A Homily for a Young Man Who Died by SuicideThe suicide of Robin Williams this past week likely opened up tragic memories for many persons who have lost loved ones to suicide. Of the hundreds of funeral Masses that I have offered in my seventeen years as a priest, the memory of one funeral always causes my eyes to well up. He was a young man, full of promise, who took his own life. This was the homily I preached at his funeral. I offer it for those who may find it helpful.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Since learning of John’s death last Friday, probably like all of you, I have thought about little else. And, perhaps like all of you, the more I think about it, the less comprehensible John’s death becomes. I see John in his cassock and surplice serving Mass at this altar. I see John coming down the stairs after Mass here just a few weeks ago. I hear all of those who knew him repeat the same things over and over again. Intelligent, generous, caring, kind. The more I think of John and all of his good qualities, the more I am confounded by the nature of his death.
John was intelligent; his death, senseless. John was gentle; his death, traumatic. John was generous, kind, and compassionate. Yet his death deprives us all of his presence. John was a young man whose life was filled with such promise; his death cuts short all of that promise. John was given a family who deeply loved him; his death leaves them without him. John was a young man who prayed, who received the Sacraments, and who listened to God’s Word. And yet, his death is not what God willed for him.
I so wish that today I could stand here and make sense of John’s death, but I am at a loss. We will never arrive at a moment when we will be able to say that his death now makes sense to us. This is among the sufferings that we will all have to carry.
As if this suffering were not enough, we all carry another weight today. We wonder if somehow we are at fault. Did we not love him enough? Did we not teach him well enough? Did we fail to notice his struggles? Should we have called, reached out, and encouraged him more? Could we have better proved our love for him and better communicated how much we valued his presence? I have found myself wondering whether had I preached better homilies or taught him better in religion class if this would have changed things. Perhaps all of us ask these questions to one degree or another. These questions–mostly unfounded and without merit–only deepen our grief. They will only immerse us further into the abyss of darkness.
What then can we say? Is there anything worth saying? There is. As difficult as it may be because we are shocked by the suddenness and tragedy of John’s death, we must not become fixated upon it. Instead, we must direct our gaze upon the face of the Good Shepherd. We must look toward the Good Shepherd and learn from him because he is gentle and humble of heart, and we will find rest for ourselves, for his yoke is easy and his burden light.
Today, we find ourselves in what the 23rd Psalm describes as the “valley of the shadow of death.” We are enveloped by the darkness of grief, but even in the midst of the darkness, we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. He is at our side, leading us and nourishing us. We all need the Good Shepherd because he alone can nourish and refresh our souls. He alone can lead us through the dark valley of grief and into the green pastures of hope. Yes, we need to fix our eyes on Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and trust in his great love and in his great mercy.
John also needs Jesus, the Good Shepherd. No other shepherd will suffice. The Good Shepherd goes out in search of the lost sheep. Somehow, like a lost sheep, John became disoriented and confused. He wandered far away from the truth about the goodness and sacredness of his life. But thankfully, Jesus the Good Shepherd goes out in search of such lost ones. He does not simply welcome back those who were lost. No, he goes out and searches for the lost sheep.
Today, very little makes sense to us. None of us will ever know what was in John’s heart in those last moment’s of his life. But one thing I do know, and of this I am convinced: Jesus, the Good Shepherd loves John more than any of us can possibly imagine. He loves all of us more than we can imagine.
In the midst of so much turmoil, confusion, and tragedy, let us listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow where he leads us. Every other path that we take will lead us only further away from peace. We mustn’t follow the path of perpetually pondering the nature of John’s death because this will only deepen our grief and increase our confusion. Instead, we must listen attentively to the voice of the Good Shepherd–for he knows his sheep and he knows how to care for them.
In today’s Holy Mass, we pray for our dear brother John, whom we deeply love; John who somehow lost his way and became ensnared in a terrible anguish. We know and have confidence that Christ the Good Shepherd immediately went out in search of this lost sheep. We who love John must now dedicate ourselves to praying for him. This is how Christians love one another. In every Mass that the Church will offer until the end of time, she will remember John and pray that Christ the merciful shepherd will place this lost sheep in his arms and carry him safely to the home of the Father. May the Mass we offer today win pardon for our brother, bring consolation to his good parents, his sister, and to all those whose hearts are broken.
