Mass of Christian Burial: Homily
Bro. Gerald Sweeney, OSFS
February 28, 2019
Studies tell us that Americans are probably the most mobile people in the world today. Last year alone – 36,000,000 Americans took up new residences – mostly in cities removed from their birthplaces. As a nation, we have been dubbed: “The Travelers of the World.” It seems we love to travel – visiting foreign countries, as well as, places right here in the USA! The total cost of American travel last year would be equal to almost 60% of the National debt!
Yet, from another perspective, we all fit into the category of travelers, and for the Christian, it weds together so magnificently.
The realities of life and death! In one of his letters to lady in Grenoble, St. Francis de Sales expressed it in this way. “The present life is given to us only to gain eternal life. And if we forget this, we tend to concentrate all our energies on the things of this world, where we are but birds of passage. And, so it happens that when we have to leave this world, we become frightened and upset! Believe me, if we want to live as “happy” pilgrims or travelers, we must always have in our hearts the hope of finally reaching that country where we will settle down forever. But, at the same time, we must believe and believe with all simplicity that God keeps a loving on eye on us as we journey toward Him, and that He never lets anything happen to us that is not for our greater good.” (XVIII, 343 1619).
Each of us travels as a pilgrim. No two routes or journeys are exactly the same since no two lives are exactly the same! God has given each of us a singular mission or vocation in this life to pursue. This is as St. Paul tells us how: “We are responsible to the Lord” - for we do not live for ourselves or die for oneself. Just like Jesus Himself who came to do his Father’s Will, so the pilgrim fulfills the will of God in his/her life. We must always remember that Jesus fulfilled His Father’s Will not only in his death, but especially in His Life – the nooks and crannies of life – the ordinary things of daily life. These are the things in God’s eyes that give substance and depth and direction to the pilgrimage.
Ordinarily, “the OSFS Constitutions say “the lay brothers shall devote themselves to manual labor and to the material needs of the community.” And Brother Gerry was right there for that, but he was on the “cutting-edge”, the 20th century brother – he was the “precursor” of a whole new concept of labor – Service to others: So we see the Brother “Fire-Company Volunteer” – working fire stations in Wernersville and Robesonia, PA. And, yes, there is a funny side to it. He misses the fires at Villa Maria where he lives. He slept through it all!
He served the people of Juniata in Philadelphia as one of their faithful Town-Watch volunteers. He gave tremendous service to the handicapped. He and Fr. Ed Simons organized and cared for a group of blind bowlers in Philadelphia. Every Saturday they would transport the men and women to and from their homes – set up the bowling alleys and supervise their activities. However, there was a “shady” side to all this. One day he was sitting in the dining room at North Catholic with a whole load of pictures. I was curious so I asked Gerry about the photos. He said they were the “blind bowlers.” He explained how he took their pictures – “charged” them for them, and gave them copies. I asked how do they know the pictures are of them – since they can’t see. Gerry didn’t give me any answer. Then he said maybe they could put them in their albums (utter simplicity).
One of the things he treasured most was his membership in the Knights of Columbus, which started out years ago in Philadelphia. Once again, he was always ready to be a man of service – like his fellow Knights. Service is never easy. It shows us our lives are not entirely our won, and it is at its brightest and best when lived in the service of others! Today we hear the term “entitlement” used a lot (almost the anti-thesis of service). Bro. Gerry was a Master of “entitlement.” That title – Brother – meant at least a 10% discount and in many restaurants – a free dinner [never backing down to a good freebie.]
The cover of the Mass program is a picture of the altar in our chapel in Annecy Hall. Actually, it was the original altar from the Northeast Catholic Faculty house chapel going back to 1928. Back in the 90’s, brother and myself would spend Saturday mornings from November to February sanding down that altar by hand. Brother was very faithful to this task. I don’t think he missed a Saturday! I remember one day some years later, we were chatting about the altar. He made one of his “rare comments” which I never forgot. “Sanding this altar is like cleaning away our imperfections, our faults – and making us more worthy of God!” This past year was difficult for brother, and he suffered a lot – it was like sanding away our faults, imperfections.
Now we should look at ourselves for a moment, for every death affects each and every one of us! For it reminds us so vividly, that this earth (only 12 years left, in the opinion of some!) is not our final resting place! All of us are pilgrims. All of us walk our unique path in life – hopefully with simplicity and service to others and love and perhaps too, like brother, a little sanding or suffering. We all hope to reach that same goal as brother has – that special dwelling place prepared for us by the Lord as we finally end our pilgrimage!