I preached all the Masses this past weekend at my parish. It is such a privilege to break open the Gospel and offer it to the faithful. Every time I do I become more aware of the great gift we have in the Living Word of God. I am also reminded of the need we have to encounter people who have so allowed that Word to inform their lives that they become lights for us, helping to guide our path of ongoing conversion.
Every time I serve as a Deacon at Holy Mass I am reminded of an encounter I had at the bedside of a dear friend, a faithful and inspiring Catholic Christian several years ago, who was just such a light. This Sunday was no exception. One of the privileges I have as a Catholic Deacon is to bring “Viaticum” to the dying. “Viaticum” is a Latin word indicating a journey. The priest or deacon is sent from the assembly with the Holy Eucharist. We pray for the dying and feed them the Bread of Life for their journey to the eternal communion of love we call heaven.
This man’s name was Jerry and just the night before he had received the news that he had less than two weeks to live. The cancer that he fought with such heroic courage had spread throughout his lymph glands. He was preparing for the passing to the Father with the dignity and beauty that authentic Catholic Christian faith can forge in a soul receptive to grace. He was ready to die.
Jerry lived a full and fascinating life.
He was always a staunch and courageous defender of the Catholic faith. He reminded me of the great lay evangelist Frank Sheed – at least what I imagine Frank Sheed was like, since I never met him. My friend loved to tell anyone who would listen of the beauty and fullness of truth found in the Catholic Christian faith. In fact, he would engage any issue concerning that faith, with anyone, and at any time.
He especially delighted when Christians of other communities would come home to the full communion of the Catholic Church.
As I entered his home with the Blessed Sacrament and the Word of God, his beloved wife sat next to him, displaying the courage, beauty and dignity of sacramentally grounded, faithful married love.Theirs was the kind of transforming love that had stood the test – and the invitation- of so many years and had only grown stronger and deeper. It no longer needed words, only presence.
I prayed with them both that day, at that bedside.
After the completion of the Viaticum Service, during a tender and profound moment of silence, Jerry turned to me, focused his piercing, peaceful, and intensely inquisitive eyes upon my own, and asked a question that was so unusual – and so profound- that I have dwelt upon it since.
I will carry it within me for many years to come.
“Tell me about the Trinity”, my friend asked me, “are they really happy?”
By God’s grace, I was not taken aback by such a profound and unexpected question. In fact, the Holy Spirit gave me an immediate response.
“My friend, they are intensely happy -and soon you will join in their joy” I said.
I continued, “There is a Greek word used in Eastern Christian theology in an attempt to open up the mystery of the intra-Trinitarian relationship to us mere mortals. It speaks of the intense joy the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have in their relationship.”
I could tell from his eyes that I had captured his attention.
He and I had shared many times about theological truths and the deeper meaning of our Catholic faith. He was such a wonderful example of the great gift whom John Paul the Great referred to as the “Lay members of Christ’s Faithful” in his letter that bore that title.
A natural theologian, my friend had deepened his own practical and mystical prayer life with a lifelong program of theological and spiritual reading.
“What is it?” he asked
“The Greek word is ‘perichoresis’” I told him.
I continued, “It is loosely translated as a joyful dance of love. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are joined in continual dance of love and, very soon, you will be invited to join in.”
Without missing a beat, a smile broke out on his hollowed face; he leaned toward me and responded: “I hope I can keep up with them”.
“You will”, I assured him, “and you will pray for all of us.”
I have learned in my years of Diaconal ministry in the Church that people die the way they live. I have seen this truth demonstrated many, many, many times.
On that precious day, right before my eyes, I was witnessing the transforming power of faith and the reception of the last gift given to those who really believe; the grace of a peaceful death.
A priest friend told me when I was a young man that the most requested prayer he received from people facing death was the “Hail Mary”; a prayer that Catholics are taught from their childhood.
In that prayer, after reciting the message the Angel gave to the Virgin of Nazareth, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus”, we ask Mary, the mother of the Lord and our mother, to pray for us in these words:
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death”.
After I left my friends house that day, I prayed that prayer all the way home. I thanked God for the witness of this faithful Catholic man who was ready to die, because of how he had lived.
Words quickly became inadequate. I arrived home and sat in silence.
“Tell me about the Trinity” Jerry had asked me. In the inquiry he brought me closer to the Dance of love that he has now joined. The entire encounter filled me with unspeakable joy.It still does every time I reflect upon it.
My friend taught me a lesson at the hour of death; one that I will treasure for eternity. Now, at almost every Mass where I serve as a Deacon, I pray for Jerry. I know he also prays for me. I periodically ask him the question which he asked me on that day. I know he has the full answer.
“Tell me about the Trinity?” Jerry is joined in the joyful dance of love.