I would like to begin by thanking in my name and in the name of all the monks of Conception Abbey the representatives of religious and diocesan communities, our own bishop, Raymond Boland, and truly all of you, most sincerely for your presence and your participation here today at this Mass of Christian Burial for our confreres, Father Philip and Brother Damian.
The outpouring of prayerful support, faith-filled encouragement, and heart-felt sympathy has been overwhelming. We monks of Conception Abbey know that we have been moving through the mystery of these days with a strength that is not our own. A list of those who have expressed their sympathy and solidarity with our community would be far too long to enumerate. Yet I must make special mention of the gracious support of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who brought us into their home for prayer and a meal when our own home had been locked-down; our time with them began the healing that will continue into the future.
Our neighbors here in Nodaway County have been so generous in their willingness to do whatever needed to be done; we are blessed in the people of the surrounding area. We will forever be indebted to the members of the Nodaway County Sheriff’s Department and the Missouri Highway Patrol, and all the other agencies, who were here with us within minutes of calling 911, and stayed with us in a fashion that distinguished them as true servants and loyal friends.
In a moment of tragedy such as we have experienced, people of faith ask themselves, “How does God speak to us in this event? Why does God speak to us in a manner such as this?” To be sure, there are no easy answers. Yet it is our faith that allows us to even ask these questions, and it is the word of God that we have heard this morning that enables us to open the door to probing this mystery, to seeing light in this very dark moment. It is the word of Jesus to his disciples, at the Last Supper, in his darkest hour, that sheds the brightest light for us to ponder. He says, “I wish that where I am they also may be with me […] that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them” (Jn 17:24, 26). Likewise, St. Paul says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us” (Rom 8:18). These words of the New Testament tell of the victory of Jesus Christ. He who endured hatred, misunderstanding, betrayal, bloodshed, and death was raised up by the God whom he called “Abba,” Father. He was victorious in his suffering, and so was glorified. And those are the words of St. Paul to us: “we are children of God, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17).
It is this belief that enables us to wait in hope for what the Lord will reveal as the blessing which shines through this tragedy. The Book of Lamentations counsels us: “The Lord is good to the one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good to hope in silence for the saving help of the Lord” (Lam 3:25-26). Waiting is the ultimate posture of faith in the Old Testament. It enables us not only to ponder the great mystery before us, but also to keep sinking our roots ever deeper, rooting our trust in the One who alone is always faithful. Right now there is speculation about what gave rise to the motive Mr. Jeffress had for his action; that may be the important work of law enforcement, but it is not our work at this moment. The work of this monastic community and those who walk this path with us is to wait in faith and in prayer for the Lord to unfold for us the meaning of this mystery before us. We know that in the plan of God there is a wisdom which only time and faith enable us to comprehend. It is a wisdom that will show itself in unexpected happenings of grace and goodness. And when it comes, we will know it because it will bring us peace.
We Benedictines have had “peace” as our motto for centuries. Yet the events of the last days have threatened our tranquility; but these events have not destroyed our peace. So many people who have written to me these days have expressed their deep sorrow that something like this would happen in a place they associated with peace, tranquility, and prayer. What is happening in our world if peace is threatened even in a monastery? Where can people then go if even our monasteries are no longer the places of peace we so desire and desperately need? Yes, there has been an injury to the peace of this household of faith, but it has not destroyed that essential element of our Benedictine life. Our call is to peace, and we have already begun to rebuild that which is the foundation stone of our life. We, the monks of Conception Abbey, know that we are called to be men of peace and to share this peace with all who come among us. St. Benedict is so simple and so clear in the outset of the Prologue to his Rule: “If you desire true and lasting life […] avoid evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it” (v. 17). That is our heritage and that is our gift to the Church and humanity; and it will not be taken from us. What such a tragedy as this often does is to bring people closer together in a bond of solidarity and peace that is made stronger and cannot be broken. That has happened here. God’s Spirit enlivens us, strengthens us, and impels us forward to a graced tomorrow. This monastic community has already begun to rise from the ashes of last Monday, determined to be even stronger men of prayer, faith, hospitality, and peace.
In monasteries, where the word of God is read and reflected on several times each day, there are special and unique moments when God speaks with stunning clarity. On Wednesday evening, at our first celebration of Vespers back in the Basilica, the assigned reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans gave us a roadmap for proceeding out of this event; and so I read,
Let love be sincere; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the holy ones, exercise hospitality. Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them […] Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, on your part, live at peace with all. Beloved, do not look for revenge […] Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink […] Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.
In the spirit of that passage, I ask each of you to join me in prayer, not only for Fr. Philip and Bro. Damian, for Fr. Kenneth and Fr. Norbert, but also for Mr. Robert Lloyd Jeffress. When brutal deeds are enacted, it calls for heroic and radical forgiveness. Such acts of violence as happened here on Monday, could only have come from someone in desperate need of help. Hatred, anger, and an unwillingness to forgive only keep us crippled and bound by the evils that surround us. If we endure evil and do not allow it to conquer us, we will share in the victory of Jesus Christ, in the hidden life of the resurrection of Jesus.
So many, particularly in the news media, have asked whether our spirit of hospitality will change as a result of this event. Hospitality and the Benedictine charism are so intertwined that it really is inconceivable that such a thing would happen at Conception Abbey. Our 1,500-year tradition is so cherished, we could not allow that to happen. In fact, the two men whose lives we remember today, Fr. Philip and Bro. Damian, were the epitome of this essential part of Benedictine life. They welcomed people not only into their home, their monastery, but also in their hearts. They had a way of putting people at ease, focusing them on the beauties that surround us, and inviting them to share in the peace of our life. They were two men who, each in his own way, contemplated the movement of God in their lives, and never lost the urge to keep searching and discovering that the wideness of God’s mercy could not be exhausted. And that is where we feel the loss: the uniqueness of their goodness, the passion of their convictions, and their distinctive humanity which whether gently or sometimes not so gently, rubbed against the fabric of our lives giving it color, distinction, and a wholly human touch.
Our great consolation is the belief that our two brothers were ready to meet the God who would call them at the most unexpected moment, and in the most mysterious of ways. They who were icons of honesty and simplicity were taken from us in a brutal and senseless way. While we grieve their absence among us, our faith tells us to rejoice in the new life they possess in the kingdom of God where every tear is wiped away, where sadness and mourning flee, and where they rest tranquilly in what the sought here on earth — the beauty and peace of God.
Homily by Abbot Gregory Polan, OSB
June 15, 2002