The presence of so many friends of Conception Abbey here this evening is a great gift to us. The outpouring of prayerful support, heartfelt sympathy, and hope-filled encouragement has enabled us to moved forward with faith. As I have said before, we have been living on a strength that is not our own. We have tangibly seen God’s grace touching our lives through you; we have tangibly seen God’s grace active within our monastic community, allowing light to shine through the dark events of 10 June 2002. Your presence here this evening honors our slain and wounded brothers, Fr. Philip and Bro. Damian, Fr. Kenneth and Fr. Norbert, and it encourages us who strive to follow Christ under The Rule of St. Benedict in this little corner of God’s great creation. We thank you most sincerely.
It is a custom in Benedictine monasteries for there to be thirty days of prayer for the monk or sister who has passed from this life to eternity. That is what we commemorate this evening. We also gather to celebrate the mystery of the cross of Jesus Christ. That very cross of Christ came to us at Conception Abbey and proclaimed something mysterious, yet not out of the grasp of mind and heart. St. Paul says it so profoundly, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the learning of the learned I will set aside” (1 Cor 1:18-19). And isn’t that what we all said: How senseless; how tragic; how useless. Yet in the events of 10 June 2002, there was a divine wisdom for us to probe, to detect, and to uncover. Such divine wisdom usually reveals itself slowly over time. As we ready ourselves with faith in the gospel, God opens our minds and hearts to see the proximity of his kingdom. That kingdom breaks in upon us and shocks us into the reality of God’s wisdom — a wisdom that tells us that human death is not the end of life, that suffering is not without meaning, that loss does not come without even greater gain, that violence can teach us an important lesson, and that forgiveness is the sure way to peace and hope.
The unexpected and violent deaths of Fr. Philip and Bro. Damian potently reminded us of the closeness of God’s kingdom and the fragility of human life: we know not the day or the hour. And almost immediately our thoughts turned to their readiness to meet God. It consoled and comforted us to believe God took them when they were ready, and reminded us of the absolute priority of being aware of the Master’s call at all times and in all places.
The suffering of these days has had profound meaning. With e-mails, cards and letters from around the world, we have experienced the saving grace of Christ’s resurrection which touches our life more often than we even realize. Solidarity in suffering is the living of the Beatitudes; we who mourned knew comfort as never before.
The loss of two of our brothers can never be replaced, yet their heavenly intercession has already made us away of their goodness on our behalf. The early Church apologist, Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” What has the shedding of their blood of our brothers done for the Christian communities of northwest Missouri? Has it drawn us closer together in prayer? Has it united us in a bond of solidarity that we did not have before? Has it reminded us how precious hospitality and welcome are in a world where so many today feel alienation and loneliness? I trust we will see hospitality only grow stronger among us.
The violence inflicted upon us has taught us an important lesson. Television and movies today can exploit violence and portray it as though life moves on easily after it has happened. We know differently. Violence shatters lives and often leaves them filled with fear and anger. In our world today, violence takes on many forms and its consequences are long-lasting. Drawn into the world’s circle of violence, we have, hopefully, become gentler with one another, more patient and understanding, slower to anger and quicker to respond in need. Violence can be halted only by the gospel values of love and forgiveness, gentleness and mercy.
Forgiveness is the way out of self-destruction and misery. In the face of betrayal and misunderstanding, Jesus showed us the way to life — “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). To the world, that is foolish; to the person of faith, it is the path to peace. We do not know what tortured Robert Lloyd Jefress to lead him to what we can only call brutal and misguided deeds. Yet the word of God teaches us that we are not to judge him; rather our duty is clear and direct — to forgive. In doing that we free both ourselves and others to experience the goodness which God holds in store for each of us, redeemed sinners that we are.
All this only touches, only touches on the divine wisdom that has begun to reveal itself in the cross among us. There is much more to be revealed, and in time, we will come to see it. But for now, we give thanks for the lives of Fr. Philip and Bro. Damian; we pray for the healing of body, mind, and spirit of our confreres Fr. Kenneth and Fr. Norbert. We thank God for the friendship we share among the Christian Churches of our area. And we praise God for the mystery of the cross which reveals to us a wisdom from which new life comes. In the cross will we find the hope and courage to move forward. In the cross we discover the strength to give ourselves tirelessly for the kingdom. And in the cross of Christ we regain the joy which comes in knowing that our lives serve and bring blessing to one another.
June 10, 2002