Today, we mourn because a sheep who was dear to us all has wandered away and gone beyond our sight. His departure wounds all of us and afflicts us with profound pain. Our consolation and our hope are now entirely in Jesus, the Good Shepherd. May he find our young brother, save him, and bring him to peace. Amen.
This Funeral Homily was preached on 1.26.14, and edited for online on 2-4-14
I have chosen to base my brief remarks this morning upon a powerful TEXT from St. John’s Gospel, chapter eleven. It is a TEXT that breaths in comfort and exhales hope. And, as we shall see, it is a text that, more importantly, tells us the truth.
Attend now to a reading of the Living Word of GOD:
28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (JOHN 11:28-37)
“THIS IS THE GOSPEL OF THE LORD”
“Praise to You, LORD Jesus Christ”
I love this text because it is so real, so true to how we feel. There is just no pretend here. Death is shown in all its brutality! And, this is just what we must have today of all days. Today, we must have the truth…
Or, said differently, this is not a day for the platitude, the banal bromide or the well-worn cliche…
“God wanted another angel” — I’m not sure what this means.
Or the favorite: “He’s in a better place” — OK, but (NAME) is not in his place, he is not in this place, here, and frankly, that’s what we have to face today.
Now, of course, the worst offenders of the cliche are clergy, using frayed phrases that at one time may have meant something, but now are, at best, meaningless and at worse, offensive. So, my words today, stand or fall without cliche. That is, it is my intention to, as best I can, tell the truth.
AND, THE FIRST TRUTH IS: WE ARE CONFUSED…
The text details to us the death of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus. When Jesus learns that his friend is sick unto death, rather than rushing to the scene, he tarries. And so, like the onlookers, like Lazarus’ sisters, we are confused.
Listen to the words of the onlookers:
…some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Or, listen especially to his friend Mary’s words:
32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Of course, you do understand what she is saying:
LORD, WHERE WERE YOU??
Can’t you hear her disappointment and agitation. “LORD, were were you?”
And, like Mary, we just don’t get it…
We did all the right things. We went to the best Doctors. We said our prayers, in fact we agonized in prayer, and not just us, but all around the country prayers were offered were offered for (NAME)
So we ask, “LORD, were were you?”
“Why didn’t you show up?”
But, notice, Jesus does not answer her question, instead he asks one of his own:
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?”
This leads to the second truth…
THE SECOND TRUTH: WE ARE ANGRY…
Notice, Jesus’ response to seeing Mary’s grief over her loss was first, to become greatly disturbed in the his spirit.
New Testament Greek scholars tell us that this idea translated greatly disturbed literally means “to snort like a horse.” As such, it was used to describe battle-horses before going to war and it strongly implies anger and indignation. That is, Jesus wasn’t just sad at the scene surrounding the tomb of his very good friend, Lazarus. He was sad, of course, as we shall see, but it is more accurate to say that Jesus was both sad and angry.
OK. So, Jesus is angry and disturbed, but at what? Jesus is angry at the ravages of the great enemy death. His friend is dead and he doesn’t like it at all!
And this is how we feel, too. Today, the world feels very dark. Today we feel the twilight of goodness in of the world, finding instead the painful reality of grief.
Well, the LORD Jesus was confronted with this same brutal truth of the human condition — death takes us all, even those who like Lazarus and like (NAME) are taken from us far too quickly. But we must notice like others have before that Jesus is angry at death without being angry at himself. That is, he is not the cause of death, not for Lazarus and not for (NAME).
Which leads to the final truth for us today…
THE THIRD TRUTH: WE ARE NOT ALONE…
But, that is not all. We must ask what happens next in the text:
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
Hear this now, and understand it clearly. The first action Jesus takes when facing the tomb of his friend is to weep. And the first one to weep when (NAME) took his last breath on Sunday afternoon was the Lord himself.
You do not weep alone; the Lord, who is easily touched by the feelings of our loss, stand with us this day, cries with us, and is just as angry at death as we are.
