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A tribute to Archbishop Daniel Bohan: funeral homily

Preached by Bishop Don Bolen

01/27/2016

Dear brothers and sisters, one and all, we stand this morning before the living God praying prayers of thanksgiving, of sorrow, of hope for one who has been an important part of our lives. 

Bishop Dan has given us a cue in how we are to celebrate this morning's funeral mass by the way in which he lived, the way that he prepared for the end of his life. The way he faced his illness is the way that we'll approach the funeral: with faith and hope. 

Bishop Dan's faith was deep, but it was not too complicated, and that served him well till the end. Shortly after he was diagnosed with lung cancer and told it was inoperable, he said, “I placed myself in God's hands a long time ago. I have been held in God's mercy for a long time. There's no need for that to change now.” 

When on Boxing Day at his home I could see he was getting worse, I said, “I'm worried.” And in so many words, he said, “Well, that's a waste of time and energy. Worrying isn't going to help anything. Trust in God.” 

I don't know whether he ever read Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and the five stages of dying/grieving. He probably did, and probably thought it was fine and good. But he didn't seem to go there; like others trusted friends and family, I tried to create a space for him to lament, to grieve this diagnosis. Bishop Dan chose instead to keep to what was at the heart of things: putting his trust in God and holding firm to that; and that was about it. I found strength in that faith; found a refuge in his faith; many did. 

God is near

What was Bishop Dan's hope, and what is ours? 

His faith was that God is near, that God is deeply a part of all it is to be human. The last feast he celebrated was Christmas, the Incarnation, here at the cathedral. He was not well enough to preside, but was able to give a blessing at the end, which he did with all the energy he had. 

In the Incarnation God comes in search of us, like the shepherd who leaves the many sheep to go in search of the lost one, like the woman who loses a coin and searches everywhere till she finds it, like the father who has lost a son and joyfully celebrates his return. Our God comes in search of us. Pope Francis noted, “it was to have hands he became human.” This Christmas, he tweeted, “God is in love with us. He becomes small to help us love him in return.”

Bishop Dan's motto was misericordis et fidelis — mercy and faithfulness. God is merciful and faithful. It evokes Ps 85: “Mercy and faithfulness have met, justice and peace have embraced.” And it comes from Hebrews 2:17: “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, making atonement for the sins of the people.” This is who Christ is for us. . . .

Our faith, Bishop Dan's faith, is in a God who dwells in the midst of all that is human, summoning us to life. God blesses us with human life, and comes into our world, our human condition, in order that we might have life.

Today we are reminded that this earthly life is fleeting. But in it God whets our appetite for life itself, in its fullness. God gives us a body, lets us live in space and time, in order to give us a taste of the joy of being, of relationship, freedom, self-gift, love, the experience of creating, celebrating, standing in awe and wonder at something we can't fully understand. 

We ourselves are part of that mystery. Our God is a God of life, a God who creates life, sustains it, heals it, makes it whole, promises it, and restores it. 

The bread of life

In today's Gospel (John 6:51-58) we heard part of the bread of life discourse from John's Gospel: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. . .  . The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. . . . Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. . . . The one who eats this bread will live for ever.” 

Jesus gives us his very self. His whole life is this self-gift, culminating in his complete gift of self on the cross, the sign of God's boundless, relentless and all-consuming love. And his resurrection is the joyous assurance that love will have its way; it is the first and last word in creation, in God's dealings with us. And the eucharist is the gift which allows us to receive this gift of Jesus' life, death and resurrection even now, even today. 

The eucharist plays an important part in the life of most Christians, and it plays a central part in the life of a priest, a bishop. 

Intimacy

There is a great intimacy in holding the body of the Lord, bringing his self-gift to the people — a disarming intimacy which evokes a feeling of deep unworthiness, yet the Lord invites ius nto that mystery and to be at home there. 

It has an echo of the intimacy Mary knew as she held the eternal Word in her arms. Perhaps it is similar in some way to the intimacy that a woman knows, that parents know when they participate so intimately in bringing new life into the world. Others, I trust, know this intimacy in different ways. 

