We ironed 3 shirts, 3 pairs of pants, 3 dresses and one sweater then tamed 6 heads of hair. Shoes were found and we loaded up in the heat to go to Cathedral for a funeral.
I saw it on Facebook en route to California. Then Jac texted:
“O.C. died last night.”
I felt the void of his absence as sure as if the air was sucked from the room. Through the weekend, in the few still seconds between all the other things we were doing, I felt the emptiness and gulped in the oxygen.
It’s true we did not know him well, not much beyond acquaintance really, but as Bishop Gruss said in his homily, “It’s like a rock star has died. But the Rock is the rock of Christ. His love was Christ loving us.” Monsignor O’Connell shone Christ and an encounter – no matter how brief – left you feeling known and loved.
So we went to mass, over lunch and naptimes. History lessons were abandoned for life lessons because I want our kids to understand life is a terminal condition and that they have a call and if you’re going to spend your life, it’s best spent for Christ. I listened to Gemma ask Elizabeth if that was his body, felt my throat tighten at the plain pine box draped in a star quilt, and prayed hard for our sons who are listening for their call.
Praise for our death that makes our life real,
the knowledge of loss that helps us to feel;
the gift of yourself, your presence revealed
to bring us home.
The pall was placed and the procession began, our Crucified Lord leading the way. And yet the priests wore white, the symbol of the resurrection and victory. I watched his family, large and healthy spanning several generations and was struck mute. O.C. belonged to Western South Dakota, to the impoverished, the Native, the Hispanic, the priests, the widows, the people. And yet, here were his people, his blood and they loved him ounce for ounce as we did. These priests, they are never lonely and their families expand beyond their reach by the grace of God.
O.C. left specific instructions about the homily to be shared. Don’t talk about me, he said, but the love of God in the priesthood. The Bishop admitted to falling short, of struggling to ignore the presence that was the Monsignor. This man, a priest’s priest, did what he did through Christ’s strength and the Lord allowed him to serve 58 years when the doctors optimistically said 10.
The people there today mourned our loss, celebrated O.C.’s gain, and thanked God for the gift of his vocation. Jac and I, at opposite ends of the pew, prayed the same passionate prayer for our children. “Please, Lord, give them eyes to see and ears to hear the joy that comes in obediently following your call.”
O Lord, with your eyes set upon me,
gently smiling, you have spoken my name;
all I longed for I have found by the water,
at your side, I will seek other shores.
I was reminded of a conversation I had once with someone who was upset by a Catholic funeral. “They didn’t talk about her at all or let anyone share.” I tried to explain that a funeral isn’t meant for that. A wake? Yes! But a funeral? A funeral is a final send off, a time to pray for the departed, to commend them to God, to come together and, shoulder to shoulder, remind ourselves of the resurrection.
That was real today.
In the silence post communion a singular priest began low and loud, “Salve Regina . . . ” The entirety of our presbyterate stood together and joined the song. They faced the coffin and us, their masculine voices filling the sanctuary. Our kids, and everyone else, froze, moved by O.C.’s brother’s farewell. There was a second of silence and we stood for our own goodbye.
Give him eternal rest, O Lord.
May light unending shine on him.
Receive his soul, O holy ones;
Present him now to God, Most High.
Again, the silence breathed and then, from the choir loft, a lone voice began a Lakota honor song. Three others joined in and soon the drum, too. I wept, holding my breath against sobs. It wasn’t because of the drums – though Lord knows they get me every time! – or because I understand Lakota. I cried, overwhelmed with the ferocity of the love the people of the diocese have for our priests. The song was glorious and fitting for O.C., but it was the spirit, the pure gift of it that conveyed all our hearts. When the mass was over, eyes red and puffy, person after person admitted to being overcome.
And really, it was perfect. The song was a mystery to most of us but it moved us in the same way that God’s love and mercy is beyond understanding and yet changes hearts and lives again and again. O.C. lived his life in that truth. . . what a way to end it.