Friday, February 26, 2016
I was reading the account of Margaret Thatcher's 2013 funeral by the Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. Something she wrote caught the spirit of the funeral yesterday of my dear friend Sister Josephine; it was even more accurate a description of the vigil prayers the night before.
Here's what Peggy Noonan wrote: "Thatcher's funeral was striking in that it was not, actually, about her. It was about what she thought it important for the mourners to know."
Memories Are Seeds of Hope
Homily Preached at the Funeral Mass for Sister Josephine Carney, SSA
Before I begin, I just have two personal things to say. The first is that I come from a family that cries when they sing “O Canada” at hockey games. My father ignored this fact when he asked me to preach at his funeral, and my dear friend Sister Josephine did the same. If I run into trouble fulfilling her commission it is important you know that it’s not grief, but gratitude, that makes this hard.
The second thing is a word to the Sisters of Saint Ann. It’s not my place to thank them for the love and care they showed one of their own in the years of her physical decline, and especially at the end of her life. But I’m at least entitled to thank them—and especially Sister Mary Ellen King—for the love and care they showed for me during these past weeks. Despite her long years, Sister Jo’s death is a great loss to me, and sharing time at her bedside with Sister Mary Ellen and other Sisters lightened the sorrow considerably.
Memories are seeds of hope.
Like the aging Apostle John, Sister Josephine repeated a single message in the latter years of her life. It was a less obvious message than Saint John’s refrain “God is love,” but her conviction that “memories are seeds of hope, producing ever-deeper roots of faith and love,” was the fruit of personal experience and prayer.
Her memories are now our memories—a legacy to her religious community, her family, her friends, her students, and indeed to the Church.
Sister Josephine herself chose our second reading, Saint Paul’s fervent prayer of blessing and thanksgiving. It is one single sentence in Greek—the longest in the New Testament. If Saint Paul wrote a sentence like that in Sister Josephine’s English Lit class he would have got very poor marks indeed.
But we can excuse the Apostle for his run-on sentence because within these eleven verses of the Letter to the Ephesians he sums up God’s plan of salvation, its fulfillment through Christ, and the heavenly inheritance of the sons and daughters of God.
Small wonder that Sister Jo chose this text for our consolation and instruction at her funeral Mass—because it is the “memory” that shaped her life and mission. Her hope, like ours today, was founded in a lively sense of God’s providential plan to gather us together as one family, saved and sanctified through the Blood of Christ.
Her hope was rooted in the blessings that flow from the Paschal Mystery we celebrate today and at every Eucharist.
Sister Josephine was my friend for half of my life and almost one-third of hers. Yet thanks to her gifts as a story-teller, I know much about her childhood, her early years as a religious, and her teaching career. And of course I was privileged to have a ring-side seat at her transition from teaching in schools to teaching just about everywhere else for another two decades.
Through all these years, she held fast to her profound conviction that Christian life begins and ends with blessings of every sort—blessings to be celebrated and blessings to be shared.
This irrepressible desire to share with others what she had herself received is in part captured in words spoken to Daniel in his vision. Certainly our first reading today echoes the mottos of both the Sisters of Saint Ann and Little Flower Academy. The Sisters’ congregational motto, taken from Matthew’s Gospel, proclaims that those who teach will be called great in Heaven. And her beloved Little Flower carries out its mission beneath the banner Ad Lucem, which points to the shining stars mentioned in this reading.
The Gospel her Sisters chose for this celebration—Josephine herself expressed only a wish for the reading from Ephesians—provides the unifying principle of her ministries as a consecrated woman, a teacher, a catechist, and a preacher in many settings, particularly in retirement. She had a life-long commitment to the final command Jesus gave his disciples and the Church: to teach what he taught.
But despite the ways these three texts of scripture reflect her long life, I wish we could have added a fourth inspired by her latter years. That would be Romans 8:28: “we know that all things work together for good for those that love God.” Something else Paul writes in the same chapter also describes the faith that sustained her in every difficulty: “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”
Sister Josephine’s attachment to the phrase “memories are seeds of hope” was surely a source of strength to her in adversity, since a few years back she told the LFA community “memories are the seeds of hope: during the good times we forget God, but during those really difficult times we survive with God’s help.”
