One of the foremost anthropologists of our century, Mircea Eliade, once commented that “no community should botch its deaths!” Deaths, like births, are important times, formative periods, for all families. There is a spirit, a grace, to be received and a community is poorer if it botches the moment, if it is not properly reflective and receptive.
Sometimes it is not so clear how this all works: How are we blessed in someone else’s death? How is a community, a family, pulled together through a death? How do we remember correctly so that, unlike the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we recognize in a new presence the person who has passed on?
These are questions very much in the hearts of the people in the diocese within which I now live because a short while ago, our bishop, James Patrick Mahoney, died of a heart attack. He was a robust man, still quite young and much loved, and he died prematurely. He was a friend of mine and also the man who ordained me to the priesthood, and so, for me, his passing had an extra significance.
How does one celebrate a death like that so as not to sentimentally eulogize nor sloppily forget? One does it by looking on his life as the word made flesh. The ancient church writers used to say that God wrote two great books: the bible and nature. But God has written more than two books. God’s word takes on flesh wherever you see someone who, in his or her flesh, gives concrete shape to the unbounded energy and love of God.
This our late bishop did for us; not perfectly, of course, nobody does, but enough that, for us who knew him, God became a bit more believable. He incarnated a lot of things. He could. He was huge of body, heart, and faith. He was also huge in humility.
His distinguishing characteristic was precisely his humility; something which many, confusedly, saw only as a sense of humour. But those who did not see the depth under that surface missed the reality. He as a humble man, not in that false sense where one protests that he is inept and not fit for his responsibilities, but in the true sense where humility manifests itself in earthiness, in lack of pretence, in hospitality, and in a sense of humour which does not make a pompous, narcissistic tragedy of everything. He had his two big feet solidly planted on the earth and for this reason power never went to his head. He could laugh at it, not because it did not take it seriously, but because he understood human power for what it is, not much.
There was a lot to admire in the man. He had a conservative temperament, but he never let that, nor other personal preferences, interfere in his actual decision making. He made decisions on the basis of conscience and not on the basis of temperament. I remember a particular meeting in which he made a very difficult decision, one that went smack against his own preferences. One of the priests, not without some anger and sarcasm, said to him: “You did that just because it is politically correct!” “I did it,” he said, swallowing hard for reasons his critics would never know, “because it is correct!”
And he loved the church, in every aspect of his person and in his every decision as a bishop. He loved it completely. He hurt when it hurt, he rejoiced when it rejoiced, and he mourned when it mourned. He defended it always, even to excess. He was a soft man, a bishop who found it hard to come down hard. He could only be hard when he felt the church was being hurt. One year he delivered the convocation address at the college where I was teaching. It was a gala event, expensive clothes, flowers, formality everywhere. His message, as always, was challenging and laced with humour, earthiness, and a deep love for the church. At one point, he addressed the graduates in particular: “You have all just graduated with degrees in theology and ministry and you are being sent to minister in the church in various places. A word of advice to you: If you come into my diocese, I am not so concerned whether you have all the proper theological papers. Don’t get me wrong, I respect theology and professional training, but … if you come into my diocese I want, first of all, that you love the church and if you don’t (and this is some of his vintage earthiness) I don’t want you buggering around in my diocese!” He meant it. I don’t doubt it’s good advice.
Twenty-three years ago, this man ordained me to the priesthood. He whispered a little wise crack, under his breath, as he was anointing my hands. Two weeks ago he died. I know where to look for him. I’ll seek him out, not in his grave, but among those who are humble, laugh a lot, and who love the church.