Sunday, April 10, 2011

Msgr. Forget and Me (Lent 5A)

I became assistant pastor of St. Patrick's Parish in 1986, almost seventy years after the arrival of Monsignor Louis Forget, who was its pastor from 1917 to 1960. By the time I came to the parish, Monsignor Forget had been dead for twenty-two years.

So think hard about this amazing fact: during the eight years I spent at St. Pat's, scarcely a week went by without a mention of his name.

If that doesn't surprise you, consider this: at a general meeting of priests this week, held to discuss our new vocations strategy, the first story told was about Monsignor Forget— dead now forty-seven years.

What was so extraordinary about this man? It wasn't that he was Vancouver's greatest preacher—he had a strong French accent, and was famous for comically mispronouncing words.

He was simply a great pastor—a man who loved his people, and who loved the Church.

But more specifically, when folks talked to me about Monsignor Forget they usually mentioned two things: first, the success he had encouraging young men and women to become priests and Sisters. I don't remember the grand total, but in one 25-year period, nearly 100 parishioners went to various novitiates and seminaries. That's a record I'm afraid I have no chance of breaking, unless four of our young people go to the convent or the seminary every year until I am 81!

The second thing everyone mentioned when they talked about Monsignor Forget was his tears. It took very little to make him cry from the pulpit; he wore his heart on his sleeve, and could weep copiously when preaching on certain topics.

And here's where I might be able to rival Monsignor Forget. I find it very difficult to keep my composure when I am emotional, and it's often very hard for me to say things from the heart—at weddings as much as funerals, and on ordinary days as well.

It's quite a handicap for a priest, and if there was something I could do to overcome it, I would. But it must be something in my genes, since just about everyone in my immediate family has the same problem—there were more tears at my niece's wedding than I've seen at most funerals!

Most of you know that my father is gravely ill. So you can imagine how a family like mine is dealing with this worry: at the moment we're shedding a lot of anxious tears.

Which is why one line from today's powerful and hope-filled Gospel means an awful lot to me: "and Jesus began to weep."

Jesus, crying? Jesus who was about to free Lazarus from the grip of death? Jesus who knew that He would rise again and that His friend would live forever? Why would He weep?

I've thought about it all week, and I believe that the answer is important—if we're to understand how our faith and our emotions interact.

When I was young, I wondered why Christians got upset when someone died, since we believed that they were going to live forever. Didn't tears show a lack of faith?

Later in life, when I tackled something that I was sure God wanted me to do—like going to the seminary—I was surprised that I felt afraid. Didn't that mean I lacked trust?

But look at Jesus: he wept for Lazarus, cried at the sight of Jerusalem, and was torn by anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. Since Jesus had perfect trust in the Father, these emotions can't have been a shortcoming. They were, on the contrary, part of his human nature.

Far from apologizing for our tears, we should try to understand them. The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality notes that tears are complex, since they're both physical and psychological. It says "tears expose the intimate, profound relationship of body, emotion, mind, and spirit…" [p. 957]

Accordingly, a very ancient tradition in the Church sees tears as a gift, which can have their source in the Holy Spirit; St. Ignatius of Loyola encourages those making the Spiritual Exercises to pray for the gift of tears for their sins or for the sufferings of Christ. Even modern psychotherapy recognizes the healing power of tears.

Such tears, the dictionary of spirituality says, "are a gift and a deeply personal expression of the transforming action of God..." [p. 958]

Our emotions are a part of us that can operate independently of even the strongest faith. The tearful Christian is no less a man or woman of faith, because a deep peace can be preserved in our hearts despite distress closer to the surface.

This is an important lesson if we are to receive the peace that Jesus promised us when He said "Peace I leave with you, My own peace I give to you; a peace that the world cannot give, this is my gift to you. Let not your hearts be troubled or afraid (Jn. 14:27).

As I lived with the dramatic ups-and-downs of my father's condition this week, I was helped a great deal by a little book called Searching for and Maintaining Peace. It pointed out that peace as the world gives it just means that things are going well, that nothing is disturbing us at the moment. This so-called "peace," the author points out, will be extremely fragile and short-lived.

Not so the peace that Christ gives. It is sturdy and cannot be shaken by life's sorrows or storms. We make a big mistake if we confuse our feelings with spiritual facts.

Looking for a way to explain this better, I remembered a hymn that I've always liked: "How Can I Keep From Singing?" The unknown author well understood the difference between emotions and inner peace when he wrote "No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I'm clinging. Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?"

Each verse of the hymn contrasts what's going on outside us—"earth's lamentation," "tumult and strife," and a roaring tempest—with the inner peace that comes from faith.

My little book on searching for peace says much the same: "Every Christian must be thoroughly convinced that his spiritual life can in no way be viewed as the quiet unfolding of … life without any problems; rather it must be viewed as the scene of a constant and sometimes painful battle…"

How can we square such a battle with peace of heart? The same way we can square tears with faith: we struggle, even painfully, but "with the absolute certainty the battle is already won, because the Lord is resurrected."

Certainly there are times when we will weep, but always with the hope that comes from knowing Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life.

In this life we may shed many tears, but never forgetting the glorious promise of 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."


My friend Father Jeremy Driscoll has written a poetic response to that divine promise, which I paraphrase slightly and make my own—The "former" things are still too much present in me, and their passing away is what's breaking my heart. But I am looking toward the future and writing these words as my own hope, as that in which I trust: every tear wiped away, and death no more.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent homily Uncle Greg. I really enjoyed reading it, and was just what we all needed. It's nice to have a little piece of your mass since I can't be there in West Van in person. Lots of love, Jenny