For the priest, there is a shocking intimacy when, in the fraction rite, he holds the body of the Lord and breaks it, and shares somehow in God's great redeeming act of self-gift in love for the world. 

In Bishop Dan’s diaconal ordination he was told: “Believe what you read. Teach what you believe. Put into practise what you teach.” In his priestly ordination he was instructed to be shaped by the eucharist he celebrates, to be moulded by it, transformed by it, day after day, year after year: to share in this self-gift, to be rooted in it ever more deeply; to let himself be broken for others. 

This is a disarming intimacy which costs everything, changes everything and redeems everything.

Proclamation of hope

The very heart of our faith is set before us in today's second reading (Romans 8:31-39). This is the crowning passage of St. Paul, and perhaps of the whole New Testament; the most bold proclamation of our hope. It poses a series of the most foundational questions, and gives a strong answer. 

“If God is for us, who is against us?. . . Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” 

Bishop Dan loved beauty, loved beautiful liturgies. He wanted our liturgies, our prayer, to be beautiful, to elevate us, to bring us into an encounter with the holy. One beautiful aspect of liturgies are litanies, and this reading from Romans 8 contains two extraordinary litanies. 

Asking “who will separate us from the love of Christ?” it is as though St. Paul goes through the list of obstacles, things which could end or damage a relationship: “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” 

Then the rousing anthem, the testament of faith, which rings out with an extravagant hope: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

Core message

That was the centre of the message Bishop Dan proclaimed, and it is what we proclaim here this morning. When Bishop Dan was ordained a bishop, the Book of the Gospels was held over his head. Now as he lies before us waiting to be buried, it rests over his body still. This is the word of life and hope he was given to proclaim. 

These are some of the instructions a new bishop is given in the context of his ordination: “You are to serve rather than to rule . .  .  to love all those whom God places in your care.  Love the priests and deacons. . . . Love the poor and infirm, strangers and the homeless. Encourage the faithful to work with you in your apostolic task; listen willingly to what they have to say. . . .  Receive the Gospel and preach the word of God with unfailing patience and sound teaching.”

It is the call to shepherd. It is not easy being a shepherd. 

Here's a story about Bishop Dan from Bernadette Kutarna. She was out with a group of young carollers before Christmas and, as agreed, they went to Bishop Dan’s home. He welcomed them there. One of the young carollers was blind and used a walker. Bishop Dan talked to the young people about the candy cane as a symbol of the shepherd's crook — an image of God shepherding us. 

He added that bishops also use a staff, also in the shape of a candy cane. The blind youth asked what a staff was. Bishop Dan brought out his staff and let the young fellow explore the staff with his hands. The young man was delighted! 

Limitations

I think that bishops are much like the visually impaired young fellow who feels the shepherd's crook, but can't quite understand what it is. We try to understand it, to understand and faithfully follow what is being asked of us. But we know well that we also have our limitations. Big ones. 

The first group of apostles did too. They were not the most influential, the most gifted, the most beautiful, but they were touched by God's mercy, and called. In some sense, the bishop experiences an utter dependence on Christ because we know we can't do this, or more truthfully, what we come to learn day by day, can't do it on our own. We can only carry out this work with the help of God — God who is merciful and faithful. . . .

Shepherding takes many shapes. And Bishop Dan touched many people's lives. Fr. Tom Rosica, CSB, of Salt and Light wrote: “He was a true, kind, gentleman who engaged people, loved them and respected them. He was always so thoughtful and grateful for the least little thing I did for him.” 

Encounters

Several of his ecumenical brother and sister bishops wrote little tributes about his work to heal the wounds and divisions of the body of Christ. They spoke of his kindness, approachability and humour, his perseverance in dialogue, and gentle way of witnessing. 

Many stories about Bishop Dan were sent to me, but he would be sorely annoyed with me if I read them; they mostly related stories of individual encounters, which took place in nursing homes or the cancer ward; stories of reaching out to the grieving, of a pastoral meeting with a gay couple, of wanting to do more regarding refugees, of setting up a committee for the reverence for life. 

