Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In Decline, or Reborn

Currently, I am reading a book called Christmas Miracles. Yes, that's silly, maybe, and too soon. And, yes, I am getting hazy-eyed every second story in the anthology. The miracles are mostly unmysterious, human beings helping their fellow man in simple but important ways or families working through obstacles with God's guidance.

Juxtaposed to this pursuit, I have been watching Masterpiece Mystery's Wallander series this month. This week's episode dabbled in religious extremism and highlighted within the context of the fictional mystery what has been rumored or reported for years: Christianity is on the decline in Europe. Few go to the big, beautiful and mostly empty churches for services.

Marriage is also beginning to feel archaic there, and more then half of mothers in many countries now give birth as single women. The birthrate itself has fallen to the point where many countries now have a negative one.

Of those found in the pews on Sunday mornings, the majority have grey hair.

But still I like what Andrew Greeley, priest and professor at the University of Chicago, had to say about all this, "Religion is always declining and always reviving."

Humanity is riding a giant pendulum; we swing from one extreme to the other, whether it concerns methods for raising our children, materialism, nutrition, etc., and then we swing back the other way when we realize things are not going well or have gone too far. Only for a fraction of a nanosecond do we potentially hang in the balance. Individually, there is always the hope that we can swing less violently, find peace in our methods.

Essentially, that is what these Christmas miracle stories are about - finding peace and joy while trusting God or by introduction to those who do trust Him and are seeking His will. The stories, as I said, are usually very plain: a family given grocery cards by an understanding neighbor, so that they can have Christmas dinner; a dad, whose car was stolen, being helped by truckers so that he could make it home to his family in time for Midnight Mass; a young woman of the streets given hope by some special needs kids singing Christmas Carols; and a family of seven finally finding a safe home in which to live in New York City, with the help of a woman who gives them a Bible and with it, courage. Sometimes, they are more supernatural, like two silent, oddly powerful young men showing up in a small town flower shop to protect its elderly owners from being robbed.

These stories that happen to strangers, that happen to you and me or through us when we are looking for our Maker's face, defy the rumors; God is not dead. Therefore, we, His Children, are alive in the Spirit and must alight the world with the joy, love and peace that come from knowing Him..

Sunday, September 16, 2012



After I picked up my little girl from preschool one day this week, I met another parent outside the class who had also been to Father Davern's funeral. She shared that Father Davern's dad and her own had grown up together in Flagstaff, Arizona and that Father Davern had come to her father's funeral 18 years ago.

We talked about Father Davern's unique personality. Once during Mass when her son was very small, she told me, he looked toward the altar and pronounced, "Look, Mama! It's Jesus."

"No, no," his mama replied, but she knew she had to share this with Father.

So after Mass she found him in the narthex and told him what her son had said. She anticipated he would have something smart to say.

"Well," said Father Davern, "I can see how he might think that."

I assumed then she had known Father Davern quite well, but she finished by saying, "I could never just joke or talk easily with him. I never knew how to take him."

Completely do I know what she meant. At the funeral even one of his closest friends said during his memorial homily, "In his later years he became much harder to discern."

It was also during that homily that I discovered Father Davern had not only battled ailments like his diabetes and the recent broken hip, but he had also battled alcoholism. No wonder the obstacles were so fierce on the road to recovery. They proved eventually insurmountable. But can I speak just a little about courage? When Father Davern fell down the stairs at the rectory late one night last February, he lay there at the bottom of the flight for six straight hours before someone found him.

Courageous, yes he was. He had often shared details of his ongoing battle against alcoholism with parishioners.

Both my husband and this fellow mother were gratified that Father Davern's struggles were laid bare - by himself and by those who knew him well - so that, through Grace, they could help and strengthen someone else who is struggling.

This mother and I also agreed that some of the greatest gifts Father Davern had given others were his homilies. Short, great, inspiring, guiding.

I want to share this one, if I may, and I hope I don't bungle it, because I honor the lesson I gleaned from it. It was so wise and so simple, but if it sounds obvious - well, it should be. Great speakers illuminate the obvious, direct the beam on what we already know to be true but do not think about as we should.

The homily was about Love, and it was based on Christ's words (John 15), "This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to  lay down one's life for one's friends." Father Davern pointed out how loosely we use that word. I love pizza. I just love my new truck! I love my new ring. I love this song! But we do not really love these things. We like and appreciate them for the often superficial joy they give, but we do not love them in the way we love our mother (Father Davern mentioned his mother first), our father, our children, our spouse, or our friends.

Then Fathern Davern went on to talk about his aunt who often went on trips to Ireland. On these trips she invariably bought Waterford Crystal and brought it home for her collection. On holidays and other special gatherings her house would be filled with children - her own and many nephews and nieces, and the Waterford Crystal would be there in plain view on its shelves, waiting to get damaged or destroyed during some childish accident. Yet this aunt did not care, though she really appreciated the beauty of her collection. She did not forbid them to touch it or to go near it. She let them play around her displays of Waterford Crystal. Why? Because these children she loved. The crystal was just a thing she enjoyed.

Love. We love people. We aim to love family, friends and others, as Jesus' disciples, so that we are willing to lay down our life for them. And not just because we love them do we work toward this, but because we love Christ, and he laid down his life for us.

