Mass of Christian Burial: Homily
Rev. Thomas J. Gillespie, OSFS
July 31, 2019
About a year into my time with Father Tom at Saint Ann Parish in Naples, I received a letter in the mail from the Bishop of Venice, a letter in which he asked all Pastors to consider offering varied and additional time for Confessions. This came from a general pastoral concern that some people just could never, especially because of work schedules, make it to the traditional times. I went to both Father Tom and to Father Steve Shott who ministered there with me and asked them to consider the possibility of offering Confessions Wednesday afternoons. People could take part of their lunch hour or stop into the parish office while running errands downtown to see the priest who was assigned that day. I thought we might just give it a try and Father Tom and Father Steve were enthusiastically on board. I think much to our surprise, it was an instant hit. People really took advantage of this opportunity. We had many stop in and we were delighted that our parish could fill a need for those in the area. While this was universally popular, I say without exaggeration (and Father Steve can verify this) that when Father Tom had the Confessions the line was out the door. We had to find extra chairs and bring them to the lobby. For many of the penitents, when Steve or I offered to hear their Confession, they made it plain. They were waiting for Father Tom. Because of this, I came to call him the Curé of Naples and I would get a laugh from him on that one. And that was a great laugh.
I was always so moved by this response to Tom. I don’t think that he was any more lenient or went softer with penances. I think, in the end, the reasons why people were drawn to Tom were his clarity and his authenticity. He had an incredibly strong but simple faith. When I say simple, I don’t mean, of course, lacking understanding. Quite the opposite. It was simple in the sense that it was clear and it was to be lived today. He knew that his Redeemer lives. The children at Saint Ann School heard every time he preached that God truly loved them. It was not merely the standard children’s homily. It was what he believed. It was how he lived. He conveyed it in every interaction, that as Saint Paul says in our Second Reading, nothing whatsoever can separate us from the love of God. I saw people come to Tom time and time again broken and through him they found that the Lord would make them whole again.
He embodied this love not only when people came to Confession or to talk out a family problem. He showed it in his presiding and preaching. And it was seen when the few dollars he had went to the large family in Naples with many children or were sent off to his former missionary area in Africa or given to the homeless man who came around on his bicycle. It was in the way, he reached out in true care during the hundreds of visits he made to the hospital. I received this email on Monday: “My name is Andrew. I’m from South Africa. I heard Fr. Gillespie passed away. He was like a father to me and he helped a lot of people here where I stay. He helped the poor and obtained clothing for a lot of children, especially school children. Fr. Gillespie was a good man. I saw him as a Saint. Please pray for his soul. We will continue to pray for him here. I met Fr. Gillespie as a boy in Nababeep here in South Africa and he changed my life. I’m very proud and grateful that I met a man of God of his stature. He was always humble, prayerful and a good listener.”
Tom did these good works without any fanfare, with no particular need to be in charge or to be recognized, always ready for any good work. That’s where I think the core of who Tom was as a Christian minister, as a priest came through. He never let himself get in the way of the work that God wanted to do through him.
I selected the Gospel today because I thought of the countless times that Tom took another by the hand and promised them that they would be in Paradise with God, a promise that we pray and know is fulfilled for him as well, a promise made through His baptism, affirmed by the blessings that Tom received and he accepted in the way he said Yes throughout his entire life. But Tom was also like the repentant thief himself, the first to call himself imperfect and to acknowledge himself as a sinner. He relied on the promise and today, he would want you and I to do the same.
This past Sunday’s Gospel was all about persistence in prayer. I can’t think of another person I knew who was that persistent. Those who heard Tom preach knew he would often implore us to “Pray! Pray! Pray!” so much so that parishioners in Naples made up a post card with his picture with that mantra printed underneath. He understood that it is in prayer that we remain near and aware of a God who is always near to us, who always answers our prayers and yes, who always loves us, that we don’t make God closer through prayer. He is always close to us but we must choose in our prayer to remain close to Him. That Tom did. That Tom modeled for all who knew him.
I want to acknowledge his sisters, his sister-in-law, his nieces and nephews. We are sorry for your loss- We know that you lost a giant in your family, a pillar. We pray with you today and extend our love and support. However, we know something of this. We truly lost a member of our family too, a pillar for us, not because of the leadership positions he held but because he got what it means to be an Oblate of Saint Francis de Sales; he was a model for so many of us. Mother Mary Chappuis, told us that it would take 30 years to be a good Oblate. When I was a new Oblate I thought “Good, I have some time.” Well I am coming up on 20 years and I am not sure I will have this all figured out in 10 more. But Tom had it figured out. He would be upset with me if I made it sound like he was perfect. But what made him a good Oblate was that he loved God, knew he needed God and that he was no better than his neighbor who needed God too. He brought comfort and joy in his approachability and his true concern. Some present here and throughout our province and some Oblates in South Africa had the blessing of having Tom as their Novice Director or the head of some other part of their formation. And these men universally, they acclaim his as wonderful. It is because they saw his authenticity, his true care for them and it became a model for how to live their Oblate life. Novice Directors and Formators are chosen not ultimately for what they preach in words but in how they model the life we are called to live.
Most of us here have known Tom for many years. He was my high school guidance counselor! And then when I was sent as a young priest to Naples, Florida and made a Pastor, he was there to be a cheerleader, mentor and guide, to help me keep perspective. When I would get worked up as a parishioner came up after Mass to complain about something he would tell me not to become discouraged but to simply look at the person and say: “Thank you for that information” and would remind me that we should neither give nor take offense at another’s words. The last time I had a visit with him, he got up out of his chair and for a person struggling to stand, It was a leap with true joy. He exclaimed: “Michael Vannicola! I am so happy to see you!” You all know the tone; you know that love. It’s how I know he will greet us all when we make our way home.
Tom, like us all, had crosses in his life. One of them was anxiety. And each time he faced it, it was his prayer that brought him back. He was a model for me not because he was perfect. He was a model for me because he was real and he was true in his trying. And his trying produced beautiful results, a trying that blessed the Church with a wonderful priest and religious. And for a person who suffered from anxiety at parts in his life, his quest for holiness brought him peace. When I last spoke with him, he was joyfully awaiting the promise of Heaven he had always anticipated and hoped for.
I can’t go on much longer because I know if I could have asked Tom for guidance or direction for this homily, he would say two words: “Be brief.” If anyone, including myself, made Grace Before Meals too long, he would just start eating before it was over, excited to enjoy his meal while still praying along.
For his liking, I have probably already gone on too long. So I remind you of what he would always say: God loves you. It’s the plain words that Jesus said to the repentant thief, the words that promise paradise and promise it today. They were words that Tom would say with confidence, the Confidence of our first reading, “I know that my vindicator lives” and Tom showed us that we would feel that love and live it out if we were willing to “Pray! Pray! Pray!”, for this good and holy man showed us above all that if we wanted peace in this life and the next, bringing ourselves close to God was the only way for that to be.
Rest well, dear brother and friend. Rest well, dear Father Tom.
May God Be Praised.