One afternoon almost 47 years ago, Father Thomas called me into his office at the seminary to tell me my father had died earlier that day. I remember with fondness his gentle hesitation, his respect for my silent response. The task that fell to him that day would bind us together as the years went by, until his own death several years later. No, not just until — even beyond his death. Life has taught me that death does not put the final limit on relationships or on what we can learn from them; I say that because I know my father better now than I did the day he died.
My childhood memories are filled with images of my pharmacist dad, a man with a mysterious, fiction-like past. Himself the son of an east Tennessee pharmacist, his mother died when he was not yet 3 years old, and he was reared with the help of Jewish next-door neighbors and his stepmother, of whom he rarely spoke. On Saturday afternoons, I would sometimes accompany him back to our drugstore (he had been home for lunch and a nap) and sit high atop a swivel stool in the back room playing games and drawing pictures on a linoleum-topped table. When as a family we traveled to Jackson or Nashville to visit relatives, we played The Disease Game — a test of our skill at naming diseases corresponding to each letter of the alphabet. The pharmacist always won. Depending on the time of year, on Saturday afternoons at our house it was either Major League Baseball on TV or the Texaco-Metropolitan Opera broadcast on the radio. My father loved both.
I thought I knew him then, but I know him better now.
On a Sunday afternoon many years after my father’s death, I baptized the newborn son of parishioners and joined them afterward for a reception at their home. The proud grandfather and I met for the first time, and he asked about my family background. After I told him of our now-demolished drugstore at the corner of Bellevue and Lamar, he recounted an incident from more than 60 years ago.
Feeling ill one day, he left work early. Driving home, he began to feel worse, to the point that he could drive no farther. Pulling to the curb, he stopped, abandoned his car, and walked dizzily up the concrete-and-stone steps to a nearby drugstore. Once inside, he collapsed. The druggist behind the counter, dressed in a white lab coat, hurried to his side to offer help, but the visitor responded that he would be fine if he could get home. The druggist reached for his keys, locked up the store, and drove him home, making sure his wife was there to care for him.
The man who told me the story never knew the name of the druggist who had driven him home that day 60 years ago. But I knew immediately it was my father.
The month of All Saints and All Souls is about Christian heroes and our own friends and loved ones who have died, and about our continuing relationship with them in Christ; it’s about our longing to be with them again, perhaps to better understand or repair a troubled relationship, and to know that they are securely in God’s merciful hands.
But even as we ponder our hopes and prayers for the dead, the Scriptures remind us even more about God’s hopes and God’s longing for us. Jesus told the crowd, “And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 6:39-40)
A central truth of our faith is that the deepest longing of God’s heart is that we spend eternity with him. And if that is God’s deepest longing, he will do everything possible to prepare us for that destiny. In this life he gives us opportunity after opportunity and grace after grace to turn away from sin. He sent his Son to point the way, to give us the example, to be The Way; he gives us the Church and her sacraments to nourish us; he gives us the saints and families and friends whose love and prayers guide and cheer us along the way. And after we die — and at times even before we die — he gives us a final cleansing to prepare us to meet him face to face.
In his homily for the solemnity of the Assumption in 2012, Pope Benedict said: “One thing, one hope is certain: God expects us, waits for us; we do not go out into a void, we are expected. God is expecting us, and on going to that other world, we find the goodness of the Mother, we find our loved ones, we find eternal Love. God is waiting for us: this is our great joy and the great hope.”
Why do we pray for the dead? Why do we ask the saints to pray for us? We pray that their longing for God (intensified to embrace their whole heart and mind and will), and God’s cleansing and merciful longing for us, will join us together as one for all eternity.
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - November 2018
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- ‘I’m a pastor at heart’: Introducing Coadjutor Archbishop Paul D. Etienne