Sirach 44. 10-15; Ps 23; Romans 8.35-39; John 14. 1-6
Homily of Fr. Paul Panaretos, S.J.
On behalf of Gesu Parish and the community of the Sts. Mary and Joseph Home, I extend our prayers and heartfelt sympathy to you, Bernie and Paul, at the passing of your sister. Be more courageous than your grief is sharp. Your confidence in our risen Messiah will help you and your families grieve well. Sisters, caregivers and residents, I extend those sentiments and prayers to you as well. You will help one another experience Mary Jo’s presence in real and new ways.
Today the Catholic church, Gesu Parish and this caring residence bid farewell to one of theirs. I offer a few words to console and strengthen you in your grief; to help you appreciate God’s astounding compassion by noticing Jesus’ victorious dying and rising were present in Mary Jo Reagan./1/ I want to help us all connect Mary Jo, whom you had the pleasure to know better than I did, with the mystery of Jesus’ dying and rising we celebrate today. I want to reflect briefly with you on the scriptures Mary Jo and others chose for her funeral mass.
I’d like us to begin with memory. Memory is more than discreet facts or ideas. Memory of a human is a portrait of that person, giving us access to who that person was and who that person came to be in our experience. The Book of Sirach is clear about that: the virtues of godly people are remembered, not forgotten. Virtues don’t exist separate from people; people embody them or not. To say that we remember Mary Jo’s virtues is to say we remember her. Surely, more than we remember her. By her life as an educator and a counselor, Mary Jo touched many lives, helping young people shape their futures. Memory lives in people. Memory shapes people.
The memory of Jesus in the early church/2/ to the present describes the transforming power of our risen Messiah. In addition to human memory, Jesus’ Spirit continues to make him present. The life of Jesus continues through his Spirit, given to us. Mary Jo allowed Jesus’ Spirit to flow through her. Her professional career was only one way. Another was her faith in Jesus, which animated Mary Jo. Her participation in the sacramental life of the church connected her with its many helps—for sacraments function to help us on our pilgrim way to the kingdom Jesus proclaimed./3/ Nourished by God’s word and the Eucharist moved Mary Jo to serve. One way was her role in the Patna Mission Circle, in which U.S. Catholics assisted the work of the Jesuits in northeastern India. Another was her devotion to our Blessed Mother, which helped her help others and moved her to volunteer in a variety of ways.
Many of you knew Mary Jo and will remember her as a person who never complained. I appreciate what that memory means and will mean to you because my parents were not complainers. After my mother needed to “get things out,” as she’d say to me, she would apologize for burdening me. She surprised me each time she would apologize because she never made her need feel like a burden to me.
What will your memories of Mary Jo mean? Memory, again, is more than discreet facts and ideas; it’s a living portrait of a person. St. Paul said well what this can mean for you who bid farewell to Mary Jo: nothing can separate us from the love of Christ Jesus. Christ Jesus is our common bond, our faith-bond. In faith we bury our sister, and in faith we accompany and support Bernie and Paul, who no longer have their sister available to them. In faith we support the sisters and caregivers here who let go of one more person, who allowed them to show love.
We use that phrase, brother and sister, at times too casually and miss the meanings it offers: united in Jesus; united with each other as God’s creations; called to serve one gospel both in common and in personal ways; united in Jesus’ desire to prepare a place for each of us and for us together.
Jesus preparation of a place for us is a metaphor for nothing less than Jesus creating us anew! Creating is what Jesus does at each moment. Creating is not a past event; it is who Jesus fashions each of us to be every moment. That may be a new way to think about God creating through Jesus by their Spirit, but that has been true from all ages. You and I tend to think in terms of time and history more than in terms of Jesus at work for us now.
What Jesus creates now, and how we surrender to Jesus’ creative shaping and transforming of us our poor language describes with images: We feel new; we notice something about ourselves we did not before; we sense our deep desires changing or growing more clear; and we live from them in ways we find surprising. If any of us need help to notice what Jesus creates now, and how we surrender to Jesus’ creative shaping and transforming of us, a more recent memory of Mary Jo--that is, her recent life--can help.
Walking into Mary Jo’s room revealed how she surrendered to Jesus’ creative shaping and transforming: her paintings. It can be one thing or a combination that unlocks our potential. I don’t know what it was for Mary Jo; maybe you do. What is important is that Mary Jo surrendered to a new way of seeing and of expressing color, shape, perspective, light and shadow, the natural world and ways humans shape the world—in short, Mary Jo surrendered anew to Jesus creating her. Painting immerses one in the awe of Jesus creating. It is one way of many to immerse ourselves in awe of the divine. Painting—indeed all arts—is another metaphor for Jesus creating.
Jesus has created Mary Jo anew: she enjoys the place Jesus promised to prepare for her; her luster as an image of God is being burnished; Jesus sets her in a frame of his shaping, so she may be truly radiant; and Jesus gives her life that we cannot imagine. More than that, Jesus is also recreating us. One day he will return in glory to reunite us all in his undying life. Funerals remind us that is true with the words, life is changed not ended./4/
Mary Jo not only lived change, she embodied the most real change, Jesus’ paschal life: united with Jesus and alive in the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Choosing to cooperate with grace, Mary Jo lived a virtuous life. She is for us both our sister and a living memory of Jesus. We will retell her wisdom and faith the more we, like Mary Jo, surrender to Jesus’ creative shaping and transforming of us.
1. Cf. Order of Christian Funerals, 27.
2. The phrase was used by Nils A. Dahl and bequeathed to his students and his students’ students, who have enriched Christian memory as a communal experience, which shapes individuals. In 1976 the phrase entitled a collection of essays by Dahl.
3. A Prayer after Communion in the Sacramentary and the Order of Christian Funerals expresses that.
4. Cf. Preface for Christian Death I, Roman Missal.
Wiki-image by Soman of muted sunlight over the Ganges River in Patna is used according to the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license. Wiki-image of a door panel representing the triumph of Jesus is in the public domain.