My brother Gene died four weeks ago today. He was the sixth of my nine siblings to die. Some might think a person can develop a skill for saying goodbye or burying a loved one. You cannot! In fact, grief compounds and becomes cumulative. But so does grace!
Although I began kindergarten in Omaha, Gene moved back to our family’s hometown and married a woman from Hartington, NE in 1961. We gathered at Holy Trinity Church for his funeral, the same church where I was baptized in 1950, the same church where we had gathered for the funerals of our father in 1993 and our mother in 2007. Although they had moved from the town in 1955, such is the significance of this community in the life and lore of our family.
Imagine my consternation when the pastor paraded up the center aisle five minutes before the service was to begin, made a dramatic genuflection in front of the altar, then turned stage right to the sacristy for vesting. Honest to God, he was wearing a full-length black cape and berretta, that square, stiff cap with a tassel-like fur-ball on top that used to be worn by ecclesiastics in the Catholic Church. I gasped, then gulped. I should not have been surprised when he appeared from the sacristy attired in black vestments. I was more disheartened than shocked.
This was my brother’s funeral. I had some pretty important decisions to make. It was attitude adjustment time. This was not the first time I’ve had to hunker down in the face of such clerical falderal. But, this is the funeral of my brother — the stakes are singular and significant. Somehow I resolved not to allow this hierarch’s clerical peculiarities to steal this moment of prayer from our family.
Something happened! Grace? Actually, the priest’s homily was quite good for someone who had come to the parish so recently and had few opportunities to really get to know my brother. When he prayed I found that I could readily pray with him. When his ridiculous black cape billowed in the frigid February wind atop the cemetery hill I discovered compassion — aspiring to gratitude — for this innocently naive cleric.
Since, I have been thinking a great deal about the differences between conformity and community, between unity and uniformity. How my ego craves for what I know to be right, true and best. How I squirm when not in control, when things are not done my way! Grace nudges me to recognize the broad assortment of ways to be Catholic, no less Christian. This, as God wills it to be! When my stubbornness and pride rail as they will, I must ask, “What really matters?” Now I ruminate about how Gene would answer that question today.
This is the church into which I was baptized. This is the community in which our roots run deep. Here I find family, home, communion. We now have four generations buried in that cemetery. My plot is right next to my parents, twenty feet from our grandparents.
In the end, I would want it no other way. It is here that someday I will finally be laid to rest.