This week I had the painful privilege of celebrating two funeral Masses for my father. One took place in my parish, for he died while visiting BC, and the other in his, before his burial in Ontario. The homilies are similar, but I am posting both.
May he rest in peace.
Friday, April 29, 2011
St. Ann's Parish, Ancaster, Ontario
When Mom and Dad moved back to Ancaster after almost half a century, I was very happy that they both liked the pastor, Father Ray Modeski, and was delighted again when they liked his replacement, Father Dan Miehm, just as much.
(Dad had also always spoken very highly of Father Loftus, who was here in the 1950s, so St. Ann's must attract great pastors!)
I had a very private reason to be pleased that Mom and Dad liked their pastor: it meant there'd be someone to preach when this sad day came, as I knew it must eventually. Because I knew for sure that I wasn't the man for the job—when my Great Aunt Dorothy died at 99, I managed to choke up completely two minutes into the homily.
I figured God was trying to tell me something!
But I guess I figured wrong. I've already preached one homily for Dad and I'm up here this morning trying to do it again.
In Vancouver, I spent a lot of time at the start of Mass preparing the congregation for our family's ability to break the world record for tears. I even quoted a line from Bob Hope: "I come from a family where they cry at baseball games."
The congregation laughed loudly when I said "at the wedding of my niece Jennifer there were more tears than at most funerals." They thought I was joking!
Many of you here this morning don't need to be prepared; you've seen me and the rest of the family in action before. But in fairness to my Dad, I do have to point out that this teary family trait didn't come from him:
A good eight months after her mother died, Mom started to cry at a family dinner when someone mentioned Gram's name. Dad said with some exasperation "Oh, Jane!" His sister, our Aunt Pat, was at the table with us, and she promptly came to Mom's defense. She said "Neil, you cried when Mother died!" ... to which he responded drily, "Once."
Since I take after my mother—who also choked up at Dorothy's funeral and was gracefully rescued by Aunt Denise—I may well falter today, which is why I asked Father Dan to stand in the wings with a copy of my homily and to give me hand when I need it.
But as things turned out in Vancouver, after I carefully explained how the family's tears shouldn't be taken too seriously, everyone, including me, held themselves together wonderfully. Now many of my parishioners think I was making it all up.
It's too early to guess how things will go today for me and the rest of the family. We might behave ourselves as we did in Vancouver, or we may decide that today's our day to fall apart.
Whatever happens, please don't mistake our teary family trait for more than it is. We know that Dad had a great life and a peaceful end, and we really do feel that peace. Our outsides just don't always match our insides!
So bear with me, and my kind understudy Father Dan, as I do my best to share some thoughts with you this morning.
During his ten weeks of illness, Dad was in two hospitals; for much of the time he was at the hospital where Sheila had worked for many years, and it was a real blessing that some of the doctors and nurses who cared for him in the intensive care unit knew Sheila well.
Another blessing was the hospital chaplain, a young Baptist minister from Estonia. (I didn't even know they had Baptists in Estonia, and never did figure out how he made it to Vancouver.) But this gentle man always seemed to be there when we needed him most, and he helped me personally more than once.
He said something to Mom when things got bad, and it's stuck with her and with me. Life is a circle.... with a beginning and an end.
Certainly I feel part of a circle this morning, preaching in this church right next door to the classroom where I started kindergarten!
A priest friend of mine also told me something connected to this idea of the circle of life. When I called to say that Dad had died, he quoted these words from a book he'd been reading: "mourning is a romance in reverse."
I nearly dropped the phone. There's the circle again. And listen to the rest of the quotation: "the meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death; and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions - only those who do it well and those who don't." [The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch, page 25.]
For all our weepiness, I think these words describe what Mom and the rest of us are feeling. If you love, you grieve, and there are no exceptions; it's a romance in reverse.
We cry because we are so thankful to Dad for loving us so much and so well; and we cry because we are grateful for having so many years to love him back.
But that's still less than half the story. It's not only about human love. It's not only about married love or the love found in a family.
On the contrary, the circle is completed by God's love. God's love is very much a part of our grateful celebration this morning.
The family chose Scripture readings that connect Dad's life and death with the faith that sustained him and us. We may not be the most pious family I know, but it truly was faith that carried us through a long Lent, to a painful Palm Sunday, and now to an Easter that is hard but hope-filled.
The readings give us more than comfort; they give us strength.
We chose the first reading because it sums up what has kept us going since Dad died: first, our belief that eternal rest is the reward for a life well-lived. All of us are thankful today that he lived his life as a faithful Christian and can rightly expect that his good deeds will be seen by the just Judge.
And if I don't say more than that about Dad, you can blame him: he was very specific in wanting no eulogy, and I don't want to cheat by turning this homily into one.
The first reading also reflects our joy that Dad "died in the Lord"—that he died after receiving the sacraments of the Church, and in the full hope of salvation that they promise.
