In the gospels, when Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, the Lord responds: “The first is to love your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind. And the second is to love your neighbor as yourself.”
It was in the latter area that Fr. Michael Mandala, SJ, truly excelled. From his early work as a community organizer and one of the founders of the PICO network, to his pastoral work at Christ the King Parish in San Diego and Blessed Sacrament Parish in Hollywood, Fr. Mike’s ministry always involved drawing disparate groups together to work for the common good.
No where was this love of neighbor more evident than in Fr. Mike’s final mission here at Verbum Dei High School. Fr. Mike began as our community outreach liaison, where he promoted a vision of Verbum Dei as much larger than just the students, faculty, and staff of the high school. Fr. Mike made connections with local parishes, social workers and police officers in nearby Nickerson Gardens, and was a pastoral influence over Operation Progress and Urban Compass, two local non-profits who serve the Watts community in close cooperation with Verbum Dei. When he assumed the presidency of VDHS, Fr. Mike continued his work of building bridges. His inclusive vision of community expanded to include parents, alumni, corporate partners, donors, fellow Jesuit and Cristo Rey schools, and an ever-widening circle of friends. Fr. Mike helped departments within the school improve communication and cooperation. Moreover, Fr. Mike worked tirelessly to promote Verbum Dei and insure its financial viability and stability, raising millions of dollars, balancing the budget, and leaving us a legacy of academic rigor, expanded presence in the business community, and a firm foundation for growth in the years to come.
Above and beyond all these good works, however, Fr. Mike will be remembered most for his pastor’s heart. He loved connecting with students on retreats, preaching the word, celebrating the sacraments, and accompanying families and colleagues on the journey of life. At Verb, Fr. Mike was our good shepherd, who knew his sheep, and whose sheep knew him. He presided at marriages, baptized children, and embraced families who lost their teenage sons far too soon. He counseled the broken hearted as we struggled with professional failures or personal strife, and joyfully reveled our triumphs. He had a big smile, a big laugh, and an even bigger capacity to love each person as he or she was, even as he called us to better – for the sake of our students, our community, and our God. The entire Verbum Dei community mourns his loss, but celebrates the laughter, light, and love that are the legacy of Fr. Michael Mandala. May he rest in peace, and may perpetual light shine upon him.