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Friday, April 16, 2010

“Jesus said, ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.’” (John 10:27-28)

“SOUL-SURFING” – April 25, 2010
Fourth Sunday of Easter
John 10:27-30
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

Even before the fragrance from the banks of Easter lilies reached us, the sweetness of the young voices wafted from the church, seeming almost a protest to the palpable grief just outside the front door. We could hear the schoolchildren singing, “I heard the Lord call my name, listen close you'll hear the same. Take His hand, we are glory bound.” Inside the church all was Easter, angels gathered to sing Daniel home.

But outside it was still Good Friday, the anxious funeral director asking if the students accompanying me wouldn’t mind standing in as pallbearers. Within the single car that, along with the hearse, comprised the funeral cortege, I saw the face of Kevin. Pale, desolate, he’d come to St. Margaret’s Church to bury his father, a bitter man long dying of churning anger, though the official certificate listed lung cancer as the cause.

It’s been 30 years since that Easter Tuesday morning with its beauteous assault on the senses. The dizzying fragrance and sweet-voiced sounds insisted that death did not have the last word. As the children’s choir sang, I prayed Kevin would know that his dad was now safe in the arms of God as Daniel took his final homeward step just days before. On this morning of his funeral, I prayed his son could take a step toward the comfort of that heavenly caller’s voice.

I’d been a teacher and counselor at Bishop McNamara High School, Forestville, Maryland, when I met Kevin. Sullen and struggling, he was the kind of kid who tended to dissolve into anonymity in a crowd of students. Had it not been for a tip-off from the principal, Brother Walter, I’d probably never have known Kevin’s story. As I learned from Walter, Kevin was on scholarship due to economic hardship. An only child born late to his parents, his mother was already deceased, and now Daniel, his father, was dying of lung cancer. “Would you talk to the boy?” Walter asked. “I think he needs all the help we can give him.”

Next day in my office, Kevin, then a junior, reluctantly fed me additional details. White, Irish, proud and stubborn, Kevin’s dad bitterly bemoaned the changing demographics of the neighborhood in which he’d lived since his youth. Once an Irish Catholic enclave whose entire population had trekked piously to St. Margaret’s Church every Sunday and Holyday, it had changed dramatically over the years. In fact, Daniel now defiantly held his ground as the last White Irish Catholic in his once homogeneous neighborhood. And when the angry man, now in his late 50s, entered St. Margaret’s Church, he found the pews still filled with devout Catholics – but they were African-Americans. Even the priest was one of them! Daniel grit his teeth and dug in his heels, seething in anger. “This is my neighborhood, my church!” Daniel ranted night after night, whiskey in hand, cigarette dangling from trembling lips. “It’s not theirs! It’s mine!” And Kevin watched as his dad’s bitterness turned inward and became cancerous.

Kevin and I met regularly from that time on, the months passing, his father fading. Finally, on Good Friday evening Daniel died. While the published obituary notice listed Kevin as the only immediate survivor, there was a nod toward a few distant cousins. Funeral arrangements were simple: no calling hours; Mass of Christian Burial on Tuesday morning at 10 AM at St. Margaret’s Church.

On that bright, warm spring morning, the junior class officers and I drove to St. Margaret’s and, once there, found ourselves the sole mourners beside Joe and 2 cousins. When, outside the church, the anxious funeral director approached us to ask if we’d stand in as pall bearers, it was obvious that no one else was expected. I remembered then that Kevin had told me his father’s bitterness had alienated all those past friends and acquaintances who might otherwise have mourned his passing. We stood outside the doors of St. Margaret’s that morning, death seeming to have the upper hand. But then, just as we prepared to carry Daniel’s coffin into church, voices of angels filled the mournful silence: “I heard the Lord call my name, listen close you'll hear the same. Take His hand, we are glory bound.” The 5th graders of St. Margaret’s School, African-American all, bounced and swayed in Easter glory as they welcomed Daniel home. Once inside the church, the bounty of fragrance and the flickering of candles further welcomed this lost son finally come home. The pot-bellied, dark-skinned priest wore a smile so white and wide – only heaven could have provided such a welcome!

In the gospel passage we hear today, “Jesus said, ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.’” (John 10:27-28) The great challenge, of course, is to distinguish the voice of the Good Shepherd from the many other voices that daily assault us. Indeed, the world is a very noisy place, and Jesus seems most often to speak in whispers. Further, he often whispers to us through the mouths of strangers or even those for whom we may feel antipathy.

Such was the case with Daniel. Only after his funeral did I learn that for years his African-American neighbors had tried to reach out to him. Even though they were Catholics and worshiped at St. Margaret’s, Daniel would have none of it. God was White, Irish and Catholic. Period.

On that warm spring Easter Tuesday morning when Daniel was brought to St. Margaret’s for the last time, it was the very people whom he had so long rejected who sang him home, prayed him home. Now, perhaps for the first time ever, with that inner venomous voice now silenced, Daniel could hear the gentle shepherd. “I heard the Lord call my name, listen close you'll hear the same. Take His hand, we are glory bound.”

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