Although I have been to many funerals of late, the most recent stood out in some remarkable ways. The man was older — the last sibling in a family of eight children — and had never married. The wealth of nieces and nephews and their ever-expanding tribe gave tribute to his generous affections and underscored the life-giving nature of his great love of family.
The most telling comment from the priest presiding was his reference to the deceased as “patriarch” of his clan — reminding us yet again that motherly love and fatherly love are expressed in more ways than simply through marriage. Like the foster-father of Jesus for whom he was named, this Joseph expressed his paternal affections for those entrusted to him — in the former case first his family and then the universal Church, in the latter case his family, his comrades from World War II, his fellow parishioners, women religious he had known since his youth, and his parish and its members. For all of these he sacrificed — despite his growing infirmities, his limited means and his growing isolation as they died one by one.
His love was expressed quietly — in sincere smiles, in affectionate words, and most importantly in constant concrete acts of service and oblation. Having survived the war in which many friends were lost, he faithfully had Masses said for their souls in remembrance of particular events endured far from home. Having benefited from a Catholic education and the generosity of the Sisters who made it possible, he always remembered their birthdays and took them out to lunch — which was no easy feat given their ages and the hazards of northern winters. He rejoiced in every birth and took to heart every death — all the while sustained by the faith of his fathers and in imitation of the Father of all.
There were subtle martial elements imbedded in the sober farewell — hinting that there are things worth fighting for — but Joseph knew that the ultimate battle is over the self. Courage may indeed be proven in war, but is more often called for in ordinary life, and he succeeded on both fronts.
Finally, the three faithful priests who carried us through the solid, ancient rites offered their personal expressions of fatherly love. Like the deceased, they have forsworn children of the flesh so that they can be entirely devoted to the spiritual flock under their care — guiding them likewise along the paths of revelation and personal gifts, trusting in the bedrock of love that cannot give way or mislead.
I had the sense that everyone was edified — for his was a life well-lived and of full measure. In a culture hungering for truth, this man embodied it — both the fidelity of God and the incarnational invitation to give flesh to his love. The family will enjoy a vast storehouse of riches — in stories, anecdotes and memories, and his fellow parishioners could pay respects in a setting that was itself adorned with substantial gifts heretofore anonymous. In all we were reminded of the gentle ways of our creator, for both Joseph’s chaste love and that of the priests bore witness to the expansive nature of generous service.
Ultimately, women must recognize the need for men to give of themselves in such unique ways. The wider world needs such icons of fatherhood in all its manifestations. This man gave without fear, and there should be no surprise: the response to his gift of self was more love. Humbly, quietly, he gave flesh to spiritual fatherhood — and what could be more valuable to the spiritual orphans of our day.
[The Anchor 10.2.09]