This is a “break” in the regular sequencing of my columns in order to share with all of you the homily that I preached at my father’s funeral. I thought of this last week when I was at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, and saw this painting (right) of Jesus and Mary at the death of St. Joseph. I had never seen this particular work before, but it is fitting for me since the Gospel for Dad’s funeral was St. Matthew’s Gospel and the account of St. Joseph and his life. St. Joseph speaks no words in the Gospel, but always did the right thing, as the “just man,” which reminds me of my father. This is a chance for me to thank all of you in our diocese who sent me cards, letters, emails and text messages during Dad’s last days, and death and funeral, and who prayed with all of us back in Illinois. We are all very grateful. As a point of reference, the mention of the Navy and “Anchors Aweigh” in my homily refers to my father’s proud service in the Navy, aboard the U.S.S. Saratoga in the Pacific during World War II. Since as I write these notes it is Dec. 7, the 73rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I am very mindful of that fact that Dad enlisted on Dec. 8! Next week, back to more Advent themes, especially those of the last part of this sacred and beautiful season for the preparation of the birth of Christ.
HOMILY FOR THE MASS OF THE RESURRECTION FOR WILLIAM M. VANN, JR.
Blessed Sacrament Church, Springfield, Ill. November 15, 2014
I was reflecting these past days on the best way to preach this morning with the readings in mind for Dad’s Mass of the Resurrection. The readings today, of course, are for all of us a mirror in which we can look at and see the love of God reflected to all of us in our journey through life into eternal life: The imperative of the Book of Proverbs that fidelity and love be bound to our neck and written in our hearts for our lives; St. Paul’s reminder that in many ways life is a race and that we always must keep going ahead and be faithful to our daily tasks and reach the goal of eternal life. And finally, St. Matthew’s Gospel, which we will be hearing in the next month during the season of Christmas, in which we hear of St. Joseph, the carpenter, a man of really no words, but who teaches us in his silence of faithfulness and courage and always doing the right thing. All of these are important reflections for our lives in this month of November, which is dedicated to all of the faithful departed, and for whom we pray. When we give thanks to God for the lives of our loved ones, we pray for them and are mindful of our own journey into eternal life. After all, there is a grave stone on the right of the road as we leave Calvary Cemetery that says something like: “Stranger, as you pass by remember me, because as you are so once was I, and as I am so you will be, so prepare yourself to follow me.” And, it is the month as well of reflection, gratitude and, in a few short days, Thanksgiving. These are words for all of us in our lives, no matter where we are or where we will be.
With all of that in mind, I thought that I would compose these reflections in the form of a letter to Dad, with the readings of the day as the base and foundation.
These past weeks I have been reflecting on a lot of things, and I know well you didn’t ever like for any of us to make a fuss over you. That, you would say, was for mom. However, as I was preparing for this moment, after I left here the first time and went back to California, I was playing the piano and played “Anchors Aweigh” and “I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad”. You remember the piano, I know. The one that I paid $50 for back in 1967, and I surprised you and told you that and then you had to pay Angie Rosa’s moving company a very expensive fee to have it moved out of the McCarty’s basement on Governor Street, up some steep and nearly impossible steps and then over to Douglas. At about the same time, I was reading the Ordination Rite for deacons, and I found the phrase, “well done, good and faithful servant, enter now into the joy of your Lord”. That phrase reminded me again of you, and your faithfulness to daily life and tasks and moving forward a day at a time, no matter how difficult or challenging the moment seemed to be. I remember how often you were insistent with Mom in her later years, when she was down in the dumps: “Mother, just be grateful you have another day. You have to keep moving.” These words, Dad, remind me of Father Serra’s motto that I often see in Orange, which is “Always forward, never backward.” I have always liked St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy, but your life puts a human face on those readings for me. St. Joseph speaks no words in St. Matthew’s Gospel, and in many ways you left the words to Mom. You remember when we would call; you would say, “Here’s your Mother!” Yet, one of the greatest gifts that I have of these past two years were that we had a chance to visit a lot. Maybe there weren’t so many words at times. You and I often would watch “American Pickers” or “Pawn Shop Wars” or police chase shows (the ones that Mom didn’t like!) and at times we would both fall asleep. You were a man of few words, but you taught us how to live a faithful life by your example, like construction with knotty pine and making two-by-fours. In later years, as I was involved so much in ministry with married couples, and helping couples to remarry after the tragedy of divorce, you taught me and all of us, that even if one was not dealt a good hand in life—and in some ways that was you in your early life—one didn’t have to be a victim and negative cycles don’t have to repeat. The courage and fidelity shown to you by Grandma Vann became part of your life, and now ours.
