It is finishedFATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
Since the death of Father Richard John Neuhaus last Thursday, and my tribute to him published in the Post the day after, many readers have been kind enough to get in touch with me, passing on their condolences upon the death of my spiritual father and mentor.
It has been a tough week, and I shed more tears these past days of his wake, funeral and burial than I have in many years. I am grateful to all who have been praying for Father Richard's soul, and the prayers too for those many of us who are mourning him.
Father Neuhaus was America's leading religious intellectual, who over several decades had published dozens of books and hundreds of articles. Yet what struck me in the great majority of messages received, and in the large number of notices written upon his death -- whether from the President of the United States or his parishioners at Immaculate Conception parish in Manhattan -- was the near universal focus not on the great public achievements of his life but the testimony he gave to his faith in Jesus Christ.
And therein is the great lesson, perhaps not newsworthy but always relevant, that the great and mighty things of this world are all passing away, but what endures are those things which touch eternity -- the world of faith and worship, the order of grace and redemption, the offer of mercy and salvation.
At the great Calvary Cemetery here in New York, Father Neuhaus's body was put right down into the grave, lying flat on the cold earth. Then the soft thud of the dirt and mud upon his casket, deposited from above first by his relatives, then by his friends. We don't do that in Canada very often anymore; the usual practice is to depart the graveside with the casket in place over the grave, but not buried. I am not sure that's a good idea. There is something about looking down into the grave, hearing that soft thud. We avoid it, I suppose, because looking down those six feet gives us a sobering glimpse of eternity, or those soft thuds can be like hammer blows upon a grieving heart. Yet it is a reminder that there is nothing to come back to. It is finished.
We all finish there. Father Richard's grave is one of many in the plot for priests, each marked by the same simple marker, listing date of birth, ordination and death. Generations from now, there will be those who will remember the famous writer and preacher; his neighbours in the cemetery are likely already forgotten. But it matters not, for the end is the same for all, and the stark equality of the graveyard confirms that.
The great honour of preaching Father Richard's funeral homily was granted to me, and by the grace of God -- and more than a few prayers by the preacher asking the heavenly intercession of Father Richard's great friends, Pope John Paul II and the Cardinal John O'Connor of New York -- I got through it without weeping. That came later, during the rousing hymn, O Quanta Qualia: O what their joy and their glory must be / those endless Sabbaths the blessed ones see; / crown for the valiant, to weary ones rest: / God shall be all, and in all ever blest.
So it is. Our fathers and heroes and mentors and guides go on to the endless Sabbath, some to crowns of glory, others to peaceful rest. Funeral rites of course are not only for the dead -- who are entitled to our prayers -- but also for the living. It is we who need to be reminded to listen for the soft thuds in a world full of noise, to know that all our striving will lead us all inevitably to the same place, the grave. Looking into the grave is important, for it may be the cause of our raising our eyes to heaven.
"I neither fear to die nor refuse to live," wrote Father Richard in his last issue of First Things, the journal he founded. There is little point in fearing death, for it comes for us all. There is no reason to refuse to live, even against the sure horizon of death, for the man of faith.
Again, thanks to all who wrote. The tears were many, and the faith is strong.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "It is finished." National Post, (Canada) January 15, 2008.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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