Mass of Christian Burial: Homily

Rev. William J. Hultberg, Jr., OSFS
September 13, 2019

GOSPEL: Matthew 25:31-46

To Fr. Bill’s immediate Family: Joseph and Larry Hultberg, Joseph and Art Blansfield, Debbie Gill, John Ryan, Jan and Chip Dycio and Kim Taylor. We – The Oblates, your friends and relatives present in this assembly -- along with all who called or texted by phone or attended in person this morning’s and last night’s viewings, -- WE offer you this day our deepest sympathy and pledge our sincere prayers and heart-felt love as you mourn the death of Fr. Bill.

To Fr. Bill’s extended Family: All the Friends of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob here this morning – and most especially his colleagues, friends and alumni from Caron Treatment Centers – you honor us by your presence here today. We thank you for loving and supporting Fr. Bill in his ministry on that “Magic Mountain” in Wernersville and we are forever grateful to all of you for being the light of his life!

Last, but by no means least: To all members of the United States Military present, both active duty and retired. We offer you our love, our thanks for you service and our appreciation for your esteem and high regard for one of your own -- Lt. Col. William J. Hultberg.

Whether you travelled here by SUV this morning from a row house in Reading, Pennsylvania or carpooled from your AA clubhouse in Northeast Philly.

Whether you read the obituary as an Alumnus of Bishop Ireton High School or heard the news through the grapevine at your regular NA homegroup in Robesonia or Sinking Springs.

Whether you got a phone call from an old acquaintance from Bishop Duffy High School in Niagara Falls or received the news by email from an old Army buddy.

Whether you had to bum a ride here today with your 12 Step sponsor because you are newly sober or whether you are about to graduate from that awesome program at the Lyman House.

Whether you worked with Fr. Bill for double digit years at Caron Treatment Centers or sat with him in Wilmington these last three years at the Early Risers Meeting.

Whether Fr. Bill taught you at Northeast Catholic in Philadelphia, or you got to know him through those wonderful HIV Positive Recovery Retreats he led these many years.

Today, this day, here in this beautiful Church of the Immaculate Conception in bustling downtown Elkton, -- You are all dignitaries. You are our welcome guests. For God has touched you through the life of Fr. Bill Hultberg. ...and I greet you as family and friends.

Perhaps, you are wondering: WHO AM I?

God gave me the gift of living in three separate Oblate Communities with Fr. Bill. Let me introduce myself in the way that some employees knew me from my days of subbing at Chapel Service for Fr. Bill and Rev. Jack up at Caron: I am Fr. Mike, one of Fr. Bill’s Drunk Monks!

I too am a most grateful guest this morning as we gather around the Lord’s Table and offer Mass for the repose of Fr. William Hultberg, Oblate of St. Francis de Sales.

The Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, himself a recovering alcoholic with over 30 years of sobriety, began a recent talk with the following quote: All wisdom is plagiarism. Only stupidity is original. I’d like to acknowledge this morning, that most of my homily for Fr. Bill’s funeral, has been unabashedly stolen from some of the “spiritual giants” who Father Hultberg found to be inspirational in his life. And taking the cue of our patron, Francis de Sales, I have simply rearranged the flowers of the bouquet in the earnest hope that it is found pleasing in the eyes of God.

Some of you, I’m sure, are familiar with the book by Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer. It was published about forty years ago and has become something of a classic in the field of pastoral ministry. To illustrate his concept of ministry, Nouwen related an old legend from the Talmud which is the source from which the Code of Jewish Law is derived.

In the legend, Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi came upon Elijah the prophet while he was standing at the entrance of a cave. He asked Elijah,

“When will the Messiah come?” Elijah replied:
“Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“Sitting in the gates of the city”
“How shall I know him?”
“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time
and then bind them back again. But HE -- HE unbinds one at a time and then binds it up again, -- saying
to himself.
“Perhaps I shall be needed: If so, I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.”

This, Father Nouwen said, is how healing works. It takes place when the wounded offer themselves to the wounded. It is a concept most of us have heard about at one time or another. But how frequently do we live out its power? This morning, I’d like to draw our attention to that awesome power and how it can, how it did and how it does transform lives.

