Saturday, April 21, 2018

Burying the dead and visiting the sick

“I want to be buried in Easter time,” a priest friend recently told me after a funeral Mass. 

I don’t know how many funeral Masses he has had in these past three weeks of Easter, but I assisted him in three funeral Masses and presided at two other funeral Liturgies of the Word with Communion.

Since being ordained a deacon, I have been present at more funerals. Sometimes, as was the case of three of those we buried, I had brought them communion – or being with the pastor when he anointed them and brought them communion.

Visiting the sick and burying the dead might seem to be dark and depressing, but, for me, they have been redemptive. It is a way to accompany people, trying to open up for people the presence of a God made flesh who died for and with us and who is risen. 

How appropriate to celebrate dying and death - in the season when we celebrate the risen Jesus, who still bears the wounds of his death.

I was particularly moved about ten days ago when I brought communion to two people dying of cancer.

One was a young woman with three young children. She was alert and peaceful. When I gave her communion, her oldest daughter was present. I asked her if she had yet received her first communion. She hadn’t but was preparing. The next time I saw her, she was beside her father, younger sister, and younger brother, at the side of the coffin of her mother in church.

The other was Don Efraín, here in Plan Grande. I wrote about him a few days ago log post here. in a b. His peacefulness and acceptance of death moves me. We buried him yesterday near the top of the hill of the cemetery in Candelaria, the next town over.

But there was another funeral that moved me – a poor indigenous woman, 28 years old, María Confesora. I had been present when Padre German anointed her and gave her communion one night in December. She lived in a small, rented house with her parents and a brother, in Dulce Nombre. I was moved when one of the stations of the cross of our parish’s Via Crucis stopped outside their house. Padre German went in and prayed with her during the station and, through the magic of remote microphones, we heard her pray with us.

The funeral was held early Monday morning in Dulce Nombre. 

But the family wanted to bury her in their home town of La Jigua. They had no money to pay for transporting the coffin, which had been given them. So I ended up transporting the coffin in my pick up – in a 90 minute or so trip from Dulce Nombre.

When we arrived in La Jigua, they wanted to go to the church. They got someone to open the church and brought the coffin in. Before a short service, I spoke with a woman who was cleaning the church. She knew the family and told how María Confesora was involved in the church, willing to help out in cleaning the church and whatever else might be needed. It’s amazing what we don’t know about people. I had only known her as a bed-ridden suffering young woman. But she had been an active participant in the life of her hometown faith community.

We brought the coffin to the cemetery where we finally interred her body. I brought some of the family back to Dulce Nombre.

Yesterday, we buried Don Efraín. The church in Plan Grande could not contain all the people who came. Afterwards, I went to the cemetery to pray at the graveside.

Priests (or a deacon) don’t often go to the graveside, partly because of the distance and time involved. The family often walks with the casket from the church to the grave. That can be an hour or more.

But I went and prayed and spoke with the widow, a brave woman, with the sisters of Efraín who had come from their homes in El Salvador, with some of their eleven children, and with a number of the grandchildren. My impression of Don Efraín as a gentle, humble, and loving person was reinforced by their testimony.

The tradition here in Honduras is that the people wait in the cemetery until the tomb is sealed. If the body is buried in a concrete vault in the ground, they pour cement over boards placed over the vault.

I was deeply moved, and concerned, about one of the sons who wept openly over the coffin and, at the last moment, opened the top of the casket to get a glimpse of his father. I don’t know the story, but he was really distressed. After the burial I went and embraced him. He thanked me for all I had done – which I consider all too little.

Last night, reflecting on this encounter and on the many occasions when I have given hugs to family members who ended up crying on my shoulders, I realized something. It is not me, but the presence of the Church, the people of God, that gives me the strength to be there to embrace those who are in mourning and, perhaps, offer a word of consolation and encouragement.

The servant, the deacon, is called to be there, to accompany people in their daily lives, their joys and their sorrows. It is a great privilege – and a ministry that can give deep joy.

For all this, I am grateful.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A saint has passed over to the Lord

This morning I learned that Don Efraín Martinez died last night in his home in Plan Grande. According to one person he was surrounded by his family – his wife and children and others – who were kneeling at his bedside.

I had thought of him Tuesday and was planning on visiting him, but, sad to say, I put it off.

I had visited Don Efráin in his illness twice, but knew him, most of all for his gentle smile. 

When I visited I discovered a man ready to meet his Maker. He had prostate cancer which spread throughout his body in the last few weeks.