As Father Davern pointed out, sometimes we do not like other people as we like our pizza or our new car, because they irritate us, perhaps. But we absolutely love them as we could never love that pizza or car, because we see Christ in them and that divine spark of life that comes from our Heavenly Father, our Almighty God.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

In Memory of Father Davern

His homilies were short, but because they were delivered so clearly, unpolluted with pretty language or unnecessary repetition, they stuck with you. We have a family friend who loved when Father Davern was the priest at Mass, because he knew there would be no rambling homily. It would be succinct and sweet, or as Father Davern himself used to say:

"Be brief; be good; be gone."

I'm glad I had the opportunity one time to tell him how much I appreciated his homilies. He passed away on Thursday night. I walked into Mass this morning and a large portrait of him was up in the sanctuary. I hoped he was retiring, but my husband shook his head, "No, I don't think so. I think he passed away."

I knew he was right, and before long it was confirmed. I wish I had known beforehand. Perhaps then I could have saved myself from crying noisily and copiously during Mass. Even reciting the Creed reminded me of how Father used to admonish us to get out our reference cards, telling us that we were almost there, but not quite perfect with the language since the Church adopted the new Roman Missal earlier this year. Father Davern would have thought it was silly of me, no doubt, to be streaming tears down my neck and wiping my face with a coarse paper towel. He was a no-nonsense canon lawyer, and our personalities were disparate. I'm often daydreaming along the primrose path. He could be sometimes irascible and always plainspoken.

The first time I ever spoke with him face to face, I descended on his office with my two hyper children in tow, who went crazy over the presence of a dog in the parish office, and told him that he had sent me a letter inviting me to RCIA classes. I told him that the reason I had not been confirmed before was because I was nursing four children almost constantly for several years, and so the evening classes would have been difficult to make.

He listened patiently and then responded with, "Yes...I sent those letters to everybody who isn't confirmed." And he said it just so and looked at me in just such a way as to state very clearly, "This is not a miracle of God. The angel Gabriel did not put it in your mailbox. It's a simple invitation, lady, to finally do what you need to do."

And one time when I was speaking in that RCIA class of how one had to get to church 20 minutes early on Christmas Eve to get a seat, he guffawed loudly and said, "Sweetheart, if you think that, you're fooling yourself! You have to get there 40 minutes early at least."

You wouldn't have thought he could be so blunt if you had listened to one of his homilies. They were full of compassion. I'd like to share with you one in particular, my favorite, that made me feel that, "Yes, aha! That is truth and well said."

Father Davern was speaking of the Gospel reading, Mark 6:1-6, when those in Jesus' hometown were astonished by him, his words and deeds, and they exclaimed, "Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?" Jesus responded simply, "A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house."

In his homily Father Davern asked parishioners just how most of us learn about God? Then he stated a truth, A lot of what we learn about God we learn through each other. He pointed out that we judge people by how we knew them, who they were and how they treated us in the past, and we dismiss what they have to say or what they can share with us now. He gave examples. She was stuck-up in high school. He couldn't get his life together for years. He was mean and used to tease me all the time. She irritated me constantly. So we ignore and brush aside any message that they could convey to us now; we're not listening, because we're prejudiced. In this way we deny ourselves knowledge of God that others can give to us. There is no doubt that God responds to each of us, with our distinct personalities and intellects and circumstances, individually. There are things I have discovered in building my relationship with God that you may not know, and there are concepts that you grasp, ideas with which I struggle consistently. We can help and instruct one another, so we should listen.

I was very taken with this message, and it struck me as humorous, the part about the woman who irritates, because I felt sure that I had sometimes irritated Father Davern in the RCIA classes. Our personalities did not easily understand one another. It is something I felt when I asked him how he was doing after Mass one Sunday, and he responded, "Oh, getting along."

He had just spent several weeks in the hospital for a broken hip and had recovered remarkably well considering that things were complicated by his age and diabetes. Nevertheless, he was back at Mass saying the liturgy, leaning heavily against the altar as he blessed the Eucharist, sitting in his wheelchair as he delivered those wonderful homilies.

I wanted to offer to do something, cook him a meal or something, but I didn't know what he would accept, so I asked, "Is there anything that we can do?"

"No, I'll be fine. Thank you."

I awkwardly let it drop, couldn't think of anything else to say then, but that is partly why I was so sad today. I knew he had gone back in the hospital more than a week ago. I told myself I should send him a note, something to show that we loved and appreciated him. But I didn't do it. I just didn't do it.

Is that not always how we feel when someone passes away? I wish I had done more. I wish I had visited more often. I wish I had not been so selfish. It is how I felt when my husband's grandmother passed away; I should have visited her that last Thanksgiving, taken my newborn to meet her earlier. It is how my dad says he felt when his grandfather died; he wished he had found more time to take his family to see Grandpa. Through God's grace I spoke to my grandmama over the phone before her sudden passing due to an aneurysm. My husband kept urging me for a week to call, and I will be eternally grateful for that last good conversation, but she never got to meet the great-granddaughter who looks like her, with curly hair to make her proud, or her blond, blue-eyed great-grandson. And I remember my sister Vinca calling not long after the sister of a close friend of hers passed away. She called Annie and me just to tell us she loved us, because her friend was devastated by the death of her young sister, and Vinca was reminded of how swiftly loved ones can be taken away.

Father Davern was not a blood relative, and I did not know him well, but he was part of my spiritual family. I learned more about my Heavenly Father through him, his RCIA classes and those short and wise homilies. Do I think Father Davern was a great one for cards and notes or flowers? No, but I wish I had sent one or all of them before he died to show that I cared. And though he probably would have said, No, thank you, I wish I had offered to make him that meal.