He began his final journey with the Sacrament of the Sick on the morning of his heart attack; he continued it with the Sacrament of Penance the morning of his surgery, and concluded it with the Eucharist just hours before he died. While these saving signs were meant to comfort and strengthen him in illness, their ultimate purpose was to lead him safely to heaven, which is what we believe they did.
I should mention that I was naturally terrified of administering what used to be called "the last rites" to my own father; I was quite sure I'd break down. So I arranged for a generous chaplain to visit him at bedtime the night before his open heart surgery.
"Thank you so much, Father," he told the young priest when he arrived, "but my son will look after me when he gets here in the morning!"
And I did, somehow!
I also managed to give Dad Holy Communion one last time (known as Viaticum) on the day he died. I brought along another priest as back-up, but I managed the main prayers myself. Mom and all five children were there, and since it was a Sunday—Palm Sunday, at that—it sort of symbolized my parents' faithfulness to Sunday Mass.
Many people in Vancouver mentioned how blessed our parents are to have five children who all regularly practice the faith together with their families. I explained that there are a number of reasons for that, but none more important than the fact that our family never missed Sunday Mass.
Even on camping trips Mom and Dad planned in advance and knew where we could get to Mass; at Lake Rosseau, we went to church in Uncle Jack's motorboat. That really impressed people out in BC, for a ride in a small boat over choppy waters can be a sacrifice. On the glassy waters of a Muskoka lake it was a pure treat.
In any case, I really am convinced that this commitment to the Sunday obligation was the chief reason we've stayed so close to the Church. It certainly wasn't our outstanding piety at home: when I was in university I brought a priest friend home for dinner one Friday, and when the meal was served, Dad turned to Mom and said "Well, Jane, shall we be hypocrites and ask Father to say grace, or shall we start dinner as usual?"
We did say grace on Sundays, and I have to say that in recent years we manage to do so on weekdays as well, so we've improved a bit.
Let's get back to the readings.... We chose the consoling words of the Twenty-Second Psalm for a number of reasons. One of the reasons is the beautiful picture it paints of the heavenly banquet to which our earthly Eucharist leads. Many a Sunday Mass might have been hot and crowded, but somehow we got the connection to the green pastures and restful waters that God promises.
Another reason we chose that psalm is that it doesn't pretend that the Good Shepherd spares us every struggle and sorrow. Instead, it says He leads us, and walks with us, even in the darkest valleys. There were some dark valleys as we prayed and hoped that Dad would recover. But just before he died, I asked Mom and several of the other kids whether they felt closer to God or farther away after such tough times; they all said "closer," and that's my answer too.
From what I've already said, it should be pretty clear why we chose the second reading, where St. Paul teaches that Christians must not grieve like those who have no hope. I think we were afraid we'd be weeping buckets, and would need St. Paul to shake some sense into us.
But I've already explained that the tears we've shed, and the grief we feel, don't mean a lack of faith or hope. Even with tears, we celebrated Easter this year believing those words of St. Paul: that Jesus died and rose again and that God will bring with Him all who have died in Christ—including our Dad.
The Gospel story that we chose for today is one of my favourites—and it's one of the most tearful passages in all the Bible. But it does more than make us feel better about being so emotional. The tears that Jesus wept for Lazarus show us his human nature; his tears draw us closer to Him; and they give us confidence in his deep compassion and love for us, especially in times of sorrow.
In the end, our own tears don't matter all that much, considering the wonderful promise in the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation: God himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes, "and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." (21:4)
Easter Monday, April 25, 2011
Christ the Redeemer Parish, West Vancouver
[Introduction Before Mass]
I'd like to begin with a word of welcome to you all, and to introduce specially the priests seated in the sanctuary. We're blessed to have with us the pastors of all four of Dad's children who live here:
Archbishop Michael Miller, my pastor, Father Stanley Galvon, pastor of Sheila and her family, Msgr. Bernard Rossi, pastor of Nancy and her family, and Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo, pastor to Kevin and his family.
Beside the archbishop is our Vicar General, Msgr. Stephen Jensen and Msgr. Mark Hagemoen, Episcopal vicar for pastoral services. Beside me is my good friend and seminary classmate Father Don Larson.
Also in the sanctuary is Deacon Bryan Duggan, soon to the be the newest priest in the Archdiocese of Vancouver, Seminarian Pablo Santa Maria, soon to be the newest deacon in the Archdiocese, and Seminarian Daniel Jodoin, who won't be the newest anything in our Archdiocese, since he belongs to the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan in North Alberta.
I am deeply grateful to the Archbishop, to all the priests, and to all of you for being here with us this morning.
But I didn't make you sit down just for introductions.
If I don't say a few words before Mass begins, I'm afraid we're all going to find this funeral harder than it needs to be, and less uplifting than it ought to be.