Like St. Joseph you reminded me of the necessity of always doing the “right thing” even if it was not easy, and sometimes you did that with words: “I don’t care if everyone else jumps of the Brooklyn Bridge; you are not going to do it.”
And there was the time you taught me how to stand up for myself and not to complain. There was the time that I was being bullied in eighth grade on the playground at St. Agnes, being a skinny red headed kid trying to play foursquare. One of my classmates would hassle me every day. Well, you said, “Haul off and smack him.” Well, the next day he got in my face again, and I guess this explains my reactions to this day at times when I feel I am being backed into a corner. I hauled off and hit him in the nose! Really, I did. You know, he never bothered me again, and even more so, when I was speaking with Sister Mary Roberta about this, you know, he got in trouble, and not me! At that time I knew that “Yes, there is a God!” Speaking of keeping moving, another one of your expressions of that reality was living with one bathroom…not unusual at that time. How often you would say “Come on, you people, move it, get out of there, we have to go. Christmas is coming!” And, there was the other line “If I have to pull this station wagon over, you all are going to be in big trouble.” I remember too, how in the later years, your love for Mom showed itself in so many ways. You always called her mother, and you referred to her as a “real doll” just this past summer; to the nursing techs when you had to have your hernia surgery.
Faithfulness to Mom and ourselves were part of your life each day, and you taught me, and all of us, by your example. Again, faithfulness is a reflection of the life and mission of St. Joseph shown to us by St. Matthew: that “love and fidelity” that we wear daily spoken to us by Proverbs is a sign of the presence of God in our lives. I knew, like most of us, that you didn’t always care for the work in the post office. Yet for you it was a way of providing for your family and that is what was most important. In a day when there is so much emphasis on feeling good and happy all of the time, you taught me and all of us that even if on a given day things may not be well or pleasant, we still can be faithful and be grateful and see the bigger picture. And you and Mom showed us again and again the living reality of the Sacrament of Marriage in ways great and small, whether it had been on Whittier, Douglas or Glenwood.
I have been grateful to spend both of these days here at Blessed Sacrament and St. Agnes. This church is where you and Mom were married, and St. Agnes is where you spent so many hours at the yearly chili suppers, helping the Dominican Sisters, in later years helping to clean the lunchroom tables, and tending to important matters like the lector and commentator schedules. I remember how you and Mom welcomed the priests to our homes for the Confraternity meetings with your friends, and how you took your instructions to become Catholic with Father Jim Suddes, and how some of these sessions were even during batting practice at Knight’s Action Park! All of these things—fidelity in great and small things—speak clearly the words of St. Matthew today: “God is with us.” Yes, you showed us that, and those words are with me daily. They followed me in all of my assignments.
I think, Dad, that you waited until Veterans’ Day was finished to begin the steps of your own final journey to the Lord and to Mom, who was waiting. I remember that we said, “OK, Dad, set sail, lift anchor and go. Mom is waiting.”
That step in your journey calls to mind some of the words of “Anchors Aweigh”: “Anchors aweigh, my boys, anchors aweigh. Farewell to college joys, we sail at break of day… Until we meet once more here’s wishing you a happy journey home.” After all, it was almost the break of day when you did lift anchor and set sail. This song of that journey reminds me of the recounting of another journey that followed another boat: that of the “Dawn Treader” in C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia,” which was written for skeptics, doubters and believers alike to clearly teach of the importance of faith and our eternal destiny. After the Dawn Treader sets sail with its occupants of the stories, there follows the last words of the “Last Battle”: and teach of the journey that you have undertaken, and that is our journey.
As Peter, and Edmund and Lucy tell Aslan that they are afraid of being sent back home and leaving Narnia again, Aslan replies: “No fears of that.. have you not guessed? There was a real railway accident. Your Father and Mother and all of you—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—are dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.
“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every story is better than the one before.”
And, Dad, so have you. Anchors aweigh, we all set sail again, with fidelity and love, and the persistence and perseverance that you have taught us all, not by a lot of words, but by example. And in the great picture and story of life, we take that with us. As “Anchors Aweigh” also says, we “set sail to the sky, we’ll never change our course…” In other words, always forward, as we walk by faith and not by sight.”