. And then I look whether there is a sense of vocation in them.” Only recently did he accord us a clear word in our abbey in connection with the question of candidates. He only compromised in this area a little. In fact he called for a clear line. Quite obviously Fr. Thomas spoke from his own experience.

However, the life of Father Thomas, a life that was very concretely a vocation “to reveal the Son of God to the nations,” consisted not only of success stories. Fr. Thomas had difficult phases in his life and both in his personal discipleship to Christ as well as in the physical area. Time and again his health put great hurdles in the way that crossed his iron will to be monk, missionary and priest. These hurdles appeared to become even greater with the prostate operation in 2005. But even this unpleasantness he accepted and continued to fight. In the autumn of 2009 his strength appeared to be depleted. From one day to another Fr. Thomas was getting ready for a home leave. But this earthly departure was to be a departure for the “unveiled vision of his glory.” Besides the nerve disorder chorea, cancer became noticeable again. The shattering news of bone cancer shortly before Christmas 2010 met with aggression in Fr. Thomas. Yes, once more he fought with an iron will. He did not want to die, but in fact to live; from the bottom of his heart he wanted to live. It was astonishing how he struggled through the past twelve months, always in the hope of winning the crown of earthly life. However, he more and more had to resign himself to the will of God; something that was very difficult for him. And yet Fr. Thomas surprised us with his death and in so doing once more brought the clarity and intransigence of his vocation as monk, missionary and priest to the fore. Father Thomas died on the “birthday” of Christian mission, on the “birthday” of our Congregation and—it may well be said—on the “birthday” of his own very personal vocation. And with that the circle from Christmas to the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord is closed for our deceased confrere. Oh yes, Fr. Thomas passed over “from faith to the unveiled splendor of your glory.”