VOCATION: PATH TO THE NEW JERUSALEM
Homily by Archbishop Cordileone
At the Funeral Mass of His Mother, Mary Cordileone
May 12, 2014
Just for the sake of those of you who might not know, I’m Mary Cordileone’s son. I always told her that she was more well-known than I. Wherever I go people tell me, “I know your mother.” She was all about faith, family and friends. In fact, that is the antiphon she would always tack onto the prayer of Grace before meals, “thank you Lord for family, and thank you Lord for friends.” The scene here today in this church is very much who my mother was.
In that sense I think she was very typical of her generation, that generation we now respectfully refer to as “The Greatest Generation.” This is the generation that grew up during the Great Depression. They had to learn how to save and stretch, stretch material things and stretch their money. Learning to do that at such a young age, it stayed with them for life. My mother always drank weak coffee – that’s what she developed a taste for, because the family had to stretch it and make it last. And I still remember when I was a child, when I would go to brush my teeth and found the tube of toothpaste empty, I would try really hard to get more out of it, and when I couldn’t I would ask her for a new one. Sure enough, just when I was certain there was not one milligram of toothpaste left, she would squeeze out a full brush load. I’m sure those of you who are my age – just like my brother and sisters and I – have dozens of stories like that, that you can tell about your parents. It was a generation that understood the value of material things, the value of money, and the value of conserving and of sharing.
And then, right after that, it was the generation whose youth was formed by a war unprecedented in magnitude in all of history. There they learned the value of sacrifice, and had to quickly excel in virtues such as honesty, hard work, team work, valor, and putting the common good before one’s own immediate interests and desires. This was necessary for the very survival of our nation, and of freedom in the world. Above all, they had all the more instilled within them the value of family. Very, very many – too many – families lost a loved one in that global conflict, our own included. Family could never be taken for granted; it was the most cherished good for the generation to which my parents belonged.
School of Self-Perfection
This, I believe – right after the gift of faith – is the greatest gift that our parents gave to my siblings and me, the gift of the importance of family, of keeping the family together. In all candor, though – and I don’t mean to shock you, because we were blessed with really good parents – but still, they were not quite perfect. As I look back I can see that there were some rough edges. Now, I’m well aware of the phenomenon by which as one grows older one’s parents grow wiser. All of a sudden those things that they always said make sense, they really are true! But not withstanding this phenomenon applying to me as well, still, my parents did have some room for growth. But even with that, this greatest gift, the gift of family unity, is what laid the solid, stable foundation upon which my siblings and I have built our lives: through it all, in the midst of whatever heartaches or misunderstandings or rough edges our family may have been experiencing, we always knew that our parents loved each other and that they would always be true to each other. This, indeed, is the greatest gift of all.
As the years passed and my parents matured in their marriage, I noticed something: those rough edges began to be smoothed over. All of that goodness that was always within them began to come out all the more and to flourish, to the point that they exuded the faith and goodness that God had given them. I saw before my very eyes the truth of the teaching that St. John Paul II drilled into us: that marriage is a school of self-perfection, designed for the mutual sanctification of the spouses as husband and wife grow ever more deeply in their one-flesh union in Jesus Christ.
Is this not the very image that God gives us of our life in Him? In our first reading, we heard from St. John’s account of his vision of heaven in the Book of Revelation. Among the things he says about that vision is the following: “I … saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” That is our life in God, it is a marriage: the two become one, but retain their individual integrity; they remain who they are, and yet are truly one.
That is the life that God wants for us with Him. He gives it to us as a free gift, won by the price of the blood of His only-begotten Son. Yet, it is a gift to which we must respond in order for it to benefit us, and for this God gives us a vocation. He gives us a common Christian vocation of discipleship in His Son, and to each one a personal vocation by which He calls us to serve Him, each one according to the unique circumstances of their life. It is by persevering in the vocation that God has given us that we arrive at the doorstep of the New Jerusalem, the life of heaven, our life in God.
