Wednesday, November 2, 2016

"I shall live forever in those whose lives I touch." (Thoughts on the life of a celibate, fatherhood, the joy of touching peoples' lives, and living forever in the memory of God who "loses nothing," on the Feast of All Souls, John 6:37-40)

For a number of years now, I’ve tried to make it a point to look at the names of clergy who have died that are listed in the Ordo; I remember their names when I pray the Liturgy of the Hours and celebrate Mass. The practice began a few years ago after visiting my grandparents’ grave and I noticed this rather unkempt grave that had become so overgrown with weeds. I cleared it up a bit and saw that it belonged to a priest who had died in the late 70's. As I stared at his gravestone, reading his name and saying a prayer, I also found myself wondering:

How many infants did he baptize?
How many marriages did he celebrate?
How many confessions did he hear?
How many dying individuals did he anoint?
How many masses did he celebrate?
How many people did he comfort and guide?
I wonder if he still has family who remembers him?
I wonder if anybody still comes to visit?

And finally, the question that caused a little bit of distress: Is this what awaits me? Is this what awaits us priests? Who will remember us?

Two summers ago, I remember having a conversation with my dad who this past June celebrated close to five decades of marriage to my mom. "You two are so lucky to have one another," I said to him. "You have your students," he replied.

"Yes, and they’re a blessing", I answered. "But it doesn't make things easier some days. You come home and mom’s waiting for you. I come home to a farting English bulldog". [I've had my English bulldog Bella for more than four years now and she does pass deadly gas. My students can attest to it.]

He laughed and said. "You have God; he's always there.”

Today, we remember and pray for all of our loved ones and friends who have died, and all the faithful departed, both those remembered and those whose names are now known to God alone.

But more than that, what we celebrate today is a powerful reminder that, as the first reading says, "our souls are in God's hands". It's a reminder that our lives and everything about us, is held by those powerful and loving hands.

Nothing we experience, no thought, no happiness, no pain, is ever consigned to oblivion, for they are all - from the biggest to the smallest of our experiences - remembered and cherished in God's fatherly heart.

"I do not lose anything that the Father has given me", says Jesus in the gospel.

Still, I’d be lying if I said I no longer, from time to time, ask those questions I asked at that priest's grave.

Is this what awaits us priests? Who will remember me?

There’s pain and even sadness in the questioning, and it becomes more acute whenever I see fathers with their sons. On a flight from LA to Miami a few years ago I sat next to a dad and his boy and started chatting with them. It turned out to be a real pleasant trip.

“I wonder what that feels like,” I thought to myself, “having a son?”

Who will remember us when we go? we priests who do not have offspring who shall carry our genetic material?

When I defended my dissertation on Sept. 19, 1998, Professor John Van der Veken, my dissertation adviser, who was also a priest, said these words before the proceedings began:

"I am retiring and Ferdinand will be my last advisee, and it truly makes me sad to see an important chapter of my life ending. But I am comforted by the thought that wherever Ferdinand goes, I will go; whoever he teaches, I shall teach, those whose lives he touches, I shall touch. I shall live forever in my students and in those they in turn shall serve and teach". 

On those nights when I couldn’t sleep, and the questions I asked at that priest’s grave bring fear in my heart, I try to recall Fr. Van der Veken's words.

And I am comforted by the thought that I shall not only live in those whom I teach – that we shall live on in the lives of the people we serve - but that the ultimate life each one of us touches is the life of God himself, He who loses nothing, and in whose everlasting memory we shall all be cherished, forever to live, never to die.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. And may the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

Amen.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)