Thursday, November 27, 2014

Losing mentors

Today at St. Michael parish, the pastor, given today is the feast of Thanksgiving, encouraged all of us to recapture a spirit of gratitude in ourselves - not only for the big things in our lives, but especially for the small things. I am grateful for the smiles of the two small children in front of me. I am grateful for the text messages from seminarians wishing me a happy Thanksgiving. I am grateful for the decorations I am beginning to put up for Advent.

I am also grateful for big things. In particular, I am grateful for the life of Sr. Laurencia Listerman, an Oldenburg Franciscan sister who died late last week at 101 years of age. Sister Laurencia never stopped thinking. Her mind was as clear as a bell to the day she died. Recently, she asked for a list of the names of all U.S. senators and congressmen as she had a few letters she wanted to write to them about some issues that were important to her.

She also recently told one of her sisters that all her life, when she reads a book, she reads it twice. Given her age, she had decided that she was going to start reading books only once.
When I was a student at Scecina Memorial High School where Sister Laurencia was an important mentor to me, she once told us in class, "Remember that it isn't always what you know. It is who you know." Her practical nature was a close second to her idealism.

Sister Laurencia was a true wit and an excellent listener. I recall that she took any thought from her students very seriously. She might look at you incredulously and even disagree with you or sometimes even argue with you - though it was really more of a dialogue - but she always listened to you. She showed her amazement about something you might tell her by opening her mouth and rolling her eyes.
She had the look of a patrician when she wanted to and would raise her head with a glare that suggested she was ready to pose for her closeup.

Sister Laurencia's death was the second of two this week that affected me deeply. The other was John O'Connell, a Chicago native, a layman six years older than I, who, along with his wife, befriended me when I was in the seminary in St. Louis. It was in the late 1960s and the seminary offered some lectures on the Second Vatican Council to the public. John attended and, never knowing a stranger, got familiar with the seminarians. Some of us were invited to his home for dinner and to meet his wife Judy and the five children they called their own. The family eventually left St. Louis and moved to Louisville briefly before ending up In Indianapolis where they have lived for more than 30 years. John was another kind of mentor as he ultimately became someone who practiced what we call the works of mercy most generously and frequently. His faith was one of the deepest I knew.

These losses are as important to me as the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, is to the nation. They mean more to me than the terror that is in the Islamic state. My world has become much smaller.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Extraordinary in the ordinary

Most of us don’t want to live dull lives. While we’re young, we like things to be exciting and new, fresh and unusual. We cling to the latest invention, song, personality. Sometimes we forget that everything passes and what is new is always replaced by something that is newer. The worst thing some people can think of themselves is ordinary. Who wants to be ordinary? Most of us want to be special. We want to be extraordinary.

The readings for the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica each define a little differently the word “temple.” An angel shows Ezekiel a vision of the temple as a source for life in Israel - water flows from the temple to irrigate the land and provide food for the Israelites, nourishment for people. This is an extraordinary example of God’s care for his people.

Paul then describes the first Christians as buildings which God constructs and then encourages them to build upon the foundations knowing they are made for God. This too is an extraordinary example of God’s care for his people.

In the Gospel Jesus flares up in anger at the way in which the Jewish temple is desecrated, misused and abused by those failing to respect its purpose and meaning. This is a really extraordinary example of God’s care for his people because he reminds them not only what they must do but also what they must not do.

Here is another example of a major feast of the Church being celebrated on a Sunday displacing the ordinary Sunday feast. Like All Souls, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, SS. Peter and Paul, we’ve seen a number of church feasts since the spring replacing ordinary feasts. We might think of these as a little more extraordinary but they vary. Today’s feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran doesn’t mean much to most of us because the building is not widely known among Catholics outside Rome. It is the cathedral church for the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. It is not quite as big as St. Peter’s and is not located in Vatican City but it is the oldest church in the West. It was dedicated in 324 A.D. Of course, it was more than 1,500 years before it was completed as we know it today. It is considered the mother church of Roman Catholicism. It is quite splendid and extraordinary and there are those who know beautiful churches who prefer it to St. Peter’s. 

