On Friday, I was driving around the countryside meeting with clients when my phone rang. I looked to see who it was, and it was my brother, Joe. Joe often calls me to tell me little stories, so I didn't think too much when he called me in the middle of the day. He asked me how my day was going, and I could tell from the tone in his voice that all was not well.
"Uncle Clete died this morning," I heard on the other end.
It was one of those moments where it was not unexpected (Clete was 86, after all), but Uncle Clete, who seemed like he was going to live forever, was not with us any more.
Clete's family lives in and around Columbus, so they were always the far away folks. However, I have to say that for living as far away as anyone, they have always been the family that you can always count on to be there - for funerals, weddings, reunions....they were there. I love that they always still realized the value of family, even when it might mean travelling on snowy roads to get to the Christmas party!
The viewing had been set for Sunday, with the funeral on Monday. I had already committed to helping my brother Duane out at the Applefest Parade in Sidney on Sunday afternoon, so I opted to go to the funeral on Monday. I picked up my brother, Jim, around 7:30 am and off we went.
We stopped at the funeral home first, to pay our last respects to Uncle Clete, and to give hugs to his wife, Dolores, and all of the kids. After a short prayer service led by his son, Fr. Craig, we joined the procession through the streets of Columbus to the church where Clete's life would be celebrated.
To be very honest with you, it didn't strike me until I was in church that Fr. Craig was actually going to say his father's funeral mass. At a time when most of us get very emotional and look to each other (and our priest) for support, Craig was going to do what most would find the impossible -- celebrate this funeral liturgy.
After we entered the church, I looked around. There were two deacons flanking him on either side, and then he had three concelebrants on the altar with him. In the side pews were other fellow priests of his -- my guess would be about 20 more, all to support Craig and to celebrate this liturgy.
I have to say that Craig did a fantastic job. I'm sure there were moments that it was difficult to hold it together, but he did it. And his homily? He knocked it out of the park! He told stories of Clete growing up, and had stories of Clete with some of his siblings that were present. My favorite story of all was the time Clete's sister, Aunt Edna, was mad at him one morning when she was making his lunch. So what did he get? A pancake between two slices of bread!!! Nothing else -- no butter, no jelly, no anything to make it go down easy. Yuck!!! He did a wonderful job of memorializing his dad.
When mass was over, the priests all gathered two by two to exit the church. I was sitting about the third row back, so I was one of the first ones out of the church. I didn't realize what a beautiful surprise I was about to encounter! The priest lined up on either side of the sidewalk and were singing "Hail Holy Queen" in Latin, as Uncle Clete's body was carried past. What an absolutely beautiful tribute. With tears rolling down my cheeks, I listened in awe.
And then it hit me -- we often think priests must lead a lonely life. Their houses are empty at night, they don't have anyone to chat with anytime they want -- but that's really just what we think. These guys were all THERE for Craig in his time of need -- I'm sure they were praying for strength for him to do this, and will continue to be there for him long after we have left town. What a beautiful vocation the priesthood is!
I later had the chance to talk with Craig about that singing, on our way back to the church after we went to the cemetary. I asked him if that was a tradition, or just happenstance. He said that it is unique to their diocese, but that they generally do it for other priest's funerals, or if there are enough of them when a family member of a priest dies. I told him how beautiful and touching it was. He, too, appreciated the greatness.
We ended our day together with a luncheon in the church basement. I love this tradition so much. It has nothing to do with food or drink, but gives everyone a little time to decompress and come down a little slower from the past few whirlwind days.
I've really been reflecting on yesterday throughout the day yesterday and into today. Imagine my surprise when this beautiful quote fell into my lap today:
"The world looks to the priest, because it looks to Jesus! No one can see Christ; but everyone sees the priest, and through him they wish to catch a glimpse of the Lord! Immense is the grandeur of the Lord! Immense is the grandeur and dignity of the priest!" - Pope John Paul II
We truly were in Christ's presence yesterday. Thank you to Craig and to Clete's family for sharing your gifts with us. We will certainly miss Clete's beautiful smile and, of course, his e-mails. He could always brighten my day!
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord;
and let perpetual light shine upon him.
May his soul and the souls of all the faithfully departed
Rest in peace.