Sunday, March 31, 2024



Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark. Later, Simon Peter and John came to the tomb. None of them understood yet that he had to rise from the dead.
John 20:1-9

Speaking of visiting cemeteries, in a couple of my weekly columns in The Record, I have written about my fascination with cemeteries, especially the two in my own country parish of Saint Theresa where I will be buried, the two in Calvary, Kentucky, down around Lebanon, where I used to serve as pastor, the Sisters’ cemeteries at the Motherhouses at Nazareth, Springfield and Loretto, Kentucky, as well as the abbey cemetery in St. Meinrad in Indiana.

Down home, I love to walk through the cemetery and remember my parents, grandparents, neighbors, friends and fellow parishioners dating back to 1804. It is a bit like walking through heaven and visiting with people I have known and loved, reminding me that I come from those English Catholics who escaped persecution in England, came to Maryland and on to Kentucky in the late 1700s who held onto their Catholic faith through thick and thin. It is especially sobering to look down at the very spot where I will be buried among my ancestors.

In Calvary, right outside Lebanon where I was pastor before coming here, the parish was funded in 1796. The oldest of their two cemeteries holds five soldiers from the American Revolution and the last person buried there was killed by Indians.

At St. Meinrad Archabbey, I knew over one-third of the hundred plus monks buried there. These are the people who had the most positive effect on my development as a person and as a priest. I never think of the bones buried there, but the brains. Many of them were European trained and held doctorates from prestigious universities. One of my college teacher monks worked for NASA during the summer and invented the plastic for the nose cones of the early unmanned fights. Another went on to become a respected theologian at Yale University. Another was a language expert who once was missing, only to be found in a caravan in Saudi Arabia learning Arabic.

I am fascinated, not with death, but with those who have lived the Catholic faith and served the church, as I have done these last 79 + years. It does something for me – several things for me, in fact. (1) It reminds me that life is short so I need to live well while I can. By looking death in the face, it reminds me that death is a fact of life, not only for those who have gone before me, but also for me. I feel that it is good to remind myself to live with the end in mind. (2) It reminds me, as well, that I am part of a large family of faith, that stretches back for over two thousand years around the world and well over two hundred years here in Kentucky. (3) I am reminded of a line from the creed where we say that “we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” We believe that life does not end with the grave, but rather that we continue to live - that we will rise again someday, just like Christ rose from his grave that first Easter. (4) Believing in the “communion of saints,' it reminds me to pray for those who have died and it reminds me that they are praying for me as well.

The great Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once said, “The pastor should visit the cemetery as often as he is able. This is wholesome for him personally, for his preaching, for his spiritual care and also for his theology.” Bonhoeffer was right. When I walk through these cemeteries and view the names on the gravestones, I experience a peaceful, reassuring calmness.

I recommend this practice to any of you, especially when you are depressed or down about something. Looking death in the eye makes us realize how short and precious life is, makes us put our problems in perspective and restores our peace of mind so that we can get back to living while we can. It reminds us that we are not alone, that we belong to a huge family of faith and that we will be remembered after we die, even by people who have never met us.

There are several things that stand out when we read today about the disciples’ visit to the cemetery shortly after the tragic death of Jesus. First of all, it was a woman who first brought the news about the empty tomb to the men. Obviously, no one among them was expecting a resurrection. Even those who knew Jesus, saw him die and viewed his empty tomb, were slow in coming to faith. Mary Magdalen did not go to the cemetery to get a front row seat for the resurrection. She went to finish burying Jesus according to Jewish custom. Jesus died on Friday and had been buried hastily because of the approaching Sabbath. Seeing that the tomb was empty, she concluded that the body had been snatched. The youngest apostle, John, looked in but was scared to go into the tomb. The impulsive Peter, wanting to get to the bottom of things, was the first to enter the tomb. John was the first to believe, and only gradually, over several days, did the others come to believe.

If the resurrection of the body was hard to believe, even for those who were there, what about us? Are we not, also, slow in coming to faith? As Jesus said about us to the doubting apostle, Thomas, in his demand for proof, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” That's us! 

With the Church, we say we believe in “the resurrection of the body.” Saint Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian, said that without the body, the human soul is incomplete. We need our bodies to be who we are, to have memories and relationships, to express our unique personalities. Our risen bodies will not be our limited bodies, but fully realized bodies, glorified bodies. Our risen bodies might exhibit some properties of our physical body, but without its limits. Like the risen Lord, who seemed to pass through doors but was also able to be recognized, our bodies will be our bodies, only in a glorified state. Frankly, I am hoping to trade this one in for an upgraded version!!!!

If you are finding it hard to comprehend what I am trying to say, don't worry about it. It really cannot be described in normal language. Frankly, I personally don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to logically figure all this out. I am simply comforted by the words of Saint Paul, “Eye has not seen, nor ears heard, nor has it even dawned on human beings, the great things God has in store for those who love him.” I can live with the simple idea that "unimaginable fabulous things" await me after death! 

So, on this Easter morning, let us not just remember the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event, but let us remember it with our own end in mind. Let us look forward to our own resurrections - whatever that reality may look like. For me, in final analysis, the Easter story should be read as one would read a love letter or a book of poetry, not like one would read a science book or cookbook.

When it comes right down to it, all I really believe is that my life will continue after this life – and it is going to be wonderful. Therefore, in the meantime, I am trying to live my life to the fullest while I am here and I am trying to remain connected to Christ as I “wait in joyful hope” for that great and glorious time, which will be beyond my wildest imagining.

As for me, while I was recovering from my recent surgery, I updated my funeral plans and my Last Will and Testament in detail. I have chosen the readings, the music, a health care surrogate, an executor and a person to be in charge of carrying out my earthly end-of-life plans. My home parish has given me a burial plot! As a former staff member, St. Meinrad is giving me one of their caskets. My tombstone is already in place with my basic information carved into it, awaiting a death date to be added!

Now that all that is in place and updated, I want to forget it and keep living as best and as long as I can, remembering how blessed are those of us who have no proof, who have not seen with our own eyes, yet still believe! Yes, "I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in!"

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