CARDINAL GEORGE REMEMBERS HIS OBLATE ROOTS
On the last Monday of May each year in the United States, people celebrate a holiday called Memorial Day. The holiday was originally meant to remember and honor those who died in service of their country. But it has become very similar to the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed celebrated by the Church on November 2. People go to cemeteries to decorate the graves of their loved ones with beautiful spring flowers. In his column in the weekly newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago, The Catholic New World, Cardinal Francis GEORGE, tells about the significance of this celebration to him in 2012 and he reminisces about his Oblate family.
This past Memorial Day, I celebrated the outdoor Mass at Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery on the South Side. It is right next to Mount Carmel Catholic Cemetery, where Archbishop James Quigley (1903-1915) built the crypt that holds the bodies of most of Chicago’s archbishops.
After the Mass, celebrated for those who have died for our country and for all those whose bodies rest in Queen of Heaven’s consecrated ground, I had a discussion with the director of the cemeteries about where I wanted to be buried. That’s a good sign, it seems to me, that the horizon of death is closer than I might want to believe. It’s also a question that drives one back into personal memories.
On Memorial Day we rightly remember all those who sacrificed their lives in defense of our country. We should also remember those who have survived combat and now live among us but who often suffer from traumas of all sorts, physical and emotional. The plight of some veterans who have difficulty taking up their lives, integrating into their families and finding productive and steady work should command our attention. We owe them a great debt, and remembering them helps make their welfare a national concern.
But Memorial Day is also a time to remember those of our families who have preceded us in death. When I was small, Catholic families still visited cemeteries on a regular basis. This year, the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago mark 175 years of burying the dead with whom, in this life, we have shared our faith in Christ. My parents, grandparents and some of my great grandparents are buried in various cemeteries of the archdiocese, along with numerous aunts, uncles and cousins.
In the spring, my mother would plant red geraniums on her mother’s grave in All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines; and in the fall, she would place over the grave a winter cover of evergreens. Rules for flowers in cemeteries have changed; but the prayers I say at my mother’s grave, where her body lies next to her mother’s and her husband’s, are the same prayers she taught me to say as a little boy visiting the cemetery where we prayed together for my grandmother’s eternal rest.
Visiting last resting places, as graves are sometimes called, invites reflection on where one has spent one’s life, between cradle and grave. Most of us probably have memories of many families. A bishop always belongs to the church which he governed in Christ’s name, for a bishop is married to his diocese. When a bishop is transferred, it’s a painful separation, for part of his heart remains with the people he was first given to love.
Before becoming a bishop, I lived in a religious family, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. I don’t often speak publicly of that family’s life, since I haven’t lived in my religious community for over 20 years. But what I learned about prayer and community and the mission of the church as an Oblate of Mary Immaculate has shaped my way of life as much as did growing up in my natural family here in Chicago or living as a bishop in the Diocese of Yakima, Wash., and the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon.
Regularly I receive a copy of the newsletter from the Oblate General House in Rome, reporting on the life of the Oblate congregation around the world. Like many Catholics in Chicago, I first turn to the obituary section to see whether someone I studied with or once lived with in various communities around the world has gone to the Lord. For each of those who have died, I celebrate a Mass, as I do for each of the deceased priests of the archdiocese. The last issue of the Oblate newsletter reported the death of a man I had met on several occasions. Father Alexandre Kayser, O.M.I. He was sickly as a seminarian, and so he was never sent outside of his native France. He died in Strasbourg, France, at the age of 108, in his 89th year of religious life and his 83rd as a priest. The story reported some of his last words: “I love the good God; I love the Virgin Mary; I love the Congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.”
News of other members of the Oblate family included the ordination of the first priest from the Pakistani Province of Baluchistan, an Oblate who was ordained by the vicar apostolic of Quetta, Bishop Victor Gnanapragasam, O.M.I., with whom I lived when he was a seminarian studying in Rome. Quetta is on the border between Pakistan and Iraq, and the ordination was celebrated in the shadow of the assassination of a wellknown Christian man just days before.
From Thailand, there was news of an Oblate I once knew fairly well, who was now sharing the life of an indigenous tribe from Burma that had crossed the Thai border and had been held in a detention camp for over two years. The Oblate reported that his attempts to negotiate their status with the government were bearing fruit and that the tribe was going to be allowed to go free. Oblates in Guinea Bissau, Africa, reported on how they and their people had come through the recent coup d’etat. A young Oblate from Lesotho in southern Africa described the difficulties of adapting to life with the Inuit or Eskimos of northern Canada, to whom he had been sent. There was news from Chad, Peru, Paraguay, Guatemala, Senegal, the Philippines, Italy and Texas!
All of this serves to remind me not only of a religious family with whom I now have only intermittent contact but also of places I’ve visited and people who have been part of my life. It reminds me as well that even a great archdiocese like Chicago lives in dependence upon the network of universal Catholic communion, of which it is a quite small part. Our context of life and death, as Catholics, is the globe and, finally, the kingdom of God.
But, in the end, you have to be buried someplace, in a particular plot of ground. I hope I can answer the question about where that will be before I come to depend upon the Catholics of the archdiocese to visit my grave and remember me before the Lord. (The Catholic New World, June 3, 2012,
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