So we celebrate a piece of architecture that is quite extraordinary. The anger of Jesus regarding the abuse of the temple in Jerusalem is a testament to the inability of the merchants to regard the temple as something extraordinary. The angel with Ezekiel helps him regard the temple as the extraordinary resource for life in Israel. And Paul reminds us that we ourselves are temples and perhaps more extraordinary than any building humans can make. We are extraordinary because we are holy. The temple in Jerusalem was a sign of holiness for the Jews. The Lateran basilica is a sign of holiness for Catholics in Rome. But the holiest object of all of this is the person who comes to the temple, to the basilica. Human beings make the basilica holy because God has deemed us holy. There is ordinariness in our lives, witnessed by the repetition and sameness of much of life. But our lives made extraordinary because of God’s work in us. We ordinary people are the stuff with which God works in order to realize the extraordinariness of the saving task of His Son Jesus.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

All Souls' Day

On the day of one’s baptism, one is clothed in a white garment. On the day of one’s funeral, a casket is covered in a white pall. The reminder at baptism is that one has been initiated into the life of Christ. The reminder at the time of one’s funeral is that the baptized person has been fully welcomed into the life of Christ for eternity.

Few of us are unfamiliar with death. Some of us more than others. But it is not usually on our minds when we are young. There is too much life to be lived to think of death.

I was 15 when my grandmother on my mother’s side died. By the time I was 20 my other three grandparents were dead. Of aunts and uncles, I have only one aunt left and she is confined to a nursing home with dementia at age 99. Three sides of my family are German and funerals were occasions for celebration. Everyone chipped in with a prepared dish for the reception after the funeral. One of my cousins remembers our family funerals as being more fun than family weddings.

Death didn’t really mean much to me until I was a senior in high school. A classmate I did not know very well died in an automobile wreck the night before graduation. But it was only in college that it sank in. A girl I knew well in high school was also a close classmate at college. She married at the end of our sophomore year to a graduating senior. Their honeymoon took them to Mexico in their Volkswagen beetle and on the return drive somewhere in Texas a drunk driver in a pickup truck plowed into them killing them both. I remember spending a lot of time with other classmates grieving and disbelieving.

There is a woman in Oregon I’m told who has decided to end her life because she apparently has an inoperable brain cancer. I am told that she had set November 1 as her death date but that she has put it off for a bit longer as the love she is experiencing from family and friends is having an effect on her she didn’t expect and she wants to enjoy them a bit longer. I suppose death becomes more desirable to one who does not experience any form of human love than it does for those who do.

For all the things that bother people about the Church, I have never found in my 45 years as a priest that many people have ever complained about the way we do funerals. The liturgy itself focuses us. The souls of the just are in the hands of God. Hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. And there are the words of Jesus himself. This is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.

Bishop Blaise Cupich (soon to be Archbishop Cupich of Chicago) has written, “By setting aside a single day exclusively for those who have passed from this life, we are testifying to our obligation to pray for them. That obligation is founded on our understanding of what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ. We are linked to each other in a bond which death itself cannot break. Death does not diminish our responsibility to support each other as fellow pilgrims. We take that responsibility seriously when we gather for the Eucharist, visit cemeteries, pray for the dead. This day of prayer for the dead offers a corrective to the tendency to reduce our funeral rites to memorial services or mere celebrations of life. While there are good reasons to recall the virtues of someone when they have died, Catholic funerals are first of all about the Body of Christ praying for one of its members. We are confident that just as our prayers assisted the deceased in life, so too they do in death.”

The commemoration of the faithful departed is a celebration of the hope each of us has that this life is not the end, but the beginning. We are not creatures wallowing in the morbidity of death or the superstition of demonic practices. Our focus is not on what is dead but what lives. Those who have gone before us live and they live in the safety, comfort, and rest of the one who died and rose again. That hope remains ours.