Sunday, August 12, 2018



Strengthened by that food, Elijah walked
 forty days and forty nights.
First Book of Kings

One of the most satisfying things about being a priest is "being there" during the "big moment's" of your lives (a) when you are carried into the church as babies for your baptisms, (b) when you walk into the church for your weddings and (c) when you are rolled into the church for your funerals.

Sometimes, we are even privileged to "be there" as you leave this world. I don't know how many times I have “been there” with your families - in hospitals after failed surgeries, in nursing homes at the end of very long lives, in their own homes under the guidance of Hospice or even in morgues after suicides or tragic motorcycle or car wrecks- as you say goodbye to your loved ones, amid great weeping and wailing. It's something we never get used to and something that is always emotional. Even if we don't know you all that well, it is still a privilege to be "allowed into" that sacred space and those solemn moments.

In those situations, death sometimes comes quickly and sometimes very slowly. If it comes slowly, you have time to pray with the family and help them get used to the idea of letting go – as well as helping the dying get ready to leave this world and enter the next - by hearing their last confession, anointing them and giving them holy communion. When you give a dying person their last "holy communion," that holy communion is called viaticum. The word viaticum comes from three Latin words, via (the way), te (you) and cum (with), meaning "that which you take with you” as you go on your way. In this case, that which you take with you on your way is "the bread of life," "the body of Christ." It is given to the dying to strengthen them on their final journey to heaven. It is sort of like a "packed lunch" for the "big trip."  It is a beautiful thought because the last bit of food they will ever eat in this life is the flesh of Christ himself. Who better to take with you to meet your creator? 

One of the most moving experiences I have ever had in this regard, happened at University Hospital a few years ago. A farmer from my hometown, whom I knew well, had been in a terrible tractor accident. His tractor had flipped over on him and crushed him. After several days on a respirator, and having been declared "brain dead," by the time I got there the family had already decided to turn off all the machines and let him go, but they wanted to wait till I got there. He was unconscious, his head crushed and swollen. I knew he could not swallow, so an idea came to me at that moment. As they were turning off the machines, I placed the gold container with the "viaticum," which I had brought, on his chest, over his heart. With "heavenly bread," "the body of Christ," over his heart, we prayed for his safe journey into eternal life as his life here on earth gradually faded away before our very eyes.

Several years ago, I went down to Meade County to have Mass for my niece and her husband in their living room. He was about ten days away from death from Lukemia and it was their 30th wedding anniversary. I had married them as well. I anointed him for the last time, renewed their vows for the last time and gave him communion, “bread for his final journey home.” I left there knowing that I would never see him again here on earth, knowing that that was their last anniversary, knowing that the next time I would be with them was at his funeral Mass. I left there knowing that I had given him “bread for his journey home.”   

Friends! We don't just give viaticum to people when they die, we give it out every Sunday when we gather in here to celebrate the Eucharist. We receive "heavenly bread" from this altar to strengthen us for the week ahead - something we have done ever since Christ's "last supper."  Like the bread that the angel gave Elijah, in our first reading tonight, bread to strengthen him for his forty day walk to the mountain of God, the bread that we eat here is meant to strengthen us, as disciples of the Lord Jesus, us in the next seven-day journey ahead of us.

We do two things, really, when we come here. We come, first of all, to thank God for last week - for all the blessings bestowed on us and all the lessons we learned - even the hard ones.

Second, we come for nourishment - and we get that nourishment in two ways. We get nourishment from hearing the Word of God read to us and explained to us. We get nourishment from "feeding on" the body and blood of Jesus under the forms of bread and wine. Just before we come up here to receive that nourishment, we pray together that our loving God will "give us each day our daily bread" and so he does!

Fellow Catholics, just as we would not accept an invitation to someone's house for a special dinner and then pay no attention to them when we got there, we cannot come here every Sunday and pay no attention to the one who invited us to feast at his table - Jesus Christ himself. We must teach ourselves to focus our attention completely on what we hear, what we say, what we do and what we eat and drink. Full, active and conscious participation during our weekend Masses is bsolutely necessary if we hope to “get anything out of” this experience.

After almost 49 years of priesthood, I have come to believe that those people who say they "get nothing out of mass" are mainly those who “put very little into it.” They do not pay attention to what they are doing when they come here. As Henry Miller once said, "The moment one gives close attention to anything, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself."

For years, I celebrated Sunday Night Masses at Bellarmine University with Melanie Prejean Sullivan my fellow campus minister. Melanie's e-mails always said at the bottom, quoting Thomas Merton, "One must attend carefully to everything. If you apply yourself carefully to what you do, great springs of strength and truth are realized in you."  

Those who do not pay attention to what we are doing here are like those Jeremiah described. "They have eyes but see not. They have ears but hear not."  Let's train our eyes, ears, voices and bodies to "pay attention" to our prayer so that we can "get something out of it" and leave here “nourished” so that we can be all that God has called us to be!  All athletes know that they need to be nourished well if they hope to win their upcoming game! Just so, all of us need to be nourished on the Bread of Life if we hope to handle all that will come our way in the week ahead!         

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