The New Jerusalem
The entire life of the Christian in this world is a journey to this New Jerusalem. We prayed with the psalmist in the Responsorial Psalm that we will go up with joy to Jerusalem, to the house of the Lord. That is the lesson the Church wishes to teach us in the movement of her funeral liturgy. It begins with a vigil the night before in the home of the deceased (or, more commonly in our culture, a funeral home). This indicates the birth of the loved one into this world of time, a world that is passing away. Through the gift of faith given at baptism, the darkness of sin and death in this world is cast out by the light of Christ. And so the next morning, at the beginning of the light of a new day, the body is received at the entrance of the Church with the symbols of baptism: sprinkling with holy water and covering with a white pall, harkening back to the loved one’s white baptismal garment when the loved one, as St. Paul says, put on Christ. Baptism is entrance into the Church, into the Christian life, but that is just the beginning. The body is then processed through the nave of the church to the altar, symbol of the New Jerusalem. It is that procession – the Christian’s vocation in this world – that is the Christian’s response to the gift of divine life that God gives in baptism.
There is no question that to persevere in that vocation a daily death to self is required, sometimes in big ways but always in myriad little ways, every day. This is the teaching our Lord repeats throughout the Gospels: the seed that must die so the tree may grow and bear fruit; taking up our cross and following after him. That is the response to God’s grace that brings us to the New Jerusalem, the true and lasting life and happiness that God wants for us in Him. To persevere, though, we have to believe him, to believe that what he says is really true.
In the Gospel reading we just heard proclaimed, I’ve always been struck by Martha’s response upon hearing that Jesus was coming. She goes out to meet him. When Jesus heard about the death of his friend Lazarus he went to be with Lazarus’ sisters Martha and Mary, and when Martha hears of it she goes out to him; how human it is to be present to each other when a loved one passes away. When Martha encounters him, she acknowledges him as Lord. Yet, she does not ask him to do anything for her, grieved as she is by the loss of her brother. She recognizes him as a man come from God, for whom God will do anything that he asks. But she does not ask him for anything, not to restore her brother to life, nor even to ease the pain of her grief. She simply professes trust in him, and leaves everything in his hands: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” It is St. Paul in his letter to the Romans who gives us the reason for this confidence: Jesus Christ himself, who loved us to the end and through whom we “conquer overwhelmingly.” But conquer what? Conquer doubt, selfishness, cowardice, mediocrity, loneliness, despair. Conquer sin, and its effects.
The result? Life, joy, gratitude. I am so grateful to God for the example of my mother, who showed me, in real life, the truth of Christian discipleship, as I saw the fruit of her own perseverance in the unique vocation that God gave her, a vocation that for her meant both marriage and widowhood. She was always happy, and full of gratitude. Or rather, she was happy because she was full of gratitude. As I learned a long time ago from a wise bishop when I served as his secretary: gratitude is the attitude of beatitude. (Thank you, Bishop Brom, for that insightful lesson of life – I’ve gotten much use out of it over the years! Always properly footnoted, of course.) That is the key to beatitude, not lots of money, fancy vacations, a luxury home, a stellar career or the latest digital device (certainly not that for my mom!). My mother always understood that it is the simple things in life – faith, family and friends – where the real joy is to be found. She lived what Blessed Mother Theresa modeled and taught: not doing extraordinary things, but doing ordinary things with extraordinary love.
She was always grateful for these ordinary things. We all know her own rephrasing of that lesson of life about gratitude: “Am I blessed, or am I blessed?” She said it all the time. And it’s not because she was exempt from suffering, or without anything to complain about. It takes a lot of trust, because we won’t really know the fruits of our Christian life in this world until the end, and ultimately in the next life. I am so grateful that God graced me to see that reality played out in real time in the life of my mother – how it is supposed to work, the fruit of the Christian life come to full fruition at the end because of faithful perseverance in one’s God-given vocation. And grateful she was to the very end, even on her deathbed. Even when she could not speak with words, she spoke with her eyes: “Am I blessed, or am I blessed?” Why? Faith, family and friends. What she lived and what accompanied her all throughout her life surrounded her at the end.
Faith, family and friends. It all adds up to love, which, as we know well from St. Paul, is the only thing that matters in the end. That is the New Jerusalem, the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, from which no power of this world or the other world can separate us. May God now welcome Mary into the fullness of that love, and may He grant us the grace to persevere in it so that we, too, at the end of our earthly pilgrimage, may bear the fruit of Christian discipleship and be welcomed into the fellowship of God’s love with all the saints who now behold Him face-to-face.