The gospel given to us during this weekend’s Masses of the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time includes the great Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15. It is a teaching so rich, so resonant with life and its struggles, that it can hardly be characterized by a few words. So, not trying to do so, let’s focus on a part of the parable (and a very important part of it!) as it is “explained” by one of the great masterworks of western art, Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal.” On the right of the painting, standing erect and in judgment over this whole “sentimental” scene is the elder son of the parable. He stands like a pillar, detached from the entire reunion, unable to join in the joy. Indeed, as the father will later remind him, he wears the robe of his father, part of “everything” that the father owns that has been shared with him, in sharp contrast to his brother, reduced to poverty (by his own choices!) and humbled after years of suffering. We get no sense of the elder brother’s rage at this “unjust” welcome, speaking volumes to the dwelling place of resentment and rage: controlled, in a socially-acceptable and mannered way, deep within our hearts. However, Rembrandt indeed manifests in his painting the effect of resentment, long held: we cannot enter the feast of life. Instead, while joy is celebrated at the supremely human reunion of father and [prodigal] son, the elder son still awaits a return to the father, who has grieved him by acceding to the request of “this son of yours” for his premature part of the inheritance that set this whole drama on its course. The figure of the elder son and his repressed, judgmental representation by Rembrandt, causes us to pause and consider if we have separated ourselves from Life by clinging with tenacity to the feast of resentment. Even while we stand in judgment, we cannot see ourselves as quarantined from life’s full joys. Forgiveness and mercy is the call—the call to return to life. But, this bitter feast of resentment can become such familiar fare that, however poisonous, we can’t imagine any other sustenance. As the Father initiates the reconciliation with the prodigal in the parable (“while he was still a long way off, he ran to him (the prodigal)”), can we cease our resentment and ask the Father in His Spirit to run to us with his healing and mercy too? Until we do, we stand on the sidelines of life: righteous, resentful, in just judgment, and impoverished in the midst of the marvelous banquet that is life. Time is short—come into the feast.
In the synagogue there was a man with the spirit of an unclean demon,
and he cried out in a loud voice,
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us?
I know who you are–the Holy One of God!”
Jesus rebuked him and said, “Be quiet! Come out of him!”
Then the demon threw the man down in front of them
and came out of him without doing him any harm. (Lk 4:33-35)
Plato, the Greek philosopher, in his dialogue Phaedrus, wrote some 400 years before Christ of an experience in the general human condition that has dogged our humanity since its creation: the divided self. In his famous Allegory of the Chariot (246a-254e), he likens the human soul to a chariot with two horses, one noble and the other troublesome. Any person has experienced this divided self, knowing that something is good, but instead experiencing an attraction and desire for the opposite. Believers have read the above passage from the Gospel of Luke with this existential fact in mind: that a “demon” that might possess us is in fact a “we” instead of a “me.” This unfortunate soul is possessed by a demon that itself is divided. Into this spiritual chaos comes Jesus, to rid the man of this self-division and restore his unity of life. When we seem unable to “drive the chariot” of our unmanageable and divided hearts, the Christian faith holds up the example of this restored man from the Gospel of Luke and invites us to come to the one, Jesus, who can cast out chaos from our divided hearts and give us a new singularity of purpose: to love God and neighbor.
Today is the feast day of St. Clare of Assisi (1195-1253). Oftentimes, St. Clare is depicted holding what appears to be a lamp, or sometimes, more clearly, a monstrance. The historical basis of this subject is the crisis that struck the city-state of Assisi in 1224. The Italian peninsula at the time was, by all reports, a place of constant warfare, as cities and dukes were locked in constant conflict. For example, St. Francis, prior to his conversion, was captured by the city of Perugia in 12o1 and incarcerated for a year. In 1224, the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II were threatening the city of Assisi. St. Clare met the soldiers at the boundaries of the city, not with guns and soldiers, but instead her most powerful ally, the Lord Jesus, contained in the Blessed Sacrament. It is said that Frederick was dissuaded from conquering the city by this spiritual force.
The name Clare derives from “Chiara” in Italian and means “brightness” or “light.” This additional meaning further explains why Clare holds forth the monstrance with light emanating from it, together with the fact that Jesus Christ called himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12).
As it happened, the gospel reading for today’s feast day is that of Matthew 18:21-19.1, which can be found through the following link:
In this teaching, Jesus commands his followers to be as forgiving as the Heavenly Father has been for each of us. When his disciples ask him if this means they must forgive others SEVEN times (the Biblical number of perfect completion, like when God completes the creation of the world in seven days), Jesus takes the forgiveness required from perfect completion to an infinite level, with the hyperbolic response: not seven times, but seventy-seven times! We could not presume to be this forgiving, as forgiving as our God has been for us, unless God help us. And . . . when we do, we become like that light that St. Clare holds up, the very brightness of life that is Christ himself, reflected and magnified through us!
Mildred Helen Bullock, circa 1940.