Of course there are limitations to be mentioned here. He was not always available, not always there. Of course he left behind some unfinished business, for that's the way it always is in this human life. And different kinds of unfinished business. 

Unfinished business

My relationship with Bishop Dan was multi-faceted. He was my bishop. And of course our names are very similar, Daniel Bohan and Donald Bolen, and people were constantly getting our names mixed up. Happily we both enjoyed this. 

And then he ordained me a bishop. And that led to the use of nicknames in written correspondence: I called him Paul and he called me Timothy. But this Timothy didn't always do what Paul would have liked, and was too often stubborn. And this Paul too had his limitations in serving us. 

There's a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in. We lift that unfinished business to the Lord as well, for the Lord to heal it all by his grace. 

Two litanies

I would offer you two little litanies, just as St. Paul offered them to us. The first is a litany of glimpses, images and memories of the life he received, a litany of thanksgiving for the life lived, the life God gave his son Daniel: 

Singing O Danny Boy and Christmas in Killarney. 
Childhood days at the sea. 
Sunday dinners with family. 
Family ties that didn't weaken with distance. 
Daily calls to his mother. 
Listening to opera. 
Preparing and giving fine homilies. 
Friendships which gave life.
A sense of aloneness. 
A profound dependence on God. 
Reaching out. 
His fatherly gentle presence. 
Beauty as a way to God. 
The beauty of this land, its parishes, the people. 
Rabbits in his backyard, 
Cooking wonderful meals,
Watching a sunset on a prairie road after a confirmation.

For this we give thanks. 

And a second litany, a litany which echoes St. Paul's efforts to identify all those things that might have stood in the way of the love of God, but ultimately, can't. 

Hear Bishop Dan say, “For I am certain of this. Not cancer, not pastoral challenges, not stubborn friends, not unfinished business, not poor liturgies nor ill-prepared homilies, not ecumenical impasses, not the lack of enough hours in the day, not our weariness, not the slow or rapid failing of our body, not declining membership in rural parishes, not our brokenness, our failings, our inner contradictions. Not the falling apart of our bodies, not bodily death. Will these stand in the way? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that nothing, nothing, nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This is God's faithfulness, his mercy. . . . 

Going home

When Bishop Dan was named a bishop, as auxiliary of Toronto, it meant moving away from his beloved home, New Brunswick. Being away from his mother, siblings, loved ones, and away from the Maritimes, which were very much in his heart, and remained there. Then moving to Regina, and further away still. 

He made trips home when able, and called home daily, staying deeply connected to his close-knit family, where despite titles and responsibilities, he was Danny, big brother, loving son. It was hard to be away from home. Now Dan's going home. 

In the first reading today we heard the prophet Isaiah's image of going home (Isaiah 25:6-9): “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. . . .  Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, God will swallow up death for ever.” Home.

And from the Gospel of John, chapter 15: “In my Father's house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” Going home. 

And again, from John 15: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Home.  

And from St. Paul (2 Cor. 5:1): We know that when this earthly tent we live in is folded up, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Going home. We are made for life with God. 

Ancient legend

A couple of years ago, Bishop Dan was giving the homily at the funeral of one of his uncles; at the end of that homily, he told of an ancient legend which holds that when an infant is created God kisses its soul and sings to it. As its guardian angel carries it to earth to join its body, the angel also sings to it. The legend says that God's kiss and his song, as well as the song of the angel, remain in that soul forever. 

Bishop Dan noted, “It is a legend, but it helps us understand the human reality that deep within us, at the most profound part of our being, there is a longing to return to that intimate embrace of God and to have that song of God and his angel surround us once again with its beauty.”

Dear friends, hear the Lord say now: Daniel my son, it's time to come home. Time to come home. 

May Bishop Dan know the touch of God's tender mercy. 

May he be held in the light of the risen one and be utterly filled with that light. 

May he rest in peace and rise to see the glory of the face of God.  Amen.