Abbot James' homily for the Bishop Herbert Hermes memorial Mass. (See below for text)
Memorial Homily by Abbot James:
On behalf of the monastic community, we welcome all those gathered this morning for this Memorial Mass offered for our confrere, Bishop Herbert. You have come from far and wide – from all over Kansas, from Colorado and Oklahoma, to pray here for your brother, uncle, cousin, and friend. It is a great honor and pleasure to host you all with us today. In a particular way, I want to offer the community’s continued prayers to Norbert and Marlene, and Lucilla and Nick. We welcome also Bishop Herbert’s cousin, Fr. Michael, and we know of the prayers from California of Fr. Alphonsus, Bishop Herbert’s nephew. We welcome the Sisters from Mount St. Scholastica with whom Bishop Herbert ministered in the city of Mineiros in Brazil, where we both have monasteries.
We have just finished this week at daily Mass the Bread of Life discourse from the Gospel of John. In this morning’s gospel we have come to the culmination of this discourse. Jesus has told his disciples and the many who have gathered around him, that, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him on the last day.” Then many of Jesus’ disciples said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it.”
And so, today, we come to the pivotal interchange between Jesus and the Twelve: “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” As we were preparing for this Memorial Mass for Bishop Herbert, Fr. Meinrad and I were discussing which readings we should use – the reading selections for a funeral Mass, or the readings of the day. I decided to follow Fr. Meinrad’s suggestion that we stick with the readings of the day, so appropriate to the life of a bishop, the life of a priest, and the life of a monk.
“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
In reflecting on these words of St. Peter, I envision the story Bishop Herbert would tell of that day back in the summer of 1990 when he received a letter from Pope, now St. John Paul II. It was the letter asking him to be the bishop of the Prelacy of Cristilândia in Central Brazil, 16 hours northeast of our Priory in Mineiros.
Bishop Herbert would tell how he fled to the chapel to be with the True Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and would pour out to his Lord, “How could this be asked of me?” “Lord, why?”
He would tell how those hours spent in the chapel with Christ, would turn those questions he had tumbling in his mind and in his heart, that True Presence turned those questions into an exclamation: “Fiat!” – “Yes!”
That exclamation of Mary, as she would say yes to God’s plan of salvation working in and through her, would become Bishop Herbert’s Episcopal Motto: Fiat.
As we reflect on the Bread of Life discourse – Peter’s Fiat in today’s gospel – along with Mary’s Fiat in the Magnificat, the Canticle of Mary – we see the giving over of one’s will, Peter and Mary both saying “Yes, Lord, you have the words of eternal life.”
And that Word was spoken and became flesh. It becomes flesh in each of our lives as we partake of the very presence of our Lord in his Body and Blood, and it becomes flesh as we become One Body through this Eucharist. When Jesus speaks those words to us – “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him on the last day” – he is inviting us into relationship, inviting us on the way that will significantly change our lives. He is inviting us into that relationship that must and will affect our relationship with others. It will require of us our own Fiat.
Can I accept these words of Jesus?
Jesus tells us, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever… the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Through his invitation to feed on his flesh and drink of his blood, Jesus calls us to embrace his life, and at the same time to allow his life to embrace us, that we might become one.
This life will always be one that finds joy in humble service to others, a life that is centered in unconditional, total, and sacrificial love. It is a life that seeks fulfillment not in how the world sees a life fulfilled, but in the holiness to which we are called, a holiness that will only be found when we allow our lives here and now to become real in the world to come. Our challenge comes in the fact that the Eucharist remains external, outside of us, until what we bring to this altar to offer in sacrifice becomes the self-sacrifice of Christ. In essence, Jesus is telling us to offer our lives on this altar today, to offer them each time we celebrate the Eucharist, so that we might feed our hearts… feed our minds… feed our souls on him, allowing our lives to be revitalized with his life until we are turned upside down and inside out with the life of God.
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”
Jesus is telling us that we cannot give what we do not have. If we are not truly possessed by, and incorporated into the Body of Christ, we will not be able to offer him to others. Is it no wonder that Bishop Herbert fled to the chapel when he received that letter from St. John Paul II?
Bishop Herbert knew this, that he could not give completely of himself to his people of Cristilândia until he had given himself, including his will, over to Christ, and to his Father. It is in this Mass, in the breaking and sharing of the very Body and Blood of Christ that the love of God comes alive for us and in us, and we are then able to share that love in a radical way with others.
During one of my visits to our Priory in Brazil, I spent several days with Bishop Herbert at the Parish of St. Joseph the Worker, in the city of Paraíso do Tocantins. Bishop Herbert lived at this parish after he reached age 75, the mandatory retirement age for bishops. He lived there with the Redemptorists, with whom he found community, and who took very good care of him as he continued his work with the Office of Peace and Justice for the dioceses of Central Brazil. This was a work for the underserved of Brazil, and a work that many times put Bishop Herbert in danger with threats to his life, for exposing the corruption he encountered.
Bishop Herbert would see close friends, those with whom he worked as they strove to give voice to these vulnerable people, he would see some of these close friends killed for the Truth they proclaimed. As I visited him there in Paraíso do Tocantins, I was struck by his relationship with his Lord, and Bishop Herbert, heeding the gospel command, would draw others into that relationship. At the center of this relationship and the center of his ministry was the Eucharist. As we celebrated the Eucharist together each evening, it was as if he was back in that chapel on June 20, 1990, having received the letter from the Holy Father, finding himself asking those same questions: “How could this be asked of me?” “Lord, why?”
And in that Mass he would give over again his yes – Fiat.
The thousands of times Bishop Herbert entered into this dialogue with his Savior in the Eucharist, the thousands of times he offered those words, daily responding to the question, “Do you also want to leave?” “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
And then Bishop Herbert would say, “This is my Body… This is my Blood.”