We sat in quiet as the sun was setting, casting its autumnal light through the colors of the stained glass windows surrounding us.
We sat in the beautiful quiet of St. James Church in Chamberlain, the bishop and the priests and deacons of the diocese. We sat in prayer, praying the Office of the Dead, as the sun set and the leaves outside mirrored our thoughts.
We sat, as we do each year, to pray and to listen; and to pray as we listen, because it was both. We listened as one of us stepped up a microphone and began to read a decade of names, and then the next walked up to the microphone to read another decade’s worth.
We sat and prayed and listened, as we do each year, to the names of the priests, deacons, bishops and popes who have died since the creation of our diocese. It is always a thoughtful and beautiful time, and meaningful for us.
Many years ago I wrote about this tradition we celebrate each year at our Clergy Days gathering, but I wanted to share some thoughts that struck me this year as I listened and prayed. When we first began this tradition, it took quite a while before we got to names I recognized, in fact, they were mostly the last names prayed.
Lately, the familiar names come up a lot faster, and the emotional connection to hearing those names is stronger. As I heard the names, I smiled, not a smile either happy or sad, just thoughtful, just a moment’s smile of remembering how a life impacted so many, and impacted me.
Now I hear the names John Garvey, who baptized me; John Kasch, who gave me my first Communion; Bishop Lambert Hoch, who confirmed me; Bishop Paul Dudley, who ordained me. Those Sacramental names matter to me.
But I also hear other names; B. Alton Kelly, the pastor in Brookings who was the priest I spoke to about entering the seminary. I hear the name Robert Flannery, who taught me so much in just one summer, and who placed the priestly vestments upon me at my ordination. I hear the name Robert Haire, who I have succeeded as editor of “The Bishop’s Bulletin” and who brought fiery faith to my home county.
I hear the name Francis Sampson, former chief of Chaplains for the US Army, who smiled upon me from his portrait hanging outside the classroom of the US Army Chaplain School in Fort Jackson, SC. I hear the names Joseph Schell and Henry Hoerner, who bequeathed to me the wonderful parish of Saint Mary I am honored to serve today, and upon who’s graves I stand when I celebrate Memorial Day Mass in our cemetery chapel.
Those were just a few.
One of the reasons we began this tradition years ago was because priests generally do not have families to remember them and pray for them after death; since we are a part of a unique family, it is for us to remember and pray for them. In that past years, we have remembered many permanent deacons, who do have families, but the underlying motivation remains.
Yet, it occurs to me that while our initial reasoning might be completely true, it might not be completely valid. The fact that we belong to the unique family of the priesthood, and are brothers with all other priests, means that we are, in fact, also a part of many, many other families.
As I listened to those names, those moments became an encounter with priests who have touched my life. I am certain it would be a beautiful encounter for you as well. This November, this holy month when we pause to remember our beloved dead, I invite you to remember my brothers, the priests and deacons and bishops who did not leave this world without first touching your life.
Remember the priest or deacon who baptized you or your children, who blessed you with confessions and Eucharist, who confirmed you, witnessed your wedding, or a priest who brought you the gift of Christ in a trying time. There are many examples and encounters and I invite you to remember them this month.
As the names rolled on and on, I remembered that these were not perfect men, and so we pray for them. They were also men graced by ordination to bring Christ in a unique way to you, and so we pray for them.
They are a part of your family.