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Requiem Mass for Salvatore Rose - Homily

Recently I saw a mother in mourning; her loving hand caressed the body of her lifeless son; her tears fell on his cheeks as the color faded away from his skin. Others looked on in sorrow, praying with heart-broken sighs, wanting to be helpful but feeling completely useless. It was a painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary cradling the broken body of Jesus after he was taken down from the Cross: a pieta with a universal message but also one specifically for you, Barbara, Michael, Marcella, Anna Maria, Lena, and Lorenzo: Our Lady knows your suffering and Our Lord Jesus Christ is always with you, even in death.

I think of all the tragedies we have experienced here at St Gertrude’s: fathers who lost battles with illness, mothers whose passing left grief in their wake, a beloved teacher, infants, high schoolers, and now Salvatore Rose. Ordinarily in funeral homilies I think it is best not to talk too much about the deceased; that is better suited for words of remembrance at other times. In this case, however, I believe the life and death of Sal has much to teach us about our Catholic faith.

Who was Sal? The oldest son of Michael and Barbara, baptized thirteen years ago by Fr. John Trigilio, was a good Catholic kid. He was a sportsman: he ran track and played football, baseball and his favorite—basketball. Like many boys his age, he enjoyed thinking of aliens and animals; he particularly liked the three-toed sloth and the mink. People would say that he was thoughtful, quiet but when you got to know him better, he opened up. Then you could see his humor. As a teenage boy, he loved eating. From time to time he would write poetry, and this is where many of his interests came together, as in his humorous “Ode to a Pizza.”

Sal, you can see, was a pretty normal guy. But there were flashes of the extraordinary that became more like lightning bolts as his death neared. Someone told me that Sal once had a classmate who was being mocked, and Sal befriended the fellow. Then the school children started treating the classmate better, because they respected Sal. He wasn’t too cool to be good. Like all big brothers, he fought with his little brother; perhaps unlike many big brothers, he prayed with his little brother too.

He enjoyed serving as an altar boy here at St. Gertrude’s with his brother Lorenzo. Not too long ago Sal came to his dad Michael and said, “Look! I’ve found a cool prayer. It’s for a happy death—if we pray it, we won’t die suddenly, and we won’t drown.” Michael replied, “That’s a little weird. But if you want to pray it, fine.”

A short while later, his prayer was answered. For most people a brain aneurysm spells instant catastrophe—few survive more than a day or two. Not Sal. Once he was discovered unconscious, he was rushed to the hospital, and he lived for many days. During this time, the lightning bolts of grace began to strike.

While Sal was still conscious, Fr. Gabriel Torretta quickly came to the hospital and gave him the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Through that wonderfully consoling sacrament, Sal’s sins were forgiven and he was given the special grace to conform his extreme sufferings to those of Christ on the Cross. Sal’s last words were the Lord’s Prayer. After he suffered setbacks, Fr. Gabriel gave him the sacrament of Confirmation (any priest can do this when a person is in danger of death). This may make us smile. It means that Sal was confirmed without having to attend one minute of Confirmation class! Sal was given the name of St. Charbel, because many people were inspired to ask that great saint—a sort of Lebanese Padre Pio—to intercede for Sal.

When things were looking grim, I had the privilege of giving him the Apostolic Pardon. Because this is a forgotten treasure of the Church, I would like to briefly explain what an Apostolic Pardon is. According to Catholic tradition, still practiced today, a person who is properly disposed by being in the state of grace—i.e., one who has received absolution for all of his sins—can receive from a priest the Apostolic Pardon, which is a complete pardon of all temporal punishment due to sin that has already been forgiven by the reception of absolution and the doing of penance, i.e., a plenary indulgence. The Apostolic Pardon does not forgive sins; it purifies the soul instantly from the effects of sins already forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

This points to the fact that for every evil that we knowingly commit, there are two effects: the guilt of the sin and the effects of the sin. If a person curses at someone, there is the guilt of cursing and then there is the effect of cursing: it may harm someone else, but it especially harms the offender; he becomes a worse person. Now sacramental absolution—received in the sacrament of reconciliation—forgives the guilt. God says, “I won’t hold it against you.” But the effects of the sin remain. The boy is still one-who-cursed; his soul has been darkened because of his sin, like tarnish on silver or impurities mixed with gold. The more sin one commits, the darker and uglier his soul becomes. In order to enter heaven, our souls must be scraped free of tarnish and cleansed of all impurities. Only in this way will we have the beauty of our first innocence and union with Christ. As the Book of Wisdom says, God tests those worthy of Himself and purifies them like gold in a furnace, so that they will shine forth at His coming (Wis 3:5-7). Ordinarily this means a lot of time and much suffering, whether in this life or in Purgatory to come. It isn’t easy to undue a lifetime of wickedness, to soften souls grown hardened in sin, to clean off years of gunk and sludge. This is why the Apostolic Pardon’s power is so amazing: it does the work instantly for those who are disposed to receive its grace. Here is the blessing:

Merciful God, kind Father, our sole comfort, who wills that no one who
believes and trusts in you should perish, in your boundless love look
favorably on your servant, [Salvatore], whom the true faith and Christian hope
commend to you. Come to him with your saving power, and by the
suffering and death of your only-begotten Son, be pleased to grant him
pardon […]. Let his soul at the hour of its departure find in you a merciful judge, and
cleansed of every stain in the blood of your Son, let him be found worthy of
passing into everlasting life; through Christ our Lord.

