Funeral of Elaine Louise Landry Bruckerhoff
St. Peter the Apostle Parish, Naples, Florida
May 12, 2014
Rev 21:1-7, Ps 23, Rom 14:7-12, Jn 11:17-27
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following text guided the homily:
Back in 1998, I had the great joy to take Aunt Elaine and other members of our family through the excavations underneath St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. There’s a pagan necropolis there through which, in the first centuries of Christianity when to be a Christian was a crime punishable by death, our Christians ancestors used to risk their lives to traverse in order to get to St. Peter’s grave. They took that risk not just out of religious piety. As many of the inscriptions show, they were going there to pray for their loved ones who had died. Right before the emperor Constantine in the 320s was going to bury the necropolis underground to construct the first basilica dedicated to St. Peter and changed the Roman laws to allow the pagan families to move their dead loved one’s remains out to other necropoles in the city, the Christians took advantage of the change in laws to start moving their dead in. They didn’t care so much that they would have not the chance to visit their loved one’s graves in the future. They just wanted to bury them as close as possible to St. Peter, praying that he would preferentially love those who were his neighbors awaiting the general resurrection and that he to whom Christ had given the keys of the Kingdom of heaven would open those doors for their loved ones to join him forever in Christ’s kingdom of love.
Today we all accompany Aunt Elaine on the last stage of the pilgrimage of her earthly life, not to St. Peter’s tomb in the Vatican, but to this beautiful Church of St. Peter the Apostle in Naples, where we assemble to pray to God, through St. Peter’s intercession, for what all the early Christians use to risk their lives to beg at his tomb: the gift of eternal life with God and all the saints.
Aunt Elaine’s pilgrimage of faith began when she was 15 days old, on May 31, 1942, when she was brought by her parents Joseph Emile and Therese, by godparents her Uncle Albert and Aunt Adrienne, to St. Jean Baptiste Church in Lowell, Mass, to be baptized. That day, 26,280 days ago, is very much remembered today. Just as Oblate Fr. Albert Beausoleil poured water on her forehead three times and baptized her in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so today we began Mass sprinkling her body three times with Holy Water. Just as on that day she was vested with a white baptismal garment signifying what was happening within her soul and was instructed to keep that garment white until Christ came for her, so today we cover her body with a white pall evocative of that encounter. And just as her Uncle Albert lit her baptismal candle from the Paschal Candle that symbolizes how she had been illumined by the light and fiery love of Christ that she was told to keep burning until he would come for her, so today her casket remains in front of that Easter Candle, the symbol of the triumph of light over the darkness and sadness of grief, of forgiveness over sin, and of life over death. Her baptismal day is very much remembered because it was on that day that she died for real. St. Paul tells us (Rom 6) that when we’re baptized, we’re baptized into Christ’s death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. It’s on the day of baptism, we Christians believe, that we die to ourselves and Christ rises from the dead within us. As long as we keep that life alive, as long as we continue to keep clean our baptismal garments, as long as we continue to burn with the light and love of Christ, then death is nothing other than a change of address to a place far more beautiful than any of the exquisite houses in Naples, made by God in heaven.
Today, we come here with faith and with gratitude to God for having given Aunt Elaine the gift of faith. She believed in this reality. Like St. Peter she believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Like St. Peter, she heard Jesus’ words, “Come, follow me!,” and she sought to follow him with faith all the way to the Father’s house. Like St. Peter, she believed that Jesus has the words of Eternal Life.
Let’s listen to those words of eternal life that we heard earlier, which are a commentary on her faith and a great consolation for us at her death. In the Gospel, Jesus identifies himself as the Resurrection and the Life and says, “Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live and no one who lives and believes in me will never die.” He reveals that the resurrection is not so much a fact or an event but a relationship. Jesus is the Resurrection. For us to experience the gift of eternal life, we must respond to his offer of loving friendship. He promises — and whose words could ever be more guaranteed? — that whoever lives and believes in him, even if he dies, will live. And we give thanks that Aunt Elaine took these words seriously. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead on the fourth day to show that he had power over life and death. But what he has planned for us is so much greater than what he did for Lazarus. He resuscitated Lazarus from the tomb, but Lazarus would have to die again. In fact he would be hunted down by the same people who were seeking to put Jesus to death. But the resurrection and life Jesus was describing for Martha was something much greater that resuscitation to continued mortal existence. It would be a resurrection to a life that would never end. Jesus, however, doesn’t want this truth to remain a theoretical possibility and mere hope. He wants us to seize it. That’s why at the end of this passage, he asks Martha directly, “Do you believe this?” Similarly, Jesus asked that question to Aunt Elaine and asks it to each of us. “Do you believe this?” Martha’s response is instructive for all of us. She had never seen someone experience this risen life — after all, this was before Jesus’ resurrection — but nevertheless she expressed the grounds for faith. “Yes, Lord,” she replied. “I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” She expressed her faith in Jesus, and because of her faith in him, because of her relationship with him, she expressed her faith in what he was saying. Today we all have the opportunity to reaffirm that faith in Jesus and — on the basis of it — his words calling us to believe and live in him so that we may experience eternal happiness, resurrection and life with him.
