Friday, June 24, 2011

The Giant Hill Made of Tiny Grains of Sand

Today marks 3 weeks since Father's passing and it is hard to believe the time has passed so quickly. We celebrated his Month's Mind Mass last night and it was impressive to see the huge crowd of people who came to pray for him. The church was more than 3/4 full and people, including many priests, had come from many parishes and cities.

The Month's Mind Mass, also known in Portuguese as the Missa dos Anojados (Mass of Mourning), is a tradition which has fallen away in most parts of the country, but thankfully here, in the Portuguese community, it is very much alive and well. It is a second requiem Mass which is celebrated about a month after the person has died. The people who attend this Mass tend to have had a closer connection with the deceased and the tone of the Mass is more joyous and resurrection focused. it also provided an opportunity for those who were unable to attend the funeral Mass. While we can often tend to be filled with deep grief and shock at the funeral the Missa dos Anojados provides another opportunity to pray for and celebrate the gift of our loved one who has passed from this world.

Although there were far fewer people at this Mass than attended Father's funeral Mass (the church was standing room only and there were people standing on the steps at the funeral), there was massive crowd. The life of each person present had been touched by him in some way and they came to offer thanks to God for the gift he was in our lives and to pray that Father will receive his eternal reward. Yes, there were tears, but unlike at the funeral, these tears were filled with saudade (an acute sense of absence/longing) rather than grief, and hope rather than tragedy.

Because last night was the vigil of the Solemnity of St. John the Baptist, the readings and propers were from the Vigil Mass and not from the Order of Christian Funerals. I think, however, that there could not have been any more appropriate readings.

Although we were careful to not turn this into a Mass of Canonization, those I spoke with noticed the great similarities between Father's life and the lives described in the first and second readings. The first reading from the the Jeremiah. In this reading, God tells Jeremiah that from the time of his conception He had a plan for him. God calls him to fulfill that plan and become a prophet, but he balks at the idea and lists his weaknesses - He is not a good speaker and he is too young. Father too received a call at a very young age and set off for a country where he was a stranger and did not speak the language. He trusted that God would give him what he needed. Also, like Jeremiah, Father was very aware of his weaknesses but he was not ashamed of them. For example: He knew that his English was not always good, but it never stopped him from preaching God's word. Instead, he relied and trusted in God to strengthen him in his weakness.

The second reading was from 1 Peter. Here Peter talks about the mission of the prophets to never be self serving, but to serve others always and in doing so teach them the secrets of heaven. Again, this is how Father lived his life. He was always a man for others who, in his almost shy way, deflected attention off himself and always onto Christ. He could have taken St. John the Baptist's motto "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn 3:30) as his own.

After Mass, we gathered for some of Father's favorite desserts and couldn't help but discuss which ones he would have sampled first. There was also a great deal of fellowship and sharing of stories. Some stories were inspirational, others were funny, and others were poignant. At the gathering, I met old friends and made new friends. I was surprised at how many people sought me out and I was grateful to hear their stories and share mine. There was one woman who admitted to not really knowing Father, but she was compelled to come because he had saved her marriage. He always had a special charism to help married couples and I knew of many marriages in which he had facilitated reconciliations. This woman drove for half an hour to attend the Mass for a priest she had only spent 2 hours with. Several years before, her marriage was broken. She did not know who to turn to, but she had heard that there was a priest who was good at saving marriages. She called him and he offered to meet with her and her husband. After only a few meetings they decided their marriage was worth saving. He got then back to regular Mass attendance and daily prayer and directed them to The Teams of Our Lady, an international association of couples who meet in small groups for prayer and study and, when needed, counseling. Father was instrumental in the teams and served as a spiritual director for several groups in the area. This women told me that she was now happily married and it was all because Father showed her that her marriage was worth saving. There were many, many others who shared similar stories.

There were several priests, who like me, had been taken under Father's wing as children and under his mentorship grew in faith and love of Christ and His Church. These men became wonderful and talented priests who faithfully serve the Church with the same love and fidelity that they were shown from such an early age. I was the only female present who had been blessed with that kind of a friendship, but I know that my vocation to marriage and lay ministry was fostered by Father's example. I am a better wife, mother, and church worker because of his example of love, fidelity, and service. I know there were times that people wondered what was going on between us. One woman even asked my mother one day, "Why does your daughter want to be with such an old man? She is such a young woman?" My mother didn't know how to explain it, and unfortunately we were entering a time where suspicions were high and people were fearful. The truth is, I loved him like a father and in return I was loved like a daughter. The other priests, and those who were present from the beginning of our friendship understood this. The things I learned were true treasures and I will carry with me for the rest of my life and I hope to pass them on to future generations. I am very sad to know that, because of safe environment policies, this generation of young people will most likely never had the kind of friendship that the priests who Father inspired and I were blessed to have.

There were others who were there because Father had been there for them in their time of need. He had counseled them, sat with the ill and the dying, and administered sacraments, inspired through preaching, and just represented Christ to them in his daily life. It is said that the legacy of a priest in found in the souls he leads to Christ. None of these things made the news and individually may even seem to be insignificant, but gathered in the Church, the living legacy of  this priest was apparent. He had done one great work: he loved Christ, he loved his priesthood, he preached the Word of God and he pointed always to Christ.

I am left here with saudade, a deep untranslatable sense of longing and emptiness because I miss him and I recognize that the world has suffered a great loss, but I am also are fulled with hope because I believe that Father will reach his eternal reward which he looked forward to for so long. I will always pray for him, but I will also always pray to him. I despise funeral canonizations, but I am confident that, because of the way he lived and died and the amount of extreme suffering which he endured over these last 10 years, he is either presently in heaven or will be very quickly. (Father was dedicated to the practice of redemptive suffering) Like most people, his name will most likely never be listed among the canonized saints, and I am sure that is exactly how he would want it, but our goal in the Christian life to be become a saint (whether recognized or not). When he reaches his eternal reward he will be able to do more for us than he ever could before.

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