It’s almost hard to remember just how many difficult times she had in the past ten years or so, because she handled them with such grace and good cheer. Progressive loss of sight and hearing, and then mobility, were simply challenges to be overcome in faith, and overcome them she did.
In times of physical or emotional distress Sister Josephine sometimes expressed anxiety, but she never, at least in our many conversations, spoke a word of resentment or complaint. Her confidence in Christ manifested a sure hope that he “accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will,” as St. Paul wrote.
Like many of you, I received enormous support, in good times and in bad, from her affirming notes and cards. At the age of eighty-six she wrote me “I am like a whirling dervish so I have no time to find and send a ‘you’ kind of card. Just remember that I love you.”
By 2007 she was already on the theme of memory. On the Feast of Saint Gregory the Great she wrote “Remember your patron’s love for the Church. Remember your own love for the Church, and rejoice in that love.”
When my father died in 2011 she had pretty well given up writing in her own hand, so her sympathy card came in the beautiful script of one of her generous volunteer secretaries, probably Sister Helen Worth. It reads “Memories are seeds of hope. Ponder all your memories of your life with your father. Notice that every memory is a mystery of God’s love touching you through the love of your father. In faith and hope and love he taught you to recognize the love of God, your Father. Be glad and rejoice.”
The preacher at the prayer service last night was pretty much Sister Josephine herself, since she’d dictated a great deal of what was said. I think that my reflections today are equally an effort to share with you something of her own message. And in that sympathy card we find the heart of it.
So let us ponder all our memories of life with this wonderful woman. Let us notice that every memory is a mystery of God’s love touching us through her love. In faith and hope and love she taught us to recognize the love of God, our Father.
Be glad and rejoice.
On that note, I had planned to end this homily. But there was something missing, one seed of hope still to be planted.
Last night, at the end of the moving prayer vigil so beautifully planned by Josephine and so beautifully conducted by the Sisters, that seed was sown by a stranger who accepted the open invitation to speak.
A man I did not recognize came up from the back of the chapel at the very end of the service. In a voice quivering with emotion he said “I did not know who she was until I saw the notice in the paper. But I knew her, because many times I sold her bus tickets to Vancouver.”
He then recounted how she would hand him the envelope containing her allowance and ask him to take out the cost of the fare. When he offered to count out the money, she smiled and said “No, I trust you!”
His wasn’t a story of simple trust. It was a story of human dignity. How many times I heard Sister Jo talk about the employees on the bus and ferry! Each was a person to her, none was a functionary, each was valued and appreciated.
Such a small thing. But as the emotional words of Raymond from the bus depot proved, not a small thing at all.
A seed of hope. A seed planted in a human heart.
May the memory of that, and all the seeds of hope our dear sister has planted, inspire all of us to “shine like the brightness of the sky.”
February 25, 2016
Sunday, February 7, 2016
I’ll never forget talking to a young parishioner who saw me for spiritual direction before he moved to the Prairies. I asked “what are you doing for Lent?” He said very simply “Adding an extra half-hour of prayer, and giving up red meat, alcohol, and hot showers.”
I prayed fervently: “Dear Lord, please don’t let him ask me the same question!”
Most of us, if we’re honest, no longer see Lent as a big deal, if we ever did.
Certainly the numbers who come to Mass on Ash Wednesday in our parish suggest that people today value the day less than in the past. It seems, generally, that Lent doesn’t meet people’s need for a bracing wake-up call. I hear rarely about serious penance, except occasionally from young Catholics, and I certainly don’t do serious penance myself.
In a book on the Lenten liturgy, the French monk Adrian Nocent even asks whether the traditional disciplines of prayer, almsgiving and mortification or self-denial are still effective means nowadays of changing our hearts and reforming our lives.
He does think they can: that Lenten practices remain important—but says we need to go beyond thinking of Lent in terms of what we do and start thinking about what God does.