I’m back in Waterloo—and it’s good to be home! The funeral of my mother, last week at St. Joseph Parish in Howell MI, was a most blessed event indeed. I felt strongly the prayerful support of many. I was able to preside at preach at her funeral, a blessing that was also difficult. Yet, Mom did many sacrificial and loving things for all of us, so there was never any question that I could and would do this for her. It was great to welcome Archbishop Jackels of our Archdiocese of Dubuque, as well as several other priests from Iowa, to concelebrate the funeral. I appreciated the efforts they made to show the support of the priests and the Archdiocese.
I’ve attached the text of the homily that I gave at her funeral. It includes, first, the scripture texts that were selected for the funeral, followed by the text of the homily itself. I focused on Mom’s penchant for humor, a sign of hope, as well as the sublime spiritual guidance that she offered me and our family. As with the entire week surrounding her funeral, the predominant feelings we all expressed was that of gratitude, for the life she gave us all! She was a hope-filled, wise mom indeed!
Just click on this link to see the text of the homily: Mildred Helen Bullock Funeral Homily
As I told you in my last post, my mother died yesterday. Fortunately, I had already had a flight scheduled to my parents’ hometown and arrived without incident around 11am on the same day, Saturday morning. We met with the funeral director also yesterday and have made the following plans for Mom’s funeral:
Visitation: 4-7 pm, Thursday, June 30 @ MacDonald Funeral Home, 315 N. Michigan Ave., Howell MI 48843, with a rosary at 6:30 pm.
Funeral Mass: 11am, Friday, July 1 @ St. Joseph Church, Howell MI, with burial to follow immediately in Mt. Olivet Cemetery.
We’ll be making more plans about the actual services tomorrow, once parish staff is in the office. Since my mother dedicated much of her life praying for all of us, it’s our honor to attempt to return the favor in the prayers of the Church, and all of our prayers leading up to them. With great confidence in the prayer of the Body of Christ, the Church, please join us, wherever you might be, in praying for my mother, Mildred “Helen” Bullock.
On the health front, I continue to get stronger every day. I have dropped some of the pain medications that I was prescribed from Mayo, just using Tylenol now. It no longer hurts when I get up and down and in other ways twist (some) my torso. Yet, to calm my caregivers in Waterloo, know that I am taking it easy and continue to take my “prescribed” daily naps! Brother Stephen’s new kidney is definitely working better for him. His blood creatinine levels have dropped nearly 50% since the surgery and are quickly approaching a normal level. I give thanks for this! He continues to “doctor” his heart that reacted to the stress of the whole situation and is on medication that leaves him quite tired. Yet, he is determined to continue his recovery and we’ll keep helping him with our prayers.
We’re telling all kinds of “Helen” stories among my family, so I think I’ll drop some classic photos of her over the next days. This one was a family portrait from the late 1960’s. Mom’s hairdo is EPIC! (The line-up, left to right: the future Fr. Scott Bullock, Christine (my sister), my father AJ, Helen, and Bob (my brother).
My mother died and entered into eternity this morning at about 2:30 am in Howell MI. Having been admitted to Hospice last weekend, she was able to die surrounded by her family and in a place where she had called home for many years. I had already arranged to take a flight to Michigan this morning, so will be leaving early to be with my family. I have received so many promises of prayer for my family and will ask that you keep it up—especially for my father Jim, who shared nearly 56 years of marriage with mom.
The above picture is Mom’s high school graduation, an indeed beautiful woman who, in my eyes, never lost any of her beauty. In fact, it was one of the last things I was able to say to her when I visited with her a couple of weeks ago—that she was indeed a beautiful mother, which she in her spunkiness disputed. But, in God’s providence, I got the last word—and Mom was indeed deeply beautiful! In these last days, in the celebration of 25 years of ordination to the priesthood, I was able to take the occasion to express how grateful I was for the gift of being a priest. While there is much credit to go around for getting me to ordination and then supporting me once I got there, Mom is certainly at the top of the list, the one who first shared the faith with me and my siblings and then constantly strengthened my faith by her resolute and joyful example. It is not hyperbole to say that she has a share in any compliment paid to me as a priest.
Over the last day, my prayer changed regarding Mom. While I had been praying the words of Mary, “may it be done according to thy word” (Luke 1:38) (a good prayer, maybe the BEST of prayers!), it struck me that I needed instead to commend her to God’s infinite mercy and, letting go of any self-focused need to have her remain with us, the prayer became something like: “gather her into Your Mercy.” In fact, I had awoken a bit before her death, prayed that prayer with joy, and then received news of her death. My, is not our God Mercy Itself?
Here’s a picture of Mom and Dad, with one of their many beloved Great Danes (I can’t remember which one that one was!) on their “farm” where they spent these last 30 years of life. With my siblings, we are grateful for the life of Mom and the life she shared with us!
I’ve been back in Waterloo for 48 hours now—and thought I’d offer an update how things are going. My recovery continues to go well. I am gaining strength and sleeping well. The pain from surgery is very minor and well-controlled. I am walking outside a block or two a couple of times each day. The predictions about my recovery, as Mayo prepared me, were accurate, especially about the fact that, after a good day, I can suddenly feel very tired! But . . . it’s getting better each day.
