CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- These days, the Rev. Everett "Ev" Hemann seemingly holds a captive audience at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Cedar Falls.
Some say his homilies are getting better, that his preaching is increasingly profound. Parishioners say the messages are more inspiring and the application more tangible.
That may be true.
Hemann, 66, wonders if perhaps parishioners are listening to his words a little more closely these days.
Last spring, doctors diagnosed Hemann with pancreatic cancer. He is undergoing chemotherapy treatments but said the disease is terminal.
Hemann believes his time on this earth is short, and he wants to make the most of it. This means continuing with his regular responsibilities to the best of his ability as the priest of St. Patrick Catholic Church, where he's been the head priest since 2009. For Hemann, it also means being open and candid about his death and dying and helping others come to terms with it.
"I'm now afforded a pulpit that few preachers have," Hemann said.
In between the homilies and the staff meetings and the chemotherapy treatments, he also has been busy hosting dozens of friends and acquaintances who have come to say goodbye, whether they can articulate that or not.
Hemann, a native of Stacyville, has connections far and wide. His career includes teaching and preaching stints in Cedar Rapids, Ames and Dubuque. He taught at Columbus High School, served on numerous boards and councils and served many years as a campus pastor in Ames.
And while he hopes to avoid the focus being too much on him, Hemann also recognizes the potential to influence, instruct, comfort and encourage --- all within the job description of a priest, one might contend.
"And I feel I have a unique position. I'm a public figure. I feel comfortable talking about it," Hemann said.
Often, he relies on his trademark humor. Hemann once corralled the staff together at St. Patrick Catholic Church to discuss a "deep pastoral problem" in the parish. Really, Hemann wanted help picking out which caps to wear when he lost his hair to chemo.
Deacon Peter Loving remembers the moment, which is classic 'Ev.' The ice-breaker also served a pragmatic purpose.
"At the same time, it helped us face all there is to come," Loving said.
One thing Hemann doesn't plan to do is spend time feeling sorry for himself.
"I've had 66 good years," Hemann said. "I'm not sure that I have a right to complain that it's been cut short."
Parishioners are heartened by Hemann's positive attitude and that his words continue to align so consistently with his life, said Sally Jordan, 70, a friend and a member of St. Patrick Catholic Church.
"I think most of us are feeling that he is living what he has preached all these years, and that's inspiring," Jordan said.
In August, Hemann gave a talk titled, "What Dying Has Taught Me About Living" during a parishwide adult faith formation program at the Cellar in Waterloo . The presentation/question-and-answer session drew a record crowd, organizer Dave Cushing said. Hemann and his talk on death reportedly beat out an appearance by the archbishop and a speech on exorcism.
Hemann told his story matter-of-factly, starting with his going to the doctor with what he thought were kidney stones and hearing he had cancer, to keeping the news from his parish family until after Easter so he, and everyone else, he said, could enjoy Holy Week. At the Cellar, he also opened the floor to questions from parishioners and social workers about everything from his greatest fears to his prayer life.
No, he isn't praying for a miracle. No, he doesn't get tired of hearing "How are you?" though he does get upset when others make decisions for him. Yes, there are things that make him afraid.
"I don't like pain and I don't like not being in control," Hemann said. "That kind of scares me a little bit."
Hemann offered practical tips for breaking hard news to loved ones. He practiced on an acquaintance before telling his older siblings and parish family.
"I didn't know, emotionally, what it's going to feel like to tell someone you are dying," Hemann said.
Hemann is helping people explore a topic that is often avoided, Cushing said.
"I think the thing that struck me is the way in which he has come to be able to cope with the mystery of it," Cushing said. He added, "He really, like any of us, doesn't know exactly what's going to happen, how it's going to happen, what comes next, and yet that seems not to frighten him as much as it does a lot of us."
Hemann has spent 40 years preaching that out of death comes resurrection. He has learned that blessings come, even in times of sickness and death. Even now, reasons for gratitude are abundant, he says.
"I've had a wonderful life."