That’s the life to which today’s first reading from the Book of Revelation — read by Aunt Elaine’s granddaughter McKenzie in a way that would have made her Mémère so proud — points. There we see an image of eternal life, a new heaven and a new earth, which is an eternal wedding banquet featuring a love even greater than the love between Aunt Elaine and Uncle Duane that inspired us all. St. John tells us, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God.” Eternal life, as Jesus revealed in the Gospel, is a relationship with God who loves us so much that he wants us to live with him forever. There, St. John continues, “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain.” Jesus then gives us the reason why there will be no more grieving: “Behold I make all things new.” Those are the famous words that Mel Gibson put into the mouth of Jesus along the way of the Cross in his famous movie, The Passion of the Christ. Jesus suffered all that he did to give us new life, to give us a new heart, to renew us totally and keep us in a sense ever young. And Jesus wants us to desire this gift he paid such a price to give us. “To the thirsty,” he says, “I will give a gift from the spring of life-giving water.” Thirst is an image of desire. For those with this thirst, with this hunger, with this yearning, he will give a gift of life-giving water, the eternal fulfillment of the waters of baptism. We rejoice that Aunt Elaine had this thirst for him. I was able to witness it first hand not just as a nephew but a priest last August at the blessing of her marriage to Uncle Duane. I had arranged for another priest to come to hear her confession before the Mass, but he didn’t show. Aunt Elaine, without shame, said that she would be very happy to go to confession to me, even though I was her nephew. I was so impressed by her deep sincerity as she showed how much she loved God and desired his mercy. Later during the nuptial Mass, I was able to give her Holy Communion, and I couldn’t help but notice in her eyes her great hunger and desire for Jesus, a hunger that she constantly nourished watching Mass on television and preparing to receive him every week thanks to the generosity of her friend Ann, who as an extraordinary minister would bring her Jesus when she was unable to go to Church. We pray that that hunger and thirst for God has led her to receive the gift of the spring of life-giving water flowing from Jesus’ pierced side.
Her relationship with Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life, was also pointed to in our response to God’s word in the Psalm, which is a proclamation of the Christian faith and a manifesto of Aunt Elaine’s life. Yesterday the Catholic Church celebrated Good Shepherd Sunday, in which we remember that as our Good Shepherd, Jesus laid down his life for us sheep to lead us to an eternal sheepfold. And in the Psalm today, we proclaim what Aunt Elaine lived. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want,” which means, “I shall not go without. I shall not lack.” With the Lord as our shepherd, we have it all! This was a faith that never wavered for Aunt Elaine. In that Psalm, we pray, “Even though I walk in the dark valley, I fear no evil, for you are at my side with your rod and your staff that give me courage.” Aunt Elaine had to walk through several dark valleys in life, but she knew she never walked alone. The Lord was with her. Especially in the difficulties of the last couple of years due to the ravages of diabetes, she was never lost, she never let the darkness overcome her. She moved on with the hope that comes from faith, from the determination she received in a relationship with One who triumphed even over crucifixion. She believed in the One whom she knew had led her at 15 days old to the restful waters of baptism, who had guided her in right moral paths for the sake of his name, who kept spread a Eucharistic table before her, who was leading her to repose in evergreen pastures, and who was planning to fulfill her hope to dwell in the house of the Lord forevermore. Today in the midst of our mourning, we remember that the Lord is our Shepherd, too, and even if we’re stumbling in the dark valley, he is with us to guide us just as he guided her.
We ought to ask, however, a very important and difficult question. If the Lord really loves us, why does he permit us to walk in a dark valley at all? Why does he permit someone he loves so much to suffer as Aunt Elaine suffered physically at the end of her life? It’s a question that we should never duck in faith, because the answer is so essential. We know that God never intended us to suffer in the beginning, that suffering — as well as the death to which it leads — was a consequence of original sin. But God didn’t leave suffering there. He came to redeem it, to draw moral good from the (ontological) evil of suffering. That’s what he did by his own passion, death and resurrection, drawing the greatest good ever from the worst evil, and in that way, he transformed suffering so that it would be part of our redemption and the redemption of the world. When Aunt Elaine came to Rome with me in 1998, we were able to attend an audience with now Saint John Paul II. Thirty years ago, St. John Paul wrote an incredible exhortation on the Christian meaning of suffering and in it he said that the ultimate meaning of suffering now in the plan of redemption is to “unleash love in the human person.” When we see someone suffering, especially a loved one suffering, it forces us out of any selfishness to which we’ve succumbed and forges us into Good Samaritans, crossing the road of indifference to help those in need. That’s the first way suffering unleashes love. We saw that love unleashed in the solicitude of so many of her dear friends and kind caregivers. We beheld it in the beautiful, filial compassion you always showed, Paulette, with your husband Chuck and daughter McKenzie. And we saw it in an unforgettable way in you, Uncle Duane, who virtually went without sleep for the last five months of her life, virtually never leaving her side in the hospital and hospice, and keeping her in your arms each night at home. St. Paul called all husbands to love their wives just as Jesus loved the Church, and we know that Jesus loved us with the greatest love of all, laying down his life for us. You loved Aunt Elaine like that, laying down your life, your time, your body, your blood, your sweat, everything you had out of love for your bride. We noticed. She noticed. And God noticed. As much as all of us always knew that you loved her, her illness unleashed even greater love in you, an example that none of us will ever be able to forget.
