Linda Oppelt

‘We were privileged to be a part of this story’

Fr. Larry Brennan's Homily at Bishop Sheridan's funeral

(Editor’s note: Following is the text of the homily given by Father Larry Brennan for the funeral Mass of Bishop Emeritus Michael Sheridan on Oct. 7 at Holy Apostles Church:) 

I am Father Larry Brennan, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis and a longtime friend of the late Bishop Michael Sheridan. Over the last 12 years, I had the privilege of working with him in a variety of capacities, coming to know many of you who are here this afternoon. Today I have the sad honor of preaching at his funeral.

We human beings have a variety of reactions in the face of the mystery of death. No one of them is the correct one. No one of them is normative. I know that they are all present here today. For many people, the first reaction is numbness or shock.

Most of us here today had no idea that the Bishop had cancer or that it was as advanced as it was.

When I found out about it in St. Louis, I got on the road as quickly as I could, to be with him in his final days. I was on the road in Kansas when a mutual friend called with the shocking news that the Bishop had died a few moments earlier. I could barely believe that it had happened so quickly. I still feel that way.

Perhaps the most prominent reaction is sadness, a sense of loss. All of us here today were connected in some way to this man, who was a part of our lives. Why should we not be sad? We will never see the light of his eyes again. Never hear his laugh again. Never. This is one occasion when that word is completely appropriate. Of course we are sad.

Some of us may be feeling a little fear right now: a fear of the unknown, a fear of the supreme test of our faith, a fear of divine judgment.

We can feel it for the friend whom we just lost, but if we are honest, we recognize that we feel it for ourselves as well. Every one of us knows with certainty that death lies in our future, whether we are ready for it or not. We just pray for the opportunity to be ready. And we pray for God’s mercy.

Another reaction is anger. There is not one person in this church today who thinks that aging, illness, or death is a good idea. Not a single person on this planet wants to die. Why should we not be angry? We are not consulted about this; someone is just taken from us and we are left bereft.

Many people think that it is an inappropriate reaction. I am not one of them.

I have lost family members and I know what that anger feels like. Job, in the Bible, was not afraid to shake his fist at God. That was an indication of the strength of his relationship with God. He trusted God enough to say, “This is pretty crummy, and I am not happy about it at all.” He knew that he could not hurt God with his anger.

Sometimes on an occasion like this, people feel guilty, about something said or done wrongly — or left unsaid or undone. Or we could feel a lingering hurt about something said or done.

Bishop Sheridan was a private man and he chose to die in private. I know that this left some hurt in some of us, but it was his right to make that choice. The hurt was not intentional. 

We have other reactions, too. Bishop Sheridan had a long life, which he lived in service to Christ and his Church. He was an associate pastor, a high-school teacher, a theologian, a seminary instructor, a pastor, a bishop. He was a son, a brother, a cousin, an uncle, a friend. He was a brother priest, a brother bishop. He was the father of a diocese.

Now in death all of that has been gathered into the arms of a loving and gracious God. That fact can leave us with a sense of completeness, a sense of resolution, a sense of peace, perhaps even a sense of sweetness. We were privileged to be a part of this story. Above all this, we Christians firmly believe that death is not the end. Death is not what God created us for. God created us for life. God created us for eternal life.

Even when in Adam and Eve we collectively turned our backs on his original plan, he did not give up on us. He sent his Son, who loved us enough to die for us. There is no greater love than this, and that is the last word. Everlasting love.

Whatever our reaction is, we can pray there. It may be a numb prayer, a sad prayer, a fearful prayer, an angry prayer, a guilty prayer, a hurt prayer, a peaceful prayer, a hopeful prayer. So let us pray today — for the Bishop, for each other, and for ourselves.

Our readings are filled with faith in the resurrection. Through Isaiah, God promised that he will destroy death, the veil that lies over all — that he will wipe away the tears from all faces. As St. Paul told the Corinthians, what that means is that at the last trumpet we shall be changed, that our mortality will clothe itself in immortality, and that the final victor will not be death but Christ. Nothing can escape his saving power.

The parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew’s Gospel is a lesson about preparedness. All ten of the virgins were awaiting the bridegroom’s arrival, but five had not brought enough oil. While they were away in search of oil, the Bridegroom arrived, the wise virgins were welcomed to the feast, while the foolish were locked out. The lesson is that we should all of us be ready at all times, since we know neither the day nor the hour.

One little detail about the Bishop’s death that consoled me was this: he was holding a rosary in his hand. He was ready.

I first met Bishop Sheridan when he was a newly-ordained priest assigned to my home parish in Florissant, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. He was a friendly man and he did admirable parish work. He was always a superb and lucid preacher.

When last week I told my brothers and sisters about his death, they were all deeply saddened. Many people, both here and in St. Louis were saddened. He was a much-loved priest and bishop.

Some years after his first assignment, after he had returned from his doctoral studies in Rome, he was assigned to Kenrick Seminary as an instructor. I encountered him there again as I prepared for my own doctoral studies in Rome, and he was full of stories and helpful advice.

Then some years later, he invited me to come to Colorado Springs to assist him, and I was happy to do so. He was a good friend and I miss him dearly.

I would like to conclude with a piece of irony. One of the good-natured disagreements the Bishop and I had in recent years

was over the role of Latin in the Church. I thought and still think that it was silly, but he was convinced that it was legitimately the language of the Church. The irony here is that after I received the news of the Bishop’s death, I turned off my car radio, and my head was filled with the ancient chants of the Latin Requiem Mass. And then with Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Pie Jesu.”

I was driving through Kansas and its vast landscapes of both wild and cultivated land. I was thinking of the vastness of the mystery that I was experiencing, the living God.

He is a mystery beyond time, beyond space, beyond limit, beyond imagining. By his simple word, he has summoned this entire universe into being from out of nothing, and he continues to hold it in being at every moment. Yet he has made himself known to us in Jesus, the son of Mary.

The Latin word “pius” is not simply equivalent to our English word, “pious.” It does not simply mean devotion or devotedness or devout. It is the name of a virtue from the ancient Roman Republic.

It is the love that holds the family together: a sturdy love, a dutiful love, a generous love, a tender love.

So, when we say “Pie Jesu,” we are invoking all of that. This great, unknowable, unfathomable, all-powerful mystery has made himself known to us by making us his family, by making himself one of us, by elevating us to his own divine life.

Pie Jesu means: “O kind Savior, O righteous Savior, O loving Savior, O completely faithful Savior, O Jesus our brother.”

Then we say, “you take away the sins of the world, grant him eternal rest.” Our sin is even more of a mystery to us than God’s universe, but it is no match for his saving power.

Jesus, you have conquered sin and death. You have freed us from our own worst selves.

Grant to all of us your salvation and love. And grant to Bishop Sheridan the reward of his labors.

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