As you have probably already noticed, I come from a family that has taken public displays of weeping to almost unheard-of levels. At the wedding of my niece Jennifer, there were more tears than at most funerals.
To quote Bob Hope, I come from a family where they cry at baseball games. (I'm sure there's a Canadian version of that line, but I don't want to jinx the Canucks.)
We don't really know where this family trait came from; certainly not from my father. A good eight months after her mother died, Mom started to cry at a family dinner when someone mentioned Grandma's name. Dad said with some exasperation "Oh, Jane!" His sister, my aunt Pat, was with us, and promptly came to Mom's defense by saying "Neil, you cried when Mother died," to which he responded drily, "Once."
I will try to explain more in the homily how our tears do not mean we are as devastated as we may look; Dad had a great life and a peaceful end, and we really do feel that peace. Our outsides just don't match our insides!
So I want to forewarn you about my difficulty in keeping myself together, lest you be unnecessarily uncomfortable.
Please expect me to falter, and to need help getting through this; but don't mistake this family trait for more than it is. My family and I are so grateful that you are here with us, and we ask you to take us as we are.
This is the hardest homily I have ever had to preach—and the easiest.
It's hard for the obvious reasons I touched upon at the start of Mass. But at the same time, a priest who can't preach at a funeral the day after Easter should look for another line of work!
To make things easier still—and still more difficult—each of the readings the family has chosen connect my father's illness and death with the faith that has sustained us through Dad's two-month illness, the faith that we profess this Easter Monday morning.
We chose the first reading because it sums up in a very few words what we believe: first, that eternal rest is the reward for a life well-lived. We're thankful that our father lived his life as a faithful Catholic and could rightly expect that his good deeds will be seen by the just Judge.
But this short passage also allows us to rejoice that Dad "died in the Lord"—that he died after receiving the sacraments, and in the full hope of the salvation they promise.
He began his final journey with the anointing of the sick on the morning of his heart attack, continued it with the sacrament of penance the morning of his surgery, and concluded it with the Eucharist just hours before he died. While these saving signs were meant to comfort and strengthen him in illness, their ultimate purpose was to lead him safely to heaven, which is what we believe they did.
The same note of hope recurs in our Psalm, which paints such a wonderful picture of the heavenly banquet to which our earthly Eucharist leads. Many people have commented on what a blessing it is for my parents to have five children who all practice the faith together with their families. While there are a number of reasons for that, if some of the younger couples would like to know my parents' secret, I'll happily share it with you: our family did not miss Sunday Mass. Not rarely, never.
Even on camping trips my Mom and Dad planned in advance and knew where we could get to Mass; at one cottage we rented, we went to Mass by motorboat. I'm really convinced that this commitment to the Sunday obligation was the chief reason we have stayed so close to the Church. It certainly wasn't our outstanding piety at home: I brought a priest friend home for dinner one weeknight when I was in university, and when the meal was served, Dad turned to Mom and said "Well, Jane, shall we be hypocrites and ask Father to say grace, or shall we start dinner as usual?"
We did say grace on Sundays, and I must point out that in recent years we manage to do so on weekdays as well, at least when I'm home!
Another reason we chose Psalm 22 is that it doesn't pretend that the Good Shepherd spares us every struggle and sorrow. Instead, the psalm proclaims that He walks beside us, even in our dark valleys. And certainly there were dark valleys as we prayed and hoped that Dad would recover. But just before he died, I asked Mom and several of my siblings whether they felt closer to God after these tough weeks, or farther away; they all said "closer," and that's my answer too.
From what I said at the beginning of Mass, it should be pretty clear why we chose to read those words in which St. Paul teaches that Christians must not grieve like those who have no hope. Our emotional family may be weeping buckets, but our tears are not for lack of faith or hope. They flow, instead, from an abundance of gratitude. We are thankful to our father for loving us well; and we are grateful for having so many years to love him in return.
My family and I may be shedding more tears than you've ever seen in one place, but on this Easter Monday we fully and firmly believe that Jesus died and rose again and that God will bring with Him Dad and all who have died in Christ.
The Gospel today is from the funeral liturgy, but we also heard it read on the Fifth Sunday of Lent. I preached on the gift of tears at all the Masses that Sunday, hoping to prepare the parish community for the sight of their weeping pastor.
In that homily I mentioned how I wondered as a child why people got so upset when someone died, since Christians believed that they were going to live forever. Didn't tears show a lack of faith?
But when Jesus wept for Lazarus, cried at the sight of Jerusalem, and was torn by anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane he answered that question. Since Jesus had perfect trust in the Father, his emotions can't have been a weakness. They were, on the contrary, part of his human nature.
In fact, those tears help to reveal his human nature to us, and to strengthen our faith in his compassion and love.
And though my family and I weep today, we rejoice in the promise made in the Book of Revelation: God himself "will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."