This is not a new idea. It dates back at least to the origins of the Book of Numbers a few thousand years ago. In that record, the Children of Israel were camped out among poisonous snakes. They were suffering a lot of snake bites and looking to Moses for a cure. Through divine intervention, Moses offers this logically contradictory form of healing: He puts the image of a snake up on pole and has anyone who is bitten gaze upon it and find healing. It’s the principle of finding the cure in “the hair of the dog that bit you”, so to speak.

Somewhere buried in this legend is a bit of time-honored brilliance about suffering and healing. It is this: Healing is found not so much through exposure to that which is healthy, as through a controlled sharing in the disease itself. We all know this to be true, and we know how just about everything from polio to chicken pox is controlled by the same principle. Modern medicine has proven the wisdom of this ancient intuition.

This same ancient wisdom lies at the heart of the identity, ministry and message of Jesus Christ. Recall Chapter 3 of John’s Gospel. Jesus said: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him, even if he die, may have eternal life.”

In other words, Jesus shared in our human condition; he experienced suffering and knew what it was like to be utterly abandoned – totally alone. His death was not, as some might suggest, merely an act performed for our benefit by a God who is incapable of suffering. His passion and death were a genuine participation in the same kind of miserable, frightening, sorrow-filled snake-bitten reality that is ours. And in a remarkable way that can take a lifetime for any of us to begin to comprehend, “by his wounds, are we healed”. Healing happens through the sharing in the human experience, one wounded person to another. Sound familiar?

This is profoundly true for each of us who sit in this Church this morning. I doubt that there is anyone here who has not been wounded and who does not carry some of the scars of those wounds. I doubt that there is not a man or woman present who has not known deep loss and sadness, and who cannot still touch the depths of that loss from time to time. Our God knows that. The co-founders of AA --Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith knew that, and Fr. Bill knew that truth very, very well.

I owe a debt of gratitude to my brother Oblate Fr. Mike Murray, our assistant provincial and director of province administration for his well- researched obituary for Fr. Hultberg. After naming all of Fr. Bill’s surviving family members, he included “the countless other people whose lives were forever changed for having experienced this man who could accurately be described as a “Wounded Healer”.

Like his Savior, Fr. Bill was a man of many wounds and scars. And yet, it was through his faith in God (his Higher Power) and a daily program of recovery based on a spiritual way of life, that he found healing. He was a grateful recipient of that divine wisdom which took possession of his life. It staunchly reminded Bill daily that in order to keep the gift of healing, he had to generously and zealously give it away.

Fr. Bill as Wounded Healer was many things to many people, yet above all, he was ever an Oblate and always the Teacher. He taught lessons of life and I’d like to talk about him in the context of one of his favorite prayers, a prayer he kept in a compartment of his wallet. It was cited in countless talks he gave and read in regular 12 step meetings he attended. It was the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. “Lord, make me a channel of your peace.”

He lived this prayer throughout the whole of his life…..

1934… Lord, make me a channel of your peace. Born into a very sick family torn apart by alcoholism, 3-year-old Billy Hultberg is placed in numerous foster homes before the perfect match is found with loving people in Hockessin, Delaware. In his adult life, he would regularly proclaim at Caron’s Chapel Service on Sunday mornings – “Here – in recovery, we bring families back together”. And like the disciples on the road to Emmaus when they recognized that it was Jesus who had been walking with them on the road --the people exclaimed: We not our hearts burning within us? Didn’t he teach us. Didn’t he show us the way?

June, 1961 and 1962…. Final Vows as an Oblate and Ordination to the Priesthood . Lord, Make me an instrument of your peace. Fr. Bill’s first assignments as a priest were to teach and coach at North Catholic in Philadelphia and then Bishop Duffy High School in Niagara Falls, NY. During this time, Fr. Bill also served as a reserve chaplain in the U.S. Navy. Blessed Louis Brisson, the co-founder of the Oblates wrote: The Oblates are called to enter society such as it is, and this by every means possible. We have a responsibility that we must carry out passionately well. The teacher must prepare his classes passionately well; the priest must apply himself passionately well to the functions of his ministry. Let the Oblate enter the world feet first and without reservations.” Teachers and coaches and all who mentor the young, Didn’t he teach us. Didn’t he show us the way?

