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The following is the homily given at the funeral Mass of Father Thomas F. Schmitt, professor and dean of seminarians at Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary. The Liturgy of Christian Burial was held Aug. 22 at Christ the King Parish in Ludlow. Father Schmitt was 58.
By Father William B. Palardy
Rector and president of Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary
It was late October or early November of last year, only a couple of weeks after the initial diagnosis of esophageal cancer, that Fr. Tom became aware of how very many people were praying for him: daily prayers, novenas, people fasting for him, people here in this great parish, folks connected with Pope St. John Seminary, his large number of family members and friends, priests of the Springfield diocese and priest alumni from John XXIII Seminary, women religious such as the sisters at the Visitation Monastery in Tyringham, and then the countless others whom all these people in turn had asked to pray for him. Well, as he realized just how many folks were pounding heaven on his behalf, in his usual witty way, Fr. Tom said to me one day, “Geez, I better pull through this thing, or it’s going to be a crisis of faith for a lot of people!” He meant it humorously, but in fact for many of us, it became prophetic, because when April 15th rolled around, after all the prayers, and after the rounds of chemo, radiation, and cancer surgery, when we learned that the cancer had spread to his liver, was stage 4, and that he wouldn’t have long to live, I know for me, and I suspect for many of you here today, it was indeed a crisis of faith, or at least a source of deep disappointment, disillusionment, and anger.
Yes, I was angry all right, angry with God, angry with all those saints whose intercession I and so many others had been praying for day in and day out, angry even at our patron Pope John XXIII about to be canonized a saint to whom so many of us had been praying novenas for Fr. Tom’s healing.
I went into our chapel at the seminary that evening full of anger, letting God and some of the saints know how I felt – in no uncertain terms, but then I happened to look up at the large crucifix we have in the sanctuary. I looked at the image of Jesus’ lifeless body hanging limply on the cross, and I got stopped in my tracks. I gazed at the crucifix and said, “Lord Jesus, I just can’t be angry with you. Look what you suffered out of your infinite love and your burning desire to forgive us, to forgive my friend Fr. Tom, to forgive me, my sins, and to offer us, to offer my friend Fr. Tom, to offer me the hope of life eternal, none of which any of us could have ever obtained on our own.”
In 1991 when Bishop Joseph Maguire ordained Fr. Tom to the priesthood, as part of the ordination rite the bishop placed in Fr. Tom’s hands a chalice and paten for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist and spoke these words to him, “Know what you are doing and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s Cross.” We speak of the Eucharist as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – a holy sacrifice in the sense that the Eucharist makes present for us all the One Sacrifice of Christ on the cross, enabling all of us to join the sacrifices of our own lives with that sacrifice of Christ, and in receiving Holy Communion to draw from Christ’s sacrifice that we celebrate here the grace, the spiritual power, to endure the sacrifices of our own daily lives with renewed strength and Christ-like love and charity.
I have never known a priest more devoted to the Holy Eucharist than Fr. Tom Schmitt. He always made a point each day to spend time in the chapel praying before the Blessed Sacrament.
And whenever we’d travel on vacation, he’d always have his Mass kit with him, and the first thing we’d do when we’d arrive at our destination was to find a supermarket or liquor store where we could buy some wine for the celebration of Mass each day. Early on he’d even pack a huge chasuble in his suitcase. In the course of time I was finally able to convince him that when it was just the two of us celebrating Mass in a hotel room or cabin, it was okay to forgo the chasuble and just wear an alb and stole. Fr. Tom reluctantly went along with it, but deep down was still probably questioning my orthodoxy! I believe that in his 23 plus years as a priest, other than when he was hospitalized or recuperating from surgery, he never missed a day in celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Even in these last weeks, he would drag himself down to the chapel in the seminary to concelebrate Mass each day. When we had Mass for him in his room the last week of his life, it was only the morning before he died when he did not concelebrate Mass. As a good teacher, even in his last days Fr. Tom continued to teach all of us how essential the Holy Eucharist is in the daily life of the priest.
“Model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.” An image that will remain with me for the rest of my life was when we had a prayer service for Fr. Tom in his room 3 days before he died. He held a crucifix in his hands and clutched it close to his heart throughout the prayer service, and that same crucifix was lying on his chest during his final hours and at the moment of his death.
