Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On the 16th Anniversary of My Father's Death

Homily for the funeral of Dr. Paul Donald Williams
September 15th, 1995. St. Andrew Catholic Church, Roswell, Ga.
Homilist: Father Paul D. Williams, Jr.

When my father was first diagnosed with cancer in late December, it was a trying time for my whole family. We were scared, we were sad, and we didn't want to lose our daddy. And this was a nasty cancer - from the very beginning, there was no hope, no cure, no treatment.

But we are not a people without hope. So my younger sister sent a letter to all of our friends asking them to pray for his healing - to pray a beautiful Catholic devotion called the "Divine Mercy" chaplet, from the diary of a young Polish nun named Blessed Faustina.

After that letter was sent, the most amazing things started to happen. People called, people visited, people wrote. Everyone was praying the Divine Mercy chaplet for my dad - Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, agnostics and even atheists. It was an amazing and beautiful thing.

But he wasn't healed.

Did all those prayers go unheard? No. Let me tell you a little about how those prayers were answered. By the medical books, we probably should have lost him before March, but it seems that God gave us some extra time. And during that time, a lot of wonderful things happened. He saw his oldest son ordained a priest. His youngest daughter give birth to her third child. And he was there when I baptized this grandchild of his, our namesake, baby Paul. And he saw each of his children blessed in so many ways.

He also experienced a small part of his dream - gardening. He completed his home in the mountains and planted orchards and herbs and vegetables. You should have seen how excited he was in the gardens. He was truly happy. And he was there to share it with his wife of 33 years. They were happy.

But there's another thing which that time gave him: time to prepare. I believe that God gave him this time in order to teach him, and us, a few things.

First, I believe, God wanted to show my father his boundless love for him. One day, he expressed to me his amazement at the overwhelming show of love and support he was receiving from all his friends, and he said, “Paul, I'm not worthy of so much love.” And I just replied, “Daddy, if all those people can show their love for you, then how much more must God love you. Their love is but a reflection of the endless depth of God's love for you.”

But also, I believe that God wanted to teach all of us about the meaning of suffering. Following God requires us to be identified totally with his Son, and that includes the Cross of Calvary. The Cross is not easy, and when your Cross is cancer, it is especially hard.

But when that Cross is freely accepted, it becomes glorious, for the Cross of Christ was the instrument of our salvation. And we are called to be united with Christ on the Cross, as St. Paul said, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, the church.” My father understood what that means. He accepted his suffering and offered it, in union with Christ, for all of you - for his family, his friends, and for all those whose lives he has touched. Why? Simply so that all of you would come to know the love and mercy of God, which he came to know through you.

And as the end was approaching, I have no doubt that his acceptance of suffering was efficacious. For during his last few weeks he was so very blessed: he reconciled himself with God and with his people, he said goodbye to his friends, and he was surrounded by his family to the end. And when the time came, I was there to give him last rites with all of us around him. And his last words to each of us were simply, “I love you.”

So, none of you worry about whether your prayers were answered. Believe me, they were, and they were answered abundantly - God's mercy is deep and powerful and wondrous and beautiful.

Now where do we go from here, what about we who are left behind? Well, very simply, we remember.

We remember all the good things: I'll never forget all those years we faithfully suffered through losing season after losing season with the Falcons, or the times we hunted and fished, or the times we'd just sit back and watch a good action movie together. He never pretended to be a saint, but he was, like Scripture says, a “just man”, an honorable man, who did his best to please God. We certainly have an abundance of good memories to hold close to our hearts.

But there is another way we can remember. My birthday was on the Feast of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, and the reading for that day is the famous passage from his “Confessions”. He describes the end of her life and the discussion they had about heaven. They wondered what it would be like, as he says, to “share the eternal life enjoyed by the saints”. And as she is dying, she makes one request of her son, who is a bishop: “Son, as far as I am concerned, nothing in this life now gives me any pleasure. Bury my body wherever you will; let not care of it cause you any concern. One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.”

Well, in my dad's final days, I read him that passage and told him that I too, would remember him always at the altar of the Lord. For, you see, as Catholics, we have been given a tremendous gift: the Eucharist, the body and blood of our Lord in communion. And it is here at the Mass, at the altar, where we most perfectly remember those who have gone before. For in the Mass, we are transported through time, as it were, to the foot of Calvary, where we look up at our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross and say with the good thief, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And thus we are united with him, for as Jesus says, “The man who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” And there is the great gift: since we are the Body of Christ, we are truly united, even with those who have died and gone before us.

But not only will we remember him, he will remember us. Shortly before his death, my dad asked my younger sister to read to him from Blessed Faustina's diary, from a passage she wrote as she was approaching her own death. In it, she says, “My day is drawing to a close... The pure love of God draws me to heaven... the heights of heaven have drawn me close... I go to see your glory, which even now fills my soul with joy… In eternal happiness, I will not forget those on earth, I will obtain God's mercy for all, and I will remember especially those who were dear to my heart, and the deepest absorption in God will not allow me to forget them.”

So, you see, as my father has gone to be united with our Savior, he will not forget us, and we will not forget him. He will intercede for us, that we come to know God's love and mercy, and we will intercede for him, especially at the altar of our Lord, in the Eucharist. For in the Eucharist, we are united with him and he with us, all of us united together with our Savior Jesus Christ, and nothing, “neither life nor death, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor height nor depth nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”