Mayo also told us that Brother Stephen would experience ups and downs as the recovery and acceptance of his new kidney progressed. This has certainly been the case for Brother. While the kidney transplant was considered surgically successful, the process of regulating medication (esp. anti-rejection meds) has come in fits and starts. At first, the kidney was functioning only partially and then Brother experienced a heart attack, probably related to the good amount of physical and emotional stress related to such a difficult surgery. The medical staff in Mayo has reported that no serious damage seems to have resulted from the attack, while his new kidney finally started to show evidence of improvement today. A note from our faith: today’s marked improvement with his kidney functioning coincides with the feast day of St. Aloysius Gonzaga (1568-1591), a Jesuit saint who dedicated his short life to the care of the poor. St. Aloysius in fact suffered from kidney disease for most of his life. While he died caring for victims of an epidemic, his kidney condition likely weakened his ability to fend off disease. So . . . what we have in St. Aloysius Gonzaga is a patron saint for those with kidney disease. I felt a strong confidence and conviction this morning to ask this saint’s prayers for Brother Stephen, and, then, behold, the news arrived about Brother’s improvement. St. Aloysius Gonzaga, pray for us—and pray for Brother Stephen.
On the home front, my mother arrived home yesterday under the care of St. Joseph Hospital Hospice. She had a rather peaceful night back in her home, under the careful watch of what we are calling her “guard-dane angel,” her faithful friend, Bella, the family Great Dane. The rest of my family is there as well. Mom is resting in one of her favorite places, a glassed in four-season porch where she often read and prayed. Each of three sides of the room open up through the windows to the beautiful the pines and woods on their property. Relying on the communion of Saints, for Mom let’s ask the prayers of St. Joseph, the patron of the Hospice organization that is watching over her final days.
It’s about noon in Rochester, and Fr. Bill Joensen and I are preparing to head towards Waterloo, with an arrival time back there in the late afternoon. I’m having a very good day–the old body is kicking back into functioning and I’m certainly feeling only minimal pain. Brother Stephen is doing okay–he’s experiencing the expected ups and downs that occur after a transplant. The doctors have put him on a stronger anti-rejection drug today as they are hoping for the new kidney to being functioning more fully than it has so far. So, we need to keep praying for the ongoing success of the operation. I’ll have more updates later–until then, thanks for all the support!
Hello, friends! After about 48 hours in the hospital, I was discharged this morning from Mayo Clinic at Rochester. The surgery seems to have been, by all estimation, a success. Brother Stephen remains in the hospital, perhaps until Monday, after which he will remain in Rochester at the Gift of Life Transplant House. His new kidney seems to be functioning, though it will take some time for it to function as totally as is hoped. So, thank you for your continued prayers for that.
I will probably return to Waterloo tomorrow, Sunday, after another night as the guest of the generous Franciscan sisters who are associated with Mayo Clinic’s sister hospital, St. Mary’s. I feel very good and strong, though I am tired. One of the side effects of the surgery is that I am sore, not only in the in incision site, but even more in my shoulders, due to the process of the body expelling the carbon dioxide gas that was pumped into my abdomen to allow space for the laparoscopic devices to manoeuver to free up the kidney. But, my pain was never intolerable. When they asked me (constantly!) to rate my pain over the last two days, on a scale from one to ten, the most I ever suggested was “3,” and most times I would say “1” or even “0.” So, pain control has been good.
As you might have heard, while I was in the hospital, my mother Helen took a turn for the worse after her brain surgery last week. It is our expectation that mom will return home on Monday under the care of a local Hospice organization. She is not currently eating and can open her eyes occasionally, according to my sister who has returned to Michigan to be with my dad and brother. I will need to monitor my recovery over the next days to see when I might be able to return to Michigan as well. I did have about four days with Mom and Dad about two weeks ago, knowing that they could not travel to Rochester and wanting some time with them ahead of the surgery. Thanks for your prayers in this situation as well. My family certainly has the need of much continued prayerful support at this time. Fiat voluntas tua (Matt. 6:10).
A late night update from Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Yesterday was a great day with doctors, nurses, and other personnel at Mayo. Brother Stephen and I were both cleared for the surgery today. I did some more blood tests, some final checks on kidney function, and then met with my surgeon and a nephrologist (kidney specialist) who both gave the “okay” after making sure that I wanted to do this–which I do! John 15:13-17 is a primary guide in coming to this time: “The greatest love you can have for your friends is to give your life for them. And you are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because servants do not know what their Master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because I have told you everything I heard from my Father. You did not choose me; I chose you and appointed you to go and bear much fruit, the kind of fruit that endures. And so the Father will give you whatever you ask of him in my name. This, then, is what I command you: love one another.” This passage ends the first part of chapter 15, which begins with Jesus speaking of his being the true vine and we are the branches, that he will prune that we might bear fruit. So, I am secure in the hands of the vine-grower, who will do his good work according to his rule of mercy. Mary, mother of Divine Grace, pray for us!