As priests, we meet people at some of the most significant times of their lives. Baptism, first communions, weddings, are all joyful, memorable events. But there are also difficult meeting times: when someone hears that a friend or family member has been in a terrible car accident, when a loved one receives a terminal diagnosis, or when word has come that someone has died. Then, our meeting with people is a time of overwhelming pain and grief. Those times are especially hard. But they can also be a time for remarkable grace, even spiritual transformation.
I have learned there are no words for the times of greatest suffering. Maybe that’s the wisdom that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is giving us as she stands silently at her son’s execution. If any mother had reason to scream and let her voice be heard, Mary did. But she does not speak. She is present, powerfully, completely present. Her presence at the death of her child remains with us as an example of her unconditional love and unwavering faith.
People are resilient. When things seem at their worst, fear of the unknown can cause us to ask, “How can I survive this?” And yet, if we consider every difficulty we have faced, no matter how hard it may have been, we know that we somehow made it through. Each time we have fallen, we get back up. We may have to readjust, we may find ourselves doing things in a different way, but we rise.
Last Wednesday, I went to Christiana hospital to anoint Will Short. While I was at the hospital, I was asked to visit and anoint 6 other people who were actively dying. Each person I was with became a sacred experience. To pray, “Through this holy anointing, may God’s most tender mercy fill you with grace and healing…” is always so humbling. To touch another person, marking them with the sign of the cross, is a great privilege. To realize that your life is joined to theirs through the sacred oil that forms the cross you mark on them, person to person… that is unmerited grace. There is no greater gift.
Rob Short was in his father’s room so we pray together with his Dad. A beautiful prayer. Later that day, Will died. The holy days of the Triduum followed. These days have been so strange, not at all how we would have chosen to live them. Will and his wife Claire would have surely been the first to arrive at church for each of our Triduum liturgies. Claire would go to the statue of Mary to pray her rosary. Will would sip a cup of coffee and quietly, lovingly, watch his wife pray.
The pandemic has closed our churches. We live these days in a surreal kind of isolation, quarantined from activities and others. In ways, it feels as if life has stopped. But our prayer has not stopped. Our love has not stopped. Sensing the presence of so many angels when I was at the hospital, I believe that neither Will Short’s prayer or his love have stopped. I believe his life has not stopped.
Tomorrow, with a small graveside gathering at Cathedral Cemetery, we will honor Will with the prayers of Christian burial. When the time is right, we will honor Will with a magnificent memorial mass at Resurrection Church. We will sing Alleluia! We will pray, “Thanks be to God!” With tears of joy, we will announce, “Christ is Risen. Indeed, he is Risen!”