This is what Sal received—and we have every reason to believe that Sal was well-disposed to receive this lightning bolt of grace worthily. All his sins were forgiven—and they were few—and all the effects of his sins were wiped away so that he was fully ready to enter heaven.

Here we can continue the story. Through a friend of a friend, Pope Francis got word of Sal’s plight offered a holy mass for him. The Patriarch of Lebanon also heard of Sal and sent his prayers. Because of Sal, people gathered together to pray, as we often do at St. Gertrude’s (we’re good at supporting our brothers and sisters in the midst of tragedies). In this case, some returned to God; others prayed for the first time in years. One person who hardly knew Sal dreamed that he was spiritually concerned for a loved one, and the dream was surprisingly accurate, for it described what Sal had prayed about before he went into a coma. Another person dreamed that Jesus stood behind Sal, gently placing his hands on Sal’s head as he lay with trauma; when she shared her dream with her friend, the other woman started to cry, because she had had the same dream.

On Sal’s last day on earth, his family, three priests, and two sisters stood around his bed. We prayed the holy rosary together. We sang the chaplet of Divine Mercy. We even prayed midday prayer. Then I gave him the traditional Commendation of the Dying, that great invocation that begins,

Depart, Christian soul, from this world,
in the name of God the Father almighty who created you;
in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who suffered for you;
in the name of the Holy Spirit who sanctified you;
in the name of the glorious and blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God;
in the name of St. Joseph, her illustrious spouse;
in the name of the Angels and Archangels;
in the name of the patriarchs and prophets, the holy apostles and evangelists, the holy
martyrs and confessors […]

The doctors declared that he passed away with brain death, but we who were with him to the last know that his heart stopped beating precisely at 3pm, the Hour of Divine Mercy.

Some people have asked, “Why did God take Sal from us? Why did He cut short Sal’s life?” I would pose another question: “Why did God give Sal the gift of eternal life so soon? Why did God pour grace on him so rapidly and so abundantly?”

An answer, I believe, can be found in the Gospel of the day before he died.1

To one person Jesus said, “Come follow me.” And the person answered, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home." To him Jesus said, "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:61-2). Jesus said to Sal, “Come follow me.” And perhaps at first Sal wanted to say goodbye to his family; he wanted to gesture to his father and mother, to give them one last hug, assure them of his love, to say, “Everything is going to turn out fine. You don’t have to worry about me anymore.” But Jesus reminded him not to turn the plow aside, not to look behind, but to look ahead to the kingdom of God and his new mission that awaited him.

This helps explain the other, more difficult part of the Gospel. Jesus said to another, “Come follow me.” But the person said, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father,” that is, “Let me do one last good deed for my father, who has died and needs my assistance.” But Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their dead. But as for you, go and preach the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:60). Often we think that people whose souls separate from their bodies have entered the realm of the dead, but here Jesus turns that paradigm on its head. For those who are his followers, it is we here on earth who are in the realm of the dying—those who are fully united with Christ enter the realm of the living, and therefore preach the kingdom of God in a new way.

What Jesus said to Mary and Martha, he says to Marcella, Anna Maria, Lena, and Lorenzo:
“Your brother will rise again” (Jn 11:23);
To Michael and Barbara, “Your son will rise again.”
To all of us, “Your friend will rise again.”

Paraphrasing the Book of Wisdom, in the eyes of the foolish, Sal seemed to have died, and his departure a disaster, but he is at peace (Wis 3:2). His mortal body will be clothed in immortality; his flesh will be renewed; in the last day he will recover the fullness of his strength where death has no power and the grave has no sting, where we can all sing, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54).

Ordinarily, parents have the sadness of dying before they can complete their most important task—getting their children to heaven. A good, elderly parent will want to say on his deathbed, “Goodbye, son. Remember everything I taught you and you’ll see me in heaven.” But this time, the parents of Sal received the gift of ensuring that their son reaches heaven, so that he could say to all of us, “If you do for me what my parents did for me, I’ll see you in heaven.”

How is this possible? Only through union with Jesus — whom Sal met in baptism, to whom he was conformed in confirmation, into whom he was being transformed through the Eucharist, by whom he was forgiven in Confession, from whom he received remission of all effects of sin in the Apostolic Pardon.

Jesus is the resurrection; Jesus is the deliverer; Jesus is the Savior; Jesus is the redeemer; Jesus is the messiah; Jesus is the Son of David; Jesus is the Son of God;
Jesus is the good shepherd; Jesus is the Light of the world; Jesus is the Man of Sorrows;
Jesus is the Lamb of God; Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end,
The way, the truth, and the life. Amen.

1 The 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 26 June 2016.

Requiem Mass for Salvatore Rose
St Gertrude Parish, Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P., celebrant
30 June 2016