1968 to 1971: Lord, make me a channel of your peace. Father served active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; the first Marine Division, Vietnam and at Naval Air Station, Lemoore, CA. He was awarded the Bronze star with V for valor for his service in Vietnam, resigned his commission with the Navy and returned to teaching at Bishop Ireton high School in Alexandria, VA. Again, Fr. Brisson the Oblate founder writes: The Oblates should not be teachers or preachers ONLY. They must work under every circumstance and in every condition. Members of the US Armed Forces, active and retired – Didn’t he teach us? Didn’t he show us the way?

July 1973: Fr. Hultberg finds it steadily difficult to adjust to life after the war. He fortifies his nerves with alcohol and prescribed tranquilizers which eventually fail him. On July 4th, standing in the parking lot of Chit Chat Farms (now Caron Treatment Center) in Wernersville, Pa Fr. Bill asks himself this question: “How the heck did I get to this point?” Fr. Bill takes the first steps in admitting and accepting his alcoholism and addiction by entering treatment. Addicts and alcoholics everywhere – Didn’t he teach us? Didn’t he show us the way.

1976: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Fr. Bill was recalled to active duty with the U. S. Army to work in their substance abuse program at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, TX. He completed his active military service in 1983 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel – a member of the General Staff, 97th US Army Reserve Unit stationed at Fort Mead, MD and received four Meritorious Service Award Medals for outstanding work in developing drug and alcohol prevention programs. He completed his military career as an Active Reservist in 1991, completing thirty-five years in the armed forces. Rehab Administrators and Substance Abuse Counselors, Mental Health Professionals, Rehab Staff Members – Didn’t he teach us? Didn’t he show us the way?

1984: Lord, make me a channel of your peace. Fr. Bill begins his ministry at the Caron Foundation as an addiction counselor. From 1987 to 2003, he served as Director of Pastoral Care. In 1995 to 2016, he was also appointed Assistant to the President of Caron. In 2013, not long after his election, Pope Francis wrote: “The thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugar! You have to heal his wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up. My Oblate brothers, my brother priests, Pastoral care chaplains everywhere….Didn’t he teach us. Didn’t he show us the way.

In May of 2016, Father Bill retired to “part-time” ministry every other weekend at Caron and took up residence at the Salesianum Oblate Community in Wilmington, DE. He practiced what he taught all those many years of treatment work and became a regular visitor to 12 step meetings throughout the area. My friends in 12 Step Recovery everywhere, didn’t he teach us? Didn’t he show us the way?

Late winter 2018. Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. One cold and frigid morning while dashing to get to his car and drive to his early morning 12 Step Meeting, Fr. Bill slipped on a patch of ice near his residence and hit his head in the fall. After multiple tests, it became alarmingly apparent that he had suffered significant brain damage due to that fall. On and on the weeks went with little progress. And day in and day out, Fr. Bill’s family members and friends kept watch by his bed in hope for some change.

His condition, and his memory slowly improved but never to the level where he could continue his former ministry and its demanding schedule. Fr. Hultberg struggled with the acceptance of his diminishment. Yet, with the help of his family, friends and his new religious community at Childs (the Oblate Retirement House) he found a way around his lack of mobility. He became the host with the most as hundreds began to visit him. He learned to receive support and care from those to whom he had first ministered. The Circle of Love was complete. Didn’t he teach us? Didn’t he show us the way?

Fr. Bill, we thank you for bringing us together today in Jesus’ name.

Since I was in Florida at my new assignment when his condition worsened, please permit me once last chat with the Drunk Monk.

Fr. Bill…….
It’s time for the Meeting. But before you go, all your friends wanted me to tell you this before you went in – We love you. We’re praying for you. Our earnest prayer in this Mass is simply this: May you be with God. May you be in the presence of the Living God and may you hear our Lord Jesus Christ say these simple words to you: WELL DONE, O GOOD AND FAITHFUL SERVANT. COME, INHERIT THE PLACE I HAVE PREPARED FOR YOU FROM THE BEGINNING OF ALL TIME….

For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat.

I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.

I was lonely, afraid and abandoned, and you came to sit with me.

I was sick and you helped to heal me.

I was naked and you clothed me.

For whatever you did, to the least of my brothers and sisters, You did to ME!

Fr. Bill, …Chaplain, …. Padre …….Your tour of duty here is over. You’re home. You’re home!

May God be blessed in life, the legacy and the ministry of Fr. Bill Hultberg and may we all LIVE JESUS ONE DAY AT A TIME. AMEN