Not too long ago, the rector of the local Cathedral died after a battle with cancer. Though not entirely unexpected, his departure from this life affected me deeply. At his funeral, his usual chair next to the choir stalls remained empty, an absence that spoke louder than any words spoken by the Archbishop during the homily, more profound than any of the moving music. After eleven years, no longer would he ever sit in his usual place for Holy Mass. And so I cried. These tears were not so much for him for I knew he had suffered greatly, particularly in the final months of his earthly life. Moreover, I knew his fellow priests had ministered to his soul with utmost care in his illness. Rather, I mourned for myself, for the loss of one who had cared for me and who meant so much to me.
For weeks, whenever I would return to the Cathedral, I would sense him walking down the marble aisle ways as he typically did. Only he was not there. I would see things he had used and realize he would not wear that particular vestment or hold that particular book again. I would be filled again with the same grief. Those experiences of remembering and reminders of one who has passed is not unusual.
What did take me by surprise was the same sadness would also emerge when I was at Masses elsewhere, most profoundly during the consecration and elevation of the Eucharist. It didn’t particularly make sense to me that the same overwhelming grief would wash over me when I was away from the Cathedral.
Despite this almost consuming grief, it struck me that these feelings speak to a beauty of the Catholic Church and of the faith. It is only through the Church and the gift of the priesthood that I ever even met this priest. Of the millions who live in my Archdiocese, much less in our country, the chances of even meeting him otherwise would have been highly unlikely. Even if I had met him, the likelihood that his life would have had such an impact on mine is doubtful absent the grace of his priesthood and his spiritual fatherhood. It was his care for my soul that made him different from the many other relationships I had with others in my life. It is a wonderful thing that our Catholic faith can unite such different people from so many different places.
Christian Friendship Rooted in Faith
Anyone who has been to a World Youth Day or similar gathering can attest to the speed at which meaningful relationships can arise based primarily on a common faith. There’s a fittingness to the relationship. Perhaps that is due in part to the fact that there are common values. I think, though, that it is for a deeper reason: a common vision of life. The common acknowledgment that we have been created to ultimately be in relationship with God means that the relationship, too, has its end goal in God. It is a given that we are journeying in the same direction, toward the same destination.
Like the disciples who encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, we are called to live in relationship. We are made to live in community. Jesus teaches us the blessing of relationships rooted in Him. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) These relationships carry a different quality precisely because Christ Himself is present in it. They find their origin in God, blossom in God, and have their fulfillment in God.
St. Augustine articulated it this way in his Confessions while telling of his friend who died too early: “For there is no true friendship save between those thou dost bind together and who cleave to thee by that love which is ‘shed abroad in our hears through the Holy Spirit who is given to us.’” Augustine recognized that true friendship is sent by God. True Christian relationships require a cultivation of the same virtues necessary for living the spiritual life well. In friendship, we are constantly asked to look beyond our immediate desires and dislikes to see our friend’s sorrows and joys. We have all thought, at one time, “Well because he’s such a good friend, I’m willing to do that,” with the understanding that the burdensome task is not something we would desire to do, save for the friendship. Not only are we willing to go further for another in a friendship but we are called to do this again and again, cultivating a habit of charity.
True charity orders all aspects of our lives, including our relationships with others, purifying them, orienting them to their proper relationship, and elevating them to the supernatural. Christian relationships and friendships, in fact, helps to sanctify us.
Through Christ, we are able to have relationships rooted in something other than merely ourselves. We are able to be eternally connected, not only with our family and friends in this life but also with the multitudes of saints who have gone before us. We can know those who have gone before us, not merely in the sense that we can read and learn about their lives, as one might study a historical figure; we can actually have a relationship with them. The saints, both formally canonized and those who are known only to God, are alive and able to help us on this earthly journey. They remind us of our glorious calling: to dwell in complete union with God.
Hopefully, all the relationships we have on earth are imaging the relationship par excellence in the Holy Trinity: the Father in relationship with the Son, the Holy Spirit proceeding from the two. Our relationships should imitate that perfect caritas present in the Holy Trinity for if, indeed, we are in a relationship rooted in Christ, Jesus is present as a third person to the relationship.
Striving for Saintly Friendships
Our relationships on earth are not limited to those relationships we have with other people on earth. Even while on earth, we can have a relationship with the saints in Heaven. In a culture that trains us to rely on sense-able stimuli, it is easy to forget that which we can’t see with our eyes: the angels and saints. Every November, we remember in a particular way, all those who have gone before, rejoicing in the exultation of the saints and praying for the souls in purgatory. Certainly, we should be reminded of our duty to perform the spiritual work of mercy to pray for the dead. We should, also, however, cultivate our relationships with the saints for they have lived lives of holiness. If our relationships should help us to grow in virtue, who better to be in relationship with than the saints who are already enjoying the beatific vision?
This should also be a reminder to us that our relationships here on earth will hopefully last forever for Christian relationships are everlasting. In heaven, we are united perfectly with Christ. So too are we united perfectly with all other Christians. By exercising virtue in right relationships here on earth, we are able to grow in holiness. What we do on earth really does have eternal implications. St. Francis de Sales describes it in this way: “If the bond of your mutual liking be charity, devotion, and Christian perfection, God knows how very precious a friendship it is! Precious because it comes from God, because it tends to God, because God is the link that binds you, because it will last forever in Him.” In Christ, our relationships continue beyond the bounds of this earth for they become exalted in and through Him.
See You in the Eucharist
How fitting it was, then, that in the Eucharist I would be most reminded of my pastor for he really is present there. St. Paul writes, “Because the Bread is one, we, though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one Bread.” (1 Corinthians 10:17) The Eucharist renders all of us one.
In the Blessed Sacrament, heaven and earth are united and so all souls both in heaven and on earth are able to meet in the Eucharist. In a sense, we can “talk” to those in Heaven in a particular way through the Eucharist. When we receive Communion, we receive not only the Lord of Heaven and earth, but we are also profoundly united to each and every person in the mystical body of Christ for every member of this body is present in the Eucharist. This is why our bonds with Christ and with the entire Church is strengthened through the reception of Holy Communion. Our relationships are strengthened through God’s grace, joining us with those near and far – and even those in Heaven. This is one of the beautiful mysteries of the gift of the Eucharist: we have a physical way to be united to others, in Christ.
This is the beauty of the Catholic faith: in some ways, after my pastor’s death, I am able to be even closer to him than when he was on earth. In so many ways my life was blessed by him. Yet I have more than mere memories; through faith, I trust that he remains present every time I attend Mass.