Much has been written about famous people from stage and screen who died around Christmas this year (causing the regular comments about “trifectas” of deaths). Here in the Fall River Diocese, besides the deaths of the parents of some of our priests, retired Father Robert Donovan also has left us (you can read his obituary on page five).
Father David Frederici, one of Father Donovan’s successors at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Pocasset, preached at his funeral during the minor snowstorm we had on Friday. He noted that it was “appropriate that we gather for this funeral Liturgy in the Christmas season. This was Father Bob’s favorite time of the year, next to summertime. We celebrate what our patron saint here (St. John) told us. ‘That God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life’” (Jn 3:16).
Father Frederici reminded us that the Christmas season is “not about passing sentiments, but for the Christian is meant to be a way of life. This joy, hope, peace and faith is rooted in a relationship with Christ.” He then referred to the Breviary’s “Office of Readings for the Office of the Dead,” where St. Athanasius gives us hope. “The dead, now under the dominion of One Who has Risen to life, are no longer dead but alive. Therefore life has dominion over them and, just as Christ, having been raised from the dead, will never die again, so too they will live and never fear death again.
But if this plan does not yet appear to be perfectly realized — for men still die and bodies still decay in death — this should not occasion any loss of faith. For, in receiving the first-fruits, we have already received the pledge of all the blessings we have mentioned; with them we have reached the heights of Heaven, and we have taken our place beside Him Who has raised us up with Himself, as Paul says: ‘In Christ God has raised us up with Him, and has made us sit with Him in the Heavenly places.’”
Unlike editorial cartoon artists, who normally depict any famous celebrity as immediately walking into Heaven, Father Frederici did remind the congregation that we join together in prayer for Father Donovan’s Salvation, while also thanking God for his presence in our lives: “When we announced the death last weekend [New Year’s Eve and Day], we had people crying in the pews.”
The preacher quoted the Second Vatican Council’s “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests,” Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 2, “The Lord has established ministers among His faithful. God gives priests a special grace to be ministers of Christ among the people.” Father Frederici placed special emphasis on the last three words, tying into what Father Donovan’s relatives had told him: “Don’t forget, the parish was part of his family, too.”
Father Frederici also quoted a talk which Pope Francis gave last summer to a priests’ retreat, where he said that for a good priest, “his flock is his family. He is not a boss to be feared by his flock, but a shepherd. If at times he has to correct, it is to draw them closer [to God].”
“Living the love of Jesus Christ everything connects with this table [the altar] right here. If you want to honor Father Bob, then honor God. Did Father Bob inspire you and offer hope, then tap into that Source of that hope.”
The day after the funeral, a surprising friend of the Church died — Nat Hentoff. He was “a member of the Proud and Ancient Order of Stiff-Necked Jewish Atheists,” someone whom as a young man was beaten by Irish Catholics in Boston. As he wrote in The Boston Globe in 2001, “I remembered losing some teeth [in Franklin Field] back then to a gang of readers of [Father] Charles Coughlin’s Social Justice, who recognized me as a killer of their Lord.”
From that inauspicious beginning of his life, later Hentoff was to become quite a friend of the Church, although not a member. As a young adult he worked together with Frances Sweeney, a Catholic journalist who labored to end anti-Semitism in Boston. Decades later he began a friendship with John Cardinal O’Connor in New York, with whom he found common cause in working for a respect for human life, from the womb to the tomb.
Although Hentoff did not believe in God, his rational approach to life led him to heed Jesus’ admonition, “Whatsoever you did to the least of My brothers, you did unto Me” (Mt 25:40). Hentoff fought for the rights of the underdog, from the child in the womb to the prisoner on death row, from parents fighting to protect their children from sexual immorality to students desiring to have free speech on campus.
In 2009 Clyde Haberman of the New York Times wrote about Hentoff when he (Hentoff) lost his column in the Village Voice: “The thing is that, agree with him or not, Nat Hentoff offers no opinion that isn’t supported by facts, diligently gathered.” As Jesus said, “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). As we pray for Hentoff’s soul, along with Father Donovan’s and so many other people’s souls, we are reminded of Jesus’ words to (doubting) Thomas, “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me’” (Jn 14:6).
May we honor God by growing in our knowledge of the truth, living that truth in the family of the Church, recognizing our brothers and sisters who live outside of the visible boundaries of the Church (especially as we live the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity beginning on January 18), laboring to build the beloved community of nonviolence and reconciliation that Martin Luther King advocated, and working to protect the coming into our community of our unborn brothers and sisters (as we mark the sad anniversary of Roe v. Wade on January 22). January presents to us a lot of tasks that God wants us to work on — but with His help, nothing is impossible.