He was extremely lucid when I visited him and spoke of being ready. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such peace and tranquility in a person who knows he is going to die. (I may have to amend that; in the last few days of his life my Dad also was at peace.)

When I got the word, I went to pray at the home, where the family was gathered, with the coffin in the living room. After greeting Susana, his wife, and some of their children and grandchildren, I went and prayed, first alone, then with the family, using the rite for a short service in the home. I was near tears, recalling the holiness next door which Don Efraín showed.

In his recent apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis calls on us to notice the saints next door. As he wrote (no. 8):

Let us be spurred on by the signs of holiness that the Lord shows us through the humblest members of that people which “shares also in Christ’s prophetic office, spreading abroad a living witness to him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity”. We should consider the fact that, as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross suggests, real history is made by so many of them.

I have several things to do today in Dulce Nombre and Santa Rosa but plan to return to the house this evening, to be with the family.

They plan to have a Mass or a Celebration of the Word tomorrow – a worthy way to commend him to God. I will be there.

And so I pray for him in the words of the hymn “In Paradisum”:

May the angels lead you into paradise;
May the martyrs accompany you as you come
And lead you into the holy city, Jerusalem.
May the choir of angels receive you,
And with Lazarus who once was poor
may you have everlasting rest.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Saints around us

In his exhortation on sanctity, Gaudete et exsultate, Pope Francis urges us to look at the saints who “encourage and accompany us” as well as the saints “next door.”

Since my childhood, I have been fascinated – and inspired – by saints.

As a child, I remember the little books of saints that were available with a short description of the saint and a colored drawing on the facing page.

But I also remember being fascinated by some obscure canonized saints.

In the late 1950s, in the midst of the civil rights struggles in the US. I learned about an obscure Franciscan, Saint Benedict the Moor, now known as St. Benedict the Black. He was the child of African slaves in Sicily who joined a group of Franciscan hermits. When they were disbanded, he entered the Observant Franciscans and, though he was illiterate, he was given positions of leadership. But he loved the kitchen and after being, in turn superior and novice master, he asked to return to cooking for his brothers. People flocked to visit him and receive his counsel. He found God in the pots and pans. I knew a Franciscan priest who sent me a statue of St. Benedict which I have brought with me to Honduras.

In the early 1970s, during grad school, I learned about the Little Brothers of the Gospel and often went to Mass in their apartment in the Lower East Side. Thought the writings of Carlo Carretto, I learned of Charles de Foucauld, now beatified, who after a dissolute youth, became a Trappist monk in Syria; but desiring to live more poorly he lived as a hermit, first in Nazareth and then in Algeria. He hoped to gather a community but never succeeded. Years later, René Voillaume and others founded the Little Brothers of Jesus, which was soon followed by the Little Sisters of Jesus. Blessed Charles was killed in Algeria. His simplicity, his sense of being with the marginalized, moved me – and still do. When I was ordained deacon, my stole bore the image the heart with a cross of Blessed Charles.

In 1980, in Vermont working on nuclear disarmament issues, I heard of the martyrdom of Monseñor Oscar Romero in El Salvador. But it was only after I got to St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames in 1983 that I began to read about his life and his identification with the oppressed. I began to read as much as I could and I was deeply impressed by the way that his spirituality helped him embrace the poor and their cause. I had the chance to go to El Salvador in 1985 with a group from Ames. We visited the cathedral and Romero’s tomb. But that short visit was enough for me. I got up early one morning and spent time praying there. In 1987, I spent two months accompanying the parish of San Roque in San Salvador. Many mornings I would go to the cathedral and sit in prayer by the tomb.

In 2015 I was blessed to be able to attend the Mass of his beatification in San Salvador. I attended one of the all-night vigils and walked to the site of the beatification, where I ran across friends – sisters who had spent years with the poor in Latin America. We were honoring a saint; I felt as if I was in the midst of the saints “next door.” This year, Blessed Oscar Romero will be canonized – San Romero del mundo.

In the 1990s, I learned of the martyrdom of the Trappists monks of Tibhirine in Algeria on 1996. Their lives, their witness among the Muslims, moved me. The testament of their prior, Dom Christian Chergé, moved me with its realism and tender love of the people of Algeria. Recognizing the possibility of martyrdom, he spoke kind words to his future killer. The movie “Of Gods and Men” is a marvelous portrait of them and their efforts to live as followers of Christ in difficult times. The news that they will be beatified, with other martyrs of Algeria, fills me with a deep joy.