But there’s a second way, Saint John Paul taught us, that suffering unleashes love in a human person. It’s in the sufferer. Suffering humbles a person to receive the love of others. Often we can resist others doing us favors. We want to be independent, to be in charge, to take care of ourselves. There’s virtue in a lot of this, but sometimes this independence can make us resist the loving sacrifices of others. We say “Thanks for the offer, but I can take care of myself.” Suffering makes us realize how much we need others and makes us grateful even for the smallest gestures of love. Aunt Elaine was a very strong woman, who was out on her own at 18. She was the daughter of a Golden Gloves champion and every bit as interiorly formidable. She never lost that strength during her illness, always getting up off the canvas with hope and persisting to the end. But at the same time, she became ever more grateful for all the little things done for her by others that so often so many of us take for granted. All of these prepared her ever more for the greatest love of all, when Jesus, the Good Samaritan, would cross the road from heaven to take her to the eternal inn. Suffering can either make us bitter or better depending upon the degree to which we unite our suffering to the Lord. As difficult as it was for all of us to see Aunt Elaine suffer, we can say now that suffering made her better, made her character stronger as her body got weaker, made her beautiful traits — her honesty, her sense of humor, her intelligence, her resolve — shine ever more. In today’s second reading, St. Paul tells the early Christians and tells us, “None of us lives for himself, none of us dies for himself. If we live, we live for the Lord. If we die, we die for the Lord. So that whether we live or we die, we are the Lord’s.” Aunt Elaine was always a person who lived for others, sacrificing her own happiness for so many years to provide for her kids. Even in her last illness, she didn’t think about herself, but was constantly thinking of everyone else. Her suffering brought this self-giving for God and for others to its zenith. And more than anything else, it strengthened her faith in Jesus her Lord and Good Shepherd, her Resurrection and Life, increasing her thirst for the gift of the spring of life-giving water that Jesus thirsted even more to share with her.
Today in this Church dedicated to St. Peter the Apostle, we have accompanied Aunt Elaine on the final stage of her earthly pilgrimage, bringing her with our prayers before the Lord who out of love blessed us and the world with her for almost 72 years. Our life won’t be the same without her but our life has been so enriched because of the gift of all the time we had with her. When Aunt Elaine was at St. Jeanne D’Arc School acing all her courses such that she received two double-promotions in grammar school, she was taking many of her classes in French. There she learned that the French word for goodbye was “Adieu,” a word that symbolizes the way Christians have always faithfully said their farewells. Like the Spanish “Adiòs,” the Portuguese “Adeus,” and the Italian “Addio,” Adieu means that we entrust literally “to-God,” “A-Dieu” the one to whom we’re saying goodbye.
As we here at this funeral Mass say Adieu to Aunt Elaine, entrusting her soul to the same Father to whom from the Cross Jesus commended his own, we thank God for her life and thank her for her love as we express our hope b that we will see her again in that new heaven and new earth in which she together with the whole Church placed her faith. And as we enter into the greatest prayer ever made, Jesus’ own from the Last Supper and the Cross as he gave his Body and Blood so that Aunt Elaine and each of us might not perish but have eternal life, we ask the Lord to bless us with the faith of St. Peter, of St. Martha, and of Elaine so that we might say to Jesus whom we are about to behold under the appearances of bread and wine, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world. … Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you, too, are my Shepherd. … Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you are making all things new…. Yes, Lord, I believe that you want to wipe away every tear from my eyes forever.” Today he asks us, “Do you believe this?” Aunt Elaine did believe it. And we ask that God might grant us in life the grace to echo that response of faith.
The readings for this funeral Mass were:
Rev. 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away.” 5 The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Then he said, “Write these words down, for they are trustworthy and true.” 6 He said to me, “They are accomplished. I [am] the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give a gift from the spring of life-giving water. 7 The victor will inherit these gifts, and I shall be his God, and he will be my son.
Psa. 23:1 A psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack. 2 In green pastures you let me graze; to safe waters you lead me; 3 you restore my strength. You guide me along the right path for the sake of your name. 4 Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side; your rod and staff give me courage. 5 You set a table before me as my enemies watch; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Only goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life; I will dwell in the house of the LORD for years to come.
Rom. 14:7 None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. 8 For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For this is why Christ died and came to life, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 Why then do you judge your brother? Or you, why do you look down on your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11 for it is written: “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bend before me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” 12 So [then] each of us shall give an account of himself [to God].
John 11:17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away. 19 And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 [But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”