In the spring of 1993, Father Denis, then Chaplain at Benedictine College, arranged for a group of BC students from the pro-life group, Ravens Respect Life, to attend a Vitae Foundation event in Kansas City. He told the students all they had to do was provide their own transportation and represent the college ministry program, have a nice dinner, and hear an excellent pro-life speaker.
As it would happen, the ten students got on the road later than they should have, and so had to hustle in two cars down to Kansas City. An amazing thing happened as they passed a Buchanan County sheriff’s car heading in the other direction. That patrol car whipped around and got the first car of students to pull over, and then immediately went after the second car and got them too. Both drivers were given tickets, and when they returned to campus, they humbly told Fr. Denis what had happened.
Where he wrangled up the money is still unknown, but he came up with the funds to pay for the students’ speeding tickets. My only defense was that my speedometer was broken, so I blame Fr. Brendan who was driving the lead car.
We could probably spend most of the rest of this day recounting the kind gestures, the quick chuckles, or the beaming smiles – many times all three at the same time – those lovable traits of Fr. Denis that we have each experienced and cherish. There wasn’t a situation that seemed to phase him; he always seemed to have an answer, or at least a three-page letter on how to solve the problem at hand. And what was such a blessing in many ways was his subtle, humble intentionality; he had purpose, but not abrasive in nature, he provided opportunities where one could easily join in.
That purpose, which drove him each day, was his vocation as a monk and his priesthood, to live in search of Christ with the Paschal joy that he experienced. And it wasn’t always easy – with nearly 70 years in the monastery, in this time in the Church’s history, Fr. Denis experienced many events and encounters in which to find joy, yet also many trials along the way.
He witnessed the struggles of the Church as it transitioned out of Vatican II, he affirmed his own vocation in a time when many others left, he saw Benedictine College come upon the brink of closing, yet when the opportunity was presented, he made key hires in the Theology department that would be the foundation for the College’s turnaround. The paschal joy we desire will always be in our embracing of difficulties and trials, so that through them we might be renewed. In our baptism, through our journeys in our given vocations, we come to know that this Paschal joy acknowledges Good Friday. As it has been put, we are an Easter-Sunday people living in a Good-Friday world.
Paschal joy acknowledges life’s pain, the violence, the injustices, the overwhelming anxieties. In the face of it all, our joy in Christ comes as we foster a close union with God, and St. Paul will remind us that as we are baptized into Christ, we are also baptized into his death, and so united with him in his resurrection. We grow in Paschal joy precisely because we allow ourselves to die in Christ.
To my brothers, this is the very heart of our monastic vocation, to enter into the death of Jesus. It was 69 years ago that Fr. Denis hoped to enter into this life in Christ, by dying with him as he lay prostrate in the rite of his monastic profession, asking the Lord for the graces necessary to live this life, to die to self so as to rise in Christ.
This is the paradox of the Paschal mystery and of our monastic lives, indeed with any vocation in Christ; to be washed clean in the blood of the Lamb, to be taken from the throne of the Cross to the glory of the Resurrection. The genius then of the Paschal mystery, this Paschal joy, is the depth and breadth by which we are allowed to encounter Christ in his Body.
Saint John, in our gospel, reveals the great command of Jesus – “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Christ’s love for us is revealed in his own vulnerability. Christ with his outstretched arms, with his open heart, this sheer vulnerability opens that Body of Christ to both suffering and joy.
In our own suffering, our own vulnerability, and our acknowledgement of the vulnerability of others in their suffering, opens to us the joy of being members of the One Body of Christ. Required of us in this, then, is what St. Benedict identifies for us as mutual obedience, which ultimately lies in our own obedience to God.
The late Cardinal Basil Hume put it this way:
“In everyday life we encounter all kinds of situations which are a constraint upon our initiative and our freedom in carrying out our tasks: Other people’s plans, other people’s arrangements, other people’s ideas, or – quite simply – other people, who frustrate us in one way or another. This, I think, is what St. Benedict had in mind when he talked about being obedient to one another. He did not mean just taking orders from others: he meant, rather, accepting the limitations which others impose upon us by the very fact that they are others.”
As members of the Body of Christ we are called to hear the promptings of God in each other, no matter how imperfect we are as his instruments, thus listening and bowing to another when needed. To bend when necessary, and seek to incorporate our lives into the spirit of our given community, so to be in union in search of Christ, with that very same Lord as our direction and guide.
As I mentioned, Fr. Denis’ monastic life traversed many difficult times in the Church and in our community, yet he was someone who could allow himself to be vulnerable, to understand his own brokenness, as well as the brokenness of others, and thus be an instrument for others to enter into the Body of Christ. He was a bridge-builder and a champion of the good, all in the Paschal joy of Christ.
As we consider the life of this monk and priest, let us reflect upon the qualities that allowed Fr. Denis to live in this Paschal joy: to listen with joy, to speak with joy, to act with joy, and to pray with joy. For us today, maybe this provides an examination of conscience on how we ourselves live those qualities in Christ.
As we offer up Fr. Denis, our brother, let us examine our own manner in which we allow ourselves to vulnerable in Christ so as to share in the joy of his resurrection.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.