Fr. Tom selected the readings from Scripture for this funeral Mass, and while the first 2 readings are customary texts for a funeral, he specifically wanted a Gospel different from the ones in the funeral ritual book, Jesus’ words in St. John’s Gospel on love, on charity – “Love one another as I love you,” Jesus charges all of us His disciples: “No one has greater love than this – to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The charity, the sacrificial love of Christ that Fr. Tom celebrated in each Eucharist, he strove to emulate and exemplify in his own life. I remember on one occasion speaking to him about the polarization in the Church between so-called liberals and conservatives, and some of the other divisions that can occur among people who claim allegiance to Jesus Christ. His response was always, “Where is the charity, the love that Christ means for us to have and show?” So many of the divisions among Catholics he attributed to a lack of charity. While Fr. Tom always upheld the teaching of the Church in all matters, his approach to those who might disagree with Church teaching was patiently and clearly to try to give the reasons behind Church teaching, never insulting or demeaning the other person, but always treating the person with respect, kindness, and charity. And that is what he tried to impart to his students in the seminary these past 16 years.
Sacrificial, Christ-like love was in evidence throughout his life. Who will ever forget this past March when from his hospitable bed he made it to Canaan, CT to celebrate the Mass and preach the homily at his dad’s funeral? Who will ever forget the numerous times when as dean of students he accompanied seminarians who were ill to the emergency room, or comforted them when they were in crisis or sorrow, or encouraged them to persevere in their vocation, sharing his own struggles when he had been a seminarian himself? I am sure many folks in this parish can point to examples from their own experience where Fr. Tom was there for them when they were in desperate need for the healing, comforting, love of Christ, and they found it through his priestly ministry. Fr. Tom would also show his care for us when he’d remember some significant detail from our life that we’d share with him, and often when we’d least expect it – he’d bring up something we had said and with his incredible sense of timing turn it into something hilarious. I had shared with him once a somewhat callous comment made to me by someone who knew that both my parents had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Well, later on several occasions when I had a momentary lapse and couldn’t remember someone’s name, Fr Tom would repeat that earlier comment: “It doesn’t look good for you!” So often, his great wit, as quick and as outrageous as it often was, was a way that he expressed his attentiveness and love for us.
The reading from the Book of Revelation that we just heard Fr. Tom’s nephew Carl proclaim speaks of a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more death or mourning, where we will be in God’s presence forever, and where we will share completely in the victory of Christ over sin and death. And yes, Fr. Tom looked forward to this new heaven and new earth, but did he ever love and enjoy the present heaven and earth that we all share. He could point out many of the constellations in the night sky, and when it came to the natural beauty of earth that we’d encounter on hikes and bike rides, he was so enamored and full of wonder at God’s creative artistry. He could name just about every tree, plant, or bird that we ever came across, and appreciate all the details and distinctions among their many varieties. An exceptionally bright and intelligent man, Fr. Tom excelled not only in his understanding and presentation of theology, but he also had a lot of expertise in history, science, botany, mechanics, technology, and several languages. Yet, never was he haughty or condescending; he just liked to share his knowledge and his wonder about the world around him, so that some of his own joy might spill over onto all of us.
I still can’t begin to understand why God has taken such an outstanding priest, such a gifted teacher, such a wise and vivacious colleague, such a dear friend from us. But what I do know is that Fr. Tom did indeed model his life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross, that he exemplified what a priest is called to be, that he freely gave and graciously received the love that is rooted in Jesus Christ. As he was a witness throughout his priestly life, and especially during his illness, to the reality of Christ’s cross, so we pray that he is now sharing in the joy of Christ’s resurrection, that he is now finding the new heaven and new earth infinitely more glorious than the beautiful heaven and earth he enjoyed here with us, and we pray that Jesus Christ, whose love Fr. Tom shared so lavishly with us here, now embraces him with complete peace and joy. Today in the Church calendar we celebrate the feast of Mary as Queen of Heaven. May the Blessed Mother to whom Fr. Tom was so devoted on earth welcome him now to his place at the heavenly banquet.
By Julie Beaulieu
In the recent death of Robin Williams, I reflected on the people I’ve known in my life who have suffered from mental illness, including my mother and a close friend. All forms of mental illness are serious diseases that have drastic effects on not only an individual, but his or her families and loved ones.
As mentioned in a previous blog of mine, I was raised as an only child, growing up with a schizophrenic mother, and a father who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from his experiences in the Vietnam War. I have an older half-sister from my father’s first marriage who grew up in a different household. I’m also the only grandchild of Polish immigrants.
