The topic for this Sunday is intercessory prayer. We see Abraham "bargaining" with God over how many innocent people are required to save the city. And Jesus tells us, "Ask and you shall receive..knock and it shall be opened to you."
This past week I had a powerful experience of prayer. With three other priests I spent a day by the deathbed of Father Michael Holland. His voice was barely audible and we were each attempting to make some conversation. We mentioned things happening in the diocese and in our parishes. It all seemed pretty small next to what Fr. Holland was facing. Finally, Fr. Lawrence Minder (who is the new pastor of the Skagit parishes) asked, "Mike, are you ready to die?"
He struggled to get enough air in his lungs and replied, "I really am."
Then Fr. Lawrence asked, "Do you have a sense when you will die? I mean, within a week or days or today?"
He took some moments and said, "Maybe a day or two."
"Do you want to receive Viaticum?" He asked, referring to communion and the final prayers for the dying.
"Everything," he said. Fr. Lawrence asked him to give us his blessing. He raised his hand, then said, "I can't remember the words." But he moved his hand in the sign of the cross. As Fr. Vince Pastro remarked afterward, "It was the best blessing I have ever had."
That evening the Spanish and English choirs from St. Charles, Burlington, came to the rectory. They first gathered at the porch to sing a number of hymns. Then Fr. Lawrence invited them to come into the bedroom for the rite of Viaticum. After the penitential rite and absolution, he asked Fr. Mike to renew his baptism by professing his faith in God his Creator, Jesus his Savior and the Holy Spirit. What touched me most particularly were the final articles: "the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting."
After the choirs sang the bilingual hymn "Cuerpo de Cristo, Body of Christ," Fr Lawrence held up the consecrated host. Because swallowing was so difficult, he received the tiniest part of the host, then asked for Lyle Ovenell (a parishioner who has been next to him these past months) to bring him water. Fr. Lawrence concluded with the prayer of commendation, "May you return to him who formed you from the dust of the earth. May holy Mary, the angels and all the saints come to meet you..."
A smaller group gathered around his bed to recite the rosary in English and Spanish. When we finished, each person approached him individually to say goodbye. The Hispanic people, following to the Mexican custom, kissed his hand.
Frs. Minder, Pastro, Magnano and I had the opportunity to be alone with him. The two Italians were crying (it comes easier for them). Fr. Mike looked at our sad faces and said something we did not understand. He repeated it and Fr. Lawrence laughed. "He's saying, 'I might outlive all of you.'" Fr. Mike nodded and gave a faint smile.
As I write this homily two days later, he is still alive*. None of us know the day or hour of our death. Blessed Josemaría Escrivá remarked that we are like leaves falling from a tree. "And one day that leaf will be you." (The Way)
Perhaps these reflections give a perspective for our prayer. Prayer does address our most immediate, urgent needs. But it inevitably places them in a much bigger framework. Still we are told to bring those things before God. "Take away this headache. Lift up my sagging spirits. Give me the material resources I need for my parish, my family."
And surely we should pray for others. That God would aid the teenager who feels so down, so unloved. That he would help Bill find a job and Mary get thru her operation. That he would change our world so children in Peru would have more hope and women here not be driven to abortion. Our litany of requests might seem endless, like a child's, but that is how Jesus tells us to pray. Do not be afraid to ask for too much--or two often. Remember the example of Abraham interceding for the perverted city. God has a way of letting us know when we've asked enough and it's time to get back to work.
As we reflect on intercessory prayer, we cannot ignore the greatest prayer of all. Our Holy Father has written a letter called Dies Domini (On the Day of the Lord). It a beautiful letter, so worth reading and meditating on. He reminds us of the centrality of Sunday worship, above all our attendance at Mass. It is one of the ten commandments. It is a duty to our Creator and Redeemer. To say, "I don't get anything out of it," misses the point. We owe everything to God. He owes us nothing.
Our attitude when we come to Mass should be grateful receptiveness. If the music touches something in our soul, praise God. If the homily gives some inspiring thought for the week, beautiful. If there comes a moment of reverential awe, best of all. If I feel a warmth toward my fellow parishioner, it is a sure sign of God's grace. All those things and more are God's gift.
We signify our grateful receptiveness by kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer. It is not just a posture of penitence. Do you remember a few weeks back when we commissioned our new eucharistic ministers? The rite called for them to kneel, not to express penance, but grateful reception of that ministry. The assembly does the same during the Eucharistic Prayer. In making his prayer of gratitude and petition, St. Paul says, "I bow my knees before the Father..." (Eph 3:14ff) The Interpreter's Bible says that the Hebrew word for kneel is the "same root as that for 'blessing' and suggests that the blessing was received in kneeling position." (Vol. 3, p. 41) It is not just at the end of Mass that we are blessed; in fact the greatest moment of blessing is when we are at the foot of the cross during the Eucharistic prayer. May we never be ashamed to kneel to receive such a blessing.
There is one blessing I hope I hear at the end of my life. I hope many of you will have the grace of receiving it. It is the one prayed over Fr. Mike at the conclusion of the Viaticum rite. It applies not only to the moment of our death, but really every day of our lives. It sums up all we ask for when we gather at God's table for Sunday Mass:
*Fr. Holland died 2:30 a.m. this morning (Friday, July 24). Fr. Dick Gallagher & I went up to see him yesterday evening. The parish lot in Sedro Woolley was full of cars when we arrived around 8 p.m. Inside the rectory were about fifty people. The Hispanic youth group had come to pray the rosary and say good-bye to their pastor. Fr. Mike was sitting in his reclining chair, but was unable to respond. Earlier in the day Archbishop Brunett called him from London where he is representing the pope at a ecumenical conference. Fr. Mike struggled to sit up in his chair, opened his eyes as they held the phone to his ear. He tried to say something to the archbishop but could not talk. Tuesday evening there will be a formal vigil service at 7 p.m. and smallers ones all thru the nite. The funeral Mass will be Wed morning (ll a.m.) at St. Charles in Burlington. Burial at Hawthorne Cemetery will follow. Please remember in your prayers this beautiful priest and wonderful friend.