Last January I had the opportunity to visit Santiago Atitlán, on pilgrimage to the site of the martyrdom of a US missionary priest, Blessed Stanley Rother, Padre Apla’s. I was deeply moved, especially as I heard of his way of being with the people there, learning their language, visiting their villages, and even bringing meals to eat with poor people in Santiago Atitlán. His accompaniment of the people encourages me in my current vocation.

These are a few of the official saints and blessed who accompany and encourage me. I would have to add a few others – Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Benedict Joseph Labré, Saint Clare of Assisi and the Servant of God Dorothy Day, among others.

When I was ordained deacon, as I prostrated during the Litany of the Saints, I experienced the presence of these saints surrounding me – between the invocations to Blessed Oscar Romero and Blessed Charles de Foucauld, my whole body trembled.

But who are the saints “next door” for me?

They are those who live out their call to be saints wherever they are. They take seriously what Pope Francis writes (14): “We are all called to be holy (to be saints) by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.”

There are too many to mention all of them.

For me personally I first think of Father Regis Duffy, OFM, one of my high school teachers, with whom I kept up a correspondence until shortly before his death. The last time I saw him, at St. Bonaventure University, he was weak but full of life and joy. He was a scholar, musician, and a friend.

I also recall the Dubuque Franciscan sisters with whom I have worked in El Salvador and Honduras. Their quiet accompaniment of the poor, their passion for the oppressed, continue to inspire me in my ministry. And spending lunch at Easter and Christmas with them is so energizing. But I also treasure the highly competitive games of Mexican Train dominoes.

But then there are the saints “next door” here in Honduras.

There are the friends and relatives who care for the elderly and the gravely ill. Patiently they serve them, giving them food, washing them. When I visit the sick, I try to speak with them, giving them some words and prayers of encouragement.

I remember my first experience of seeing the elderly cared for at home. It was on April 1, 1992, in Agua Caliente, Suchitoto, El Salvador. I was on mission to the village and was visiting the homes. In one home, an elderly woman was in bed, but with children and adults coming and going. When I had to make a decision a few years later about how to care with my father, the example of this family gave me the courage to decide to care for him at home, instead of putting him in a nursing home.

I also think of the everyday holiness that I saw one day when I met with a couple preparing for marriage. They had been living together for a few years and had a small child. But the woman had two children from a previous relationship. The man had taken them as his own, caring for them with the same love he showed his own child. Such generosity and fullness of love.

I think also of Lucía in El Salvador who shared with me her stories of living during the persecution and the war. Her deep faith sustained her - even in the face of war, fleeing under the bombs, loss of relatives, and more. (Here she is with Nancy and Gary Guthrie, who also are signs of the "saints next door.)

Then there is Juan Ángel, who was a young delegate of the Word in Debajiados. He was preparing to become an extraordinary minister of Communion but died of pneumonia, leaving behind his wife and four children. His simplicity, his care for his parents and his family showed me the "next door" holiness Pope Francis writes about.

Then there are the Spanish Franciscan sisters in Santa Rosa. Their ministry to the poor, especially to prisoners, is only part of the way they try to live their call to sanctity. When I moved to Santa Rosa in 2007, Sor Inez and Sor María Jesús welcomed me – and I felt as if they adopted me as a member of their family. But their holiness is shown in some extraordinary ways. There is a story about Sor Inez that reveals a combative spirituality. Sor Inez is short, a little hunchbacked, and is now in her early eighties. She introduced me to a kindergarten in a marginalized community in Santa Rosa. The kindergarten had been in another location but had to be moved since the police were taking over the land. The idea was to put the kindergarten at the side of a ravine. The only major problem is that the stream was contaminated by sewage. Sor Inez showed up at the public meeting and told the authorities is that if they wanted to develop the area they should not put the kindergarten there in such an unhealthy place but that they should use the land by the contaminated stream for a bank. Needless to say, neither a bank or a kindergarten was built at the site!

There are many others who have shown me signs of “next door” holiness. I think especially of three couples whom I knew before they were married, when they were undergraduates at Iowa State University. Omar and Elizabeth, Katie and Nate, Lois and Dan had a deep sense of commitment to those in need that they have preserved in their daily lives now as young professionals with families. They continue to inspire me – and they still are in contact with each other. Here is a picture they sent me before they were married, when two of the women were volunteering in Bolivia.

There are all too many saints around us. The challenge is to open our hearts to their presence and let them inspire us with their inspiration, their spirit of the presence of God.

Open my heart, God, to the saints for we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.