You may have noticed in recent weeks that during the intercessions at Mass, among the sick we have prayed for Bishop David Foley. Unless you have been associated with the parish for a long time, you might not know that Bishop Foley was the second pastor of Saint Bernadette, succeeding in 1975 the founding pastor, Monsignor Stricker, and serving here until 1983. Many people here remember him quite fondly. He is responsible for the pipe organ, the maple trees, kindergarten in the school, and the continued spiritual and liturgical health of the parish in a time when that was uncommon.
Not many years after he left Saint Bernadette, he was ordained Bishop to serve as Auxiliary in Richmond. In 1994, he became Bishop of Birmingham in Alabama, which is where I grew up, and where my parents lived until recently. In that context I have been privileged to come to know him well. The unusual symmetry delighted us both, that he went from Saint Bernadette to Birmingham, and I went from Birmingham to Saint Bernadette.
Since his retirement in 2005, he has remained there and kept up quite the schedule, filling his weeks by helping out the thin-stretched clergy of northern Alabama, covering parishes and Masses while the pastor was sick, or traveling. In retirement he often had more Masses, in more places, than he did while an “active” bishop! When I went to Alabama for my nephew’s confirmation two years ago, Bishop Foley was the one who confirmed him.
Bishop Foley turned 88 last month, and he was maintaining that schedule until the symptoms began that are detailed in the statement from the diocese: Bishop Foley Statement. His first goal, he told a friend, was to stay able long enough to celebrate one more big confirmation at a parish this past weekend; he did it. Now he hopes to participate in the Chrism Mass. Plus, since he has to sit so much anyway, he figures he may as well sit in the confessional! My goal, perhaps less dramatic, is to be able to let him know that the parish of Saint Bernadette is praying for him.
It seems clear from the published diagnosis where this is leading for him. Also clear, from what he has said privately and shared publicly, that he is not frightened or even disappointed by this prognosis. As Saint Paul would put it, He knows Him in whom he has believed. (2 Tim 1:12)
Today we rejoice for something so enormous, so wholly other from our common experience and our human expectation that we have trouble grasping it as real. We might like the resurrection as an idea; we might find it comforting as a concept. We might even be able to accept it as history: Jesus rose from the dead. All of that is good enough – as a start. From that start, we can continue all the way up to the point where we are aware and confident that Christ is risen from the dead – and so are we.
This is what make the Resurrection of the Lord different from say, Washington’s crossing the Delaware, or another historical event. Easter Sunday, every Sunday in fact, is far more than a commemoration of something that happened once. Easter Sunday is the event itself, here, now, and in our lives, in this time.
Which brings me back to Bishop Foley. He is not frightened nor sad; neither should we be. He has had a long and good life, you may point out; although that is true, it is not the cause of his joy. His life has been blessed principally not by length nor by achievement, but by the experience of oneness with God and the foretaste of unending wholeness. That is, he has already touched and tasted heaven.
What’s more, he has shared that touch, and brought that taste, to untold thousands of souls. He has seen with his own eyes the resurrection work joy into lives haunted by death. He knows the persistence and the power of Him who did not create death, nor desires the death of any living thing; and rather desires our wellness, not our woe. He knows Him in whom he has believed, and has made Him known to us.
Every autumn, the bishops of the United States hold their meeting near here, for the last decade or so in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Every time Bishop Foley has come for that meeting, he has visited Saint Bernadette. You might not have seen him; usually even I didn’t see him. But a few years ago, when I returned to the rectory about suppertime from my day-off activity, there was a rental car parked out front and a single light in the church. I went in, and there he was, up by the Blessed Sacrament, praying. He could find his way through the church in the dark; he knew where the light switches were. He was at home.
This parish, this church holds a place in his heart. He associates it with intimacy with Christ, with pastoring, the heart of his priesthood. He has lived that priesthood to the abundant benefit of this parish and all of us here now, even you who do not remember him. He has been a true pastor to my parents and family, and a friend and an example to me. I owe him a debt of gratitude; so do we all. The time for repayment has come, so as a parish, let pray for him.
Our prayer should be doused not in sadness, but in exhilaration and anticipation. For he is one of many who have taught here well; we too know Him in whom we have believed. And we know that He is the resurrection, and the life.
Christ is risen from the dead, and Bishop David Foley, the second pastor of Saint Bernadette, is about to join him. He understands this so clearly, knows it so thoroughly, believes it so powerfully, that he can already rejoice in it. And still, even from several hundred miles away, and decades after he moved on from here, he is helping us rejoice too. Praise God! Death has no power over us; Christ is risen. Truly he is risen, Alleluia!