|Fr Joe (left) with Canon Dennis Barry in Lourdes|
As the Bishop said at the beginning of Mass, we have come here to this Church to pray – to pray firstly for Joe, to commend him to the love and mercy of God; and to pray for his family, his friends, former parishioners, brother priests – to pray for and support each other in a time of sadness; but we come together to pray in faith, a faith Joe shared and loved throughout his life. Perhaps we come with our own individual memories of Joe; we pray that each fond memory may become a prayer of thanksgiving.
And we do come to pray in thanksgiving, as there is much to thank God for – we thank God for Joe’s 48 years as a priest, his service to various parishes, his work with the Catholic Nurses Guild; but we might also thank God for Joe’s love of reading, or his love music: he was brought up in London, and liked to sing the old music hall songs; he seemed to have no difficulty remembering the words; and before entering the seminary, Joe was eight years in the Navy. I dare say there were Navy songs, too, but if Joe remembered these lyrics, he was always quite discreet about them…
But our prayer of thanksgiving is made in the Mass, and that’s as it should be because thanksgiving is at the heart of the Mass. And Joe loved the Mass. During his active priestly life, during the time he was disabled, the Mass was very important to him, and that’s the way it always seems to have been. I believe that when Joe was in the Navy, whenever his ship called into port, Joe was allowed ashore to go to Mass because he always made a point of going; apparently, when others asked if they could join him, permission was refused. He goes, they were told, because he’s serious about it. Serious, and dedicated; this was true of Joe on so many levels, even if on occasions, it bordered on what we might call these days, ‘strong-willed’. Mum tells the story of a conversation held one day between Joe and one of the carers. The carer said to Joe, Fr Joe, could you just lift your arm up for me? Joe replied, Not for you, I won’t, I’ll do it for God. ‘I’ll do it for God’ – perhaps that describes Joe’s sense of vocation and commitment to his priesthood, both before and after his accident. However it was to be lived out, Joe would do it for God.
But we aren’t here really to think about what Joe did for God, or what Joe did for others. But about what God has done for us. God makes an invitation and we respond – our response isn’t irrelevant, but we pray for Joe in the Mass, in the celebration of the Eucharist, and we celebrate the gift God makes of himself – I wonder how many times Joe celebrated funerals in his various parishes and raised the host above the coffin and said, This is my body which will be given up for you? Now the host is raised up over his coffin and those words are said again; this being raised up with Jesus is comfort for us, and our hope for Joe – as we heard St Paul say to the Romans in our second reading, after such a gift, could the Lord refuse us anything? No, on the contrary, the same Jesus raised up in the host at Mass, rose from the dead and there at God’s right hand he stands and pleads for us. This gift, freely given, gratis, grace; given up, poured out, for the forgiveness of sins – this is grace and mercy; words from the end of our first reading – grace and mercy await those he has chosen. Although written hundreds of years before Christ, the vision of the first reading from the Book of Wisdom can help us understand the sacrifice of the Mass.
Written in one of the condolence cards given after Joe died were a few words quoted from another Joseph, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, taken from an address he gave at Georgetown University, a couple of months before he died, and let me conclude by reading them to you: As a person of faith, of resurrection faith, I see death as a friend, not a foe; and the experience of death is, I am convinced, a transition from life to life, from grace to glory. Joe’s faith, and ours, is a resurrection faith, a Eucharistic faith – by the Lord’s grace and mercy, may he see him in glory.