In my last post, I wrote about a long-time, retired pastor who was near death. Father James died Friday night and these past few days have been about preparing and celebrating the funeral rites.
Leading those efforts has been Father James’s nephew, Father Tim, and Father James’s long-time music director Nancy. Father James served at Blessed Sacrament church from 1978 through his retirement in 2003. He hired Nancy early on, shortly after she graduated from university with her music degree, and they developed a true partnership and deep friendship that lasted through his retirement years.
They both loved liturgy and taught me that thoughtful, prayerful planning was the key to vibrant worship. I served on liturgy committee and in music ministry for many years and learned so much from them both. My role in the funeral planning was to write the universal prayer, which is a set of petitions which closes the liturgy of the word, for both the vigil service and the funeral mass.
Along with my daughter T, I joined the 40-voice choir, which was assembled from the choirs of Father Tim’s church, Nancy’s current church, Father James’s boyhood church where the funeral was being held, and some other former Blessed Sacrament music ministry alumni. (A number of the other choir members had also sung at Blessed Sacrament when Father James was there.) We rehearsed for two and a half hours Sunday night to be ready for the two services.
When a priest dies, he lies in state in the church, clothed in his priestly vestments. Father James had chosen white vestments with a multi-colored trim which, if I recall correctly, had been a gift from the parish for his 40th ordination anniversary. For three hours before the vigil service, Father Tim along with Father James’s nieces and other nephews received condolences from hundreds of friends and former parishioners.
We then held a vigil service with Scripture readings and prayers which focused on service. There were three homilists, one a priest-friend, who offered stories of Father James as a friend and traveling companion; one a niece, who told of growing up with with three priest-uncles, Father James and his two older brothers; and a Blessed Sacrament parishioner-friend, who told of the strong bonds of love and friendship that Father James built among us. His words reflected beautifully my own experience at Blessed Sacrament, what that parish family meant and continues to mean to me. (Unfortunately, for reasons too complex to relate here, the Blessed Sacrament community that we knew no longer exists as a parish.)
The next morning was the funeral liturgy. Nancy played prelude music on the organ, followed by two choral pieces. During the opening hymn, the many priests and deacons in attendance, all dressed in white, processed to their places, followed by the concelebrating priests, including Father Tim, and finally the bishop, who was the presider for the funeral mass.
The readings centered around Eucharist and included a gospel passage that was close to Father James’s heart and ministry, the road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-35). Father Tim gave an inspiring homily, which was both intimate and encompassing. Not only had Father Tim had the example of his uncle Father James before him all his life but he had also been in residence with him at Blessed Sacrament for nine years when he was serving as chaplain at a nearby hospital, during which he assisted with weekend and special liturgies and shared homilist duties.
I was especially moved when Father Tim spoke about how special the Blessed Sacrament community was in the twenty-eight years of Father James’s pastorate, how Father James drew people together and encouraged them to develop and share their talents, how important liturgy was to him as the work of the people, and how extraordinary the partnership was between Father James and Nancy, resulting in eight choirs and a congregation that actively and joyfully participated in both spoken and sung prayer, empowering them to go out and serve others. He reminded us that it is up to those of us who were part of that community to continue to carry on the good works, friendship, love, and caring to others.
For T and me to be singing in the choir for the services was a special blessing. While Blessed Sacrament had been a modern renovated building with the music ministry in the front of the church, the church where we were gathered is one of the oldest in our area with a choir loft and a pipe organ. Being in the loft gave us a good view of the church and a bit of space from the emotions of the family. It also gave us the best advantage of the acoustics.
Some people who were unfamiliar with Nancy’s skills had expressed reservations about the choir not being amplified, but, under Nancy’s guidance, we did not need microphones to be heard and understood. They were also afraid that the congregation wouldn’t sing, but we were confident that they would – and they did. Many people were former Blessed Sacrament parishioners who were used to singing hymns and responses. Moreover, what many Catholics don’t realize is that it is not a choir or cantor that leads the singing, it is the organ. Nancy is a wonderful organist, who knows how to register the organ effectively and to pace and phrase in such a way as to lead the congregation to confidently sing the hymns and prayers.
Nancy also is the best liturgist of any Catholic church musician that I know. The hymns beautifully reflected the Scripture readings that had been chosen for the services. People commented afterward about how thoughtfully the music enhanced the service.
I know that Father James would be pleased with the vigil and funeral mass that we celebrated before laying him to rest.
With a wink, he would say it was because he had taught us how…which he did, by word and example.
As Father Tim reminded us, it is up to us to carry on, loving and serving one another, as Father James did.
May he rest in peace and may perpetual light shine upon him.