The text reads, the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
Yes, indeed, see how he loved him, but not just Lazarus. The LORD loved (NAME) as well. Clearly, the Lord understands that we do not want to give (NAME) up. And so, with by evidence of his tears the LORD offers us what the theologians have come to call the blessed hope. For as devastating this loss is, what is equal to it is the comfort the LORD offers, and the promise of new life because the LORD in the end finally conquers death.
What is the value of one prayer? I suspect it is far greater than any of us imagine. Prayer changes things, sometimes in obvious ways, but more often in subtle and even paradoxical ways. But prayer is surely important, even when we don’t experience its immediate effects. Perhaps this is why Jesus taught us to pray always and never to lose heart (cf. Luke 18:1). St. Paul echoed this with the simple exhortation, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). St. James also warned, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2).
Praying for the living is a great and wondrous spiritual work of mercy; its value is beyond that of gold or pearls. What is the value of one prayer? The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man is powerful in in its effects (James 5:16). Prayer can avert war, bring healing, cause conversion, bestow peace and serenity, and call down mercy—sweet, necessary, and beautiful mercy. Prayer is a treasure of inestimable value.
Perhaps one of the greatest joys of Heaven will be seeing how much of a difference our prayers made, even the distracted and perfunctory ones. Maybe our simple utterance at the end of a decade of the rosary to “Save us from the fires of Hell” and to “Lead all souls to Heaven” will reach the heart of one lost soul, prompting him to answer the gentle call of God to return. Imagine that in Heaven that very sinner comes up to you and says, “Though we never met, your prayer reached me and God applied His power to me.” Imagine the joy of many such meetings in Heaven. Imagine, too, whom you will joyfully thank for their prayers, people you know and some you never met. But they prayed and the power of their prayers reached you.
While the value of praying for the living is not widely disputed, praying for the dead is a spiritual work of mercy that has suffered in recent decades. Too many Catholics today “miss a step” when a loved one dies. There are often immediate declarations that the deceased is “in Heaven” or “in a better place.” But Scripture doesn’t say that we go right to Heaven when we die. No, indeed. First, there is a brief stopover at the judgment seat of Christ.
The Letter to the Hebrews says, It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment (Heb 9:27). St. Paul writes, For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10).
Our deceased loved ones go to the judgment seat of Christ, and that is worth praying about!
What is the judgment for those who lived faithful lives? In such cases, the judgment is not merely about the ultimate destination of Heaven or Hell. The judgment would seem to be “Is My work in you complete?”
Indeed, the Lord has made all of us a promise: You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mat 5:48). Such a beautiful promise! Yet most of us know that we are not in such a state now. If we were to die today it is clear that much work would still be required. Thus when we send our faithful loved ones to judgment, although we send them with hope, we are aware that finishing work may be necessary. Purgation and purification are necessary before entering Heaven, of which scripture says, Nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27).
Again, this is worth praying about. It is a great work of mercy we can extend to our deceased loved ones, to remember them with love and to pray, in the words of St. Paul, May God who has begun a good work in you bring it to completion (Phil 1:6). Pray often for the souls in Purgatory. Surely there are joys there for them, knowing that they are on their way to Heaven, but there are also sufferings that purgation must cause. St. Paul says of Purgatory, Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor 3:13-15). Yes, there is fire, but thank God it is a healing fire. There are tears, too, for Scripture says (regarding the dead) that Jesus will wipe every tear from their eyes (Rev 21:4).
How consoling and merciful our prayers must seem to our beloved who have died! Our prayers must seem like a gentle wind that speeds them along, onward and upward toward Heaven!
Praying for the dead, then, is the last and greatest spiritual work of mercy. By the grace of it, and through its help, souls attain the glory God has prepared for them from the foundation of the world.
Dear Lord, relying on your promises to us, I turn to you in trust that my mother is with you and that she is enjoying your loving embrace. You alone know how she loved the best she could and how she faithfully endured the struggles that she faced. You know the graces you gave her and you know the grace she was for me and for so many. For all the ways she truly loved the way you loved her, please reward her, Lord. May she enjoy the communion of all her family and friends who are with you.
Lord, I know my mother still loves us who are still here on earth. I ask you that you might listen to her fervent prayers for us. Help me to grow into a new and deeper relationship with my mother now, as I long for the day when we will both meet in your embrace – freed from all that might have hindered our relationship on earth, knowing and understanding everything we did not know or understand on this earth.