Although my mother sought treatment in her thirties for depression, she was misdiagnosed. At age 40, she suffered a psychotic break and was first hospitalized. I was in high school. Frightened and ashamed, I did my best to hide her illness from my friends.
While in college, I received a call from my mother’s job stating that she had been sent to the emergency room. What I recall most from that psychiatric hospitalization was my grandfather saying, “I hope I die before I see her go into the hospital again.” His wish came true. My grandfather passed away from heart disease in the fall of 1992. The point is for my readers to realize the extreme pain and devastation these illnesses bring not only to an individual, but to the entire family.
My grandparents generation, that of World War II, viewed mental illness as a shameful embarrassment, that was to be kept a secrete at all costs. Both of my grandparents constantly agonized over the haunting thoughts of what they had done wrong as parents to have such an ill child. Still, prior to my grandmother falling ill with vascular dementia in 2007, she would walk half a mile to the hospital to visit her daughter into her mid-eighties saying, “She is my flesh and blood.”
In 2007, my mother had several hospitalizations which consumed six months of her life out of that year. I knew that something needed to be done to keep her on her medication while she was at home, so I sought a Community Roger’s Order and Medical Guardianship of her. My mother is now under a court order to be medicated against her will and has not been hospitalized since the fall of 2009.
However, my experience with suicide goes back to my childhood, knowing that my godmother’s father had suffered a horrific death before I was born. This man was, like my grandfather, a veteran of the Polish army from World War II, who had relocated to American in the early 1950’s. I can only speculate that he suffered from PTSD and depression. He was a husband and father of two adult children when one day, in the late 1960’s, the poured gasoline all over his bedroom, tied himself to the bed, and lit the room on fire.
Men suffer from depression as much as women do, but are less likely to get help and more likely to succeed at a suicide attempt. (The Mask of Male Depression http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=major_depression&template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=79265)
My father, a Vietnam veteran, also suffers from PTDS related anxiety and depression, which he self-medicated for years with alcohol and drugs. In 2006, he completed an in-patient program at the Veteran’s Hospital in Leeds and now takes prescription medication.
An incident that still remains in my mind was the tragic loss of a male friend, P, who committed suicide by hanging in 2000. I remember P as, “the life of the party,” and as someone who always clowned around. Yet, he had a sensitive side.
Something dark had lived inside of him. At the age of 10, P’s mother lost her battle with cancer. She died in bed while sleeping next to her son. P carried this pain and sorrow with him through out his life, and often self-medicated with alcohol and drugs.
As time went on, P began to use heavier drugs and had been in and out of rehab. He developed serious financial problems. He had relationship problems. After a brief failed marriage, another serious relationship had ended. He was asked to leave a house he shared with roommates and had to stay with a relative.
Shortly before his death, he abandoned an in-house rehab program and began using again. I kept asking his other male friends what was wrong. They felt that P’s problems, at the time, were private. Soon after, he was found dead. People closest to him felt that he wouldn’t commit suicide because he had a young son. Regrets ran rampant among his circle of friends, including myself. I wrote this poem about P, trying to imagine what he may have been feeling.
I am not strong enough to face anymore tomorrows.
I am not strong enough to look at myself in the mirror.
I am not strong enough to stop.
I am not strong enough to continue failing.
I am not strong enough to be a father, a lover, a worker, a friend.
I am not strong enough to be who I once was.
I am not strong enough to be who all of you expect me to be.
I am not strong enough to even realize who I am anymore.
I am not strong enough to get better, to get well.
I was strong enough to make one last choice.
I was not strong enough to realize how much I was loved.
Be strong, all of you.
Be strong enough to forgive me.
Be strong enough to let me go.
Be strong for each other, and remember me always.
Help is always available to those who need it. Perhaps P had an underlying depressive illness that may not have been diagnosed during detoxification. Drugs and alcohol far too often mask mental illnesses.
Over a year ago, I did a story on local activist and volunteer for the Western Massachusetts NAMI chapter (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Ted Dunn, a former professor and football coach at Springfield College. Now in his 90’s, Dunn spoke openly about his own battle with depression.
Dunn is also author of the book, “Living with Depressive Illness and Finding Joy Again: A Holistic Approach.”
Luckily, my mother never has attempted suicide, although she has mentioned it on occasion. Never take a threat of suicide lightly and seek help immediately, either for yourself, or a loved one. For more information go to http://www.nami.org
Photos courtesy of Catholic News Service.