We must, Father Adrian writes, stop thinking about Lent “first and foremost in terms of ‘practices.’ We must experience it rather as a time when we open ourselves to the divine life that God seeks to restore to us.”
Prayer, almsgiving and self-denial are just keys that unlock our hearts to God’s work of restoration.
But there are also padlocks that stop us from experiencing Lent as a kind of “sacrament,” an experience that can really and truly change us.
The first of these is staying so far away from the holiness of God that we don’t realize our own unholiness. The second is thinking we’re so bad that God can’t do anything with us. And the third padlock is being afraid to tell it as it is—to admit we’re sinners and in need of God.
Our readings today show three holy men unlocking those padlocks—overcoming obstacles to receiving God’s mercy.
The prophet Isaiah draws close to God and so knows he is unworthy. St. Paul knows he’s been a great sinner, but also that he’s been made whole by grace. And St. Peter falls at the feet of Jesus confessing himself to be a sinful man.
In all three cases, the mercy of God holds them up and sends them out.
In the first reading, Isaiah has an intense experience of the majesty of God. I don’t know about you, but if I saw the Lord seated on his throne attended by angels, my first thought would be “Oh my—I’m special!”
But Isaiah, who was listening to God in prayer long before this vision, has only one immediate thought: I am not worthy.
That’s a mark of authentic religious experience: the closer we draw to God in prayer, the less convinced we become of our righteousness.
In the second reading, St. Pau l says something remarkable. “I am the least of the Apostles, unfit to be called an Apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God.”
“But,” he adds, “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.”
How beautifully Paul balances his knowledge of past sin with his gratitude for present graces! If he were around this Wednesday he would receive the ashes with mixed feelings—with sorrow for his sins but a deep sense of God’s goodness.
What’s the point of coming to Mass on Wednesday if you’ve decided you’re a hopeless cause? Sure, we are not righteous, but if we were what’s the point of Lent?
This all comes together in today’s Gospel, where St. Peter, like Isaiah, glimpses something of the glory of God, through the miraculous catch of fish. As it did with Isaiah, the experience provokes a profound sense of unworthiness in Peter, who’s quick to admit it to Jesus.
In a new book, an Italian journalist interviews Pope Francis about mercy. The Pope tells him that the first and only step required to experience mercy is to admit we need it.
That’s just what Isaiah, Peter and Paul all did. Only Paul was motivated by a memory of grievous sin; the prophet and St. Peter simply knew they were unworthy to be so close to the holiness of God.
St. Peter’s successor, Pope Francis, will no doubt have preached a terrific homily today, judging by what he says in this new book, which is called The Name of God is Mercy. The interviewer asks him how we recognize that we are sinners. He asks “What would you say to someone who doesn’t feel like one?”
The Pope doesn’t miss a beat. To someone who doesn’t feel like a sinner, he says “ask for the grace of feeling like one… because even recognizing oneself as a sinner is a grace.”
If we know ourselves as sinners, let’s walk up the aisle for the ashes on Wednesday with the confident hope of St. Paul and the deep humility of St. Peter.
But if we don’t think we’re sinners, if we feel like saying “who do you think you are, calling me dust?” then let’s come forward anyway, asking God for the grace of feeling like a sinner, so that we may begin Lent well.
And to those who are thinking “oh no, not Lent again”—to those who feel no sense of progress from last Lent or even from any Lent—Pope Francis says “The Lord never tires of forgiving: never! It is we who tire of asking him for forgiveness. We need to ask for the grace not to get tired of asking for forgiveness, because he never gets tired of forgiving.”
Ash Wednesday, in this year of mercy, is a great day for that.
Once we have removed these common obstacles, unlocked these padlocks to receiving mercy, only one thing remains: to show mercy to others. How can we receive from God what we withhold from family members, friends, enemies, colleagues, and fellow parishioners?
Lent is a time to show mercy—for mercy, Pope Francis says, is “the beating heart of the Gospel.” It beats in the heart of Christ for each of us, but it must beat in our hearts for others.