Given by Father Peter Marsalek, General Priest Servant of SOLT
March 29, 2016
Fifty-eight years ago, Fr. Flanagan arrived right here in the Mora Valley, down the road at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Holman, where he met his co-founder, Fr. John McHugh, and together they began the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, as well as a life long graced friendship with one another. How fitting it is that we celebrate Fr. Jim’s funeral Mass and burial here in the Mora Valley, and just as Fr. John was here to welcome Fr. Jim 58 years ago, he is here again today as a faithful friend to see him off today. And how fitting it was, that on Wednesday night, Fr. Jim’s last outwardly intentional action was a gesture of friendship to Fr. John. On the last night, Fr. John came into the room, grabbed Fr. Jim’s hand and said, “Jim Flanagan, you can’t have a better friend than Jim Flanagan.” At that, Fr. Jim, who had been essentially lying still and mostly unresponsive, mustered his last bit of strength precisely for Fr. John, put his hand on the hand of Fr. John, leaned forward and made eye contact! At that moment, Fr. John thought it would be a good idea to begin singing the Notre Dame Fight Song, to which Fr. Jim quickly fell back on to his pillow! That interaction perhaps sums up the history of SOLT in many ways, beautiful, loving and inspirational, with a little touch of the slightly misplaced or poorly timed!
Living the Life of Christ
Our second reading today really reveals the heart of the Christian life according to St. Paul. For St. Paul, at the very center of Christian life is not a set of rules or code of behavioral conduct, but rather the person of Jesus Christ. As he says, we are baptized into the life of Christ, we live in communion with Him, we suffer with Him, we die with Him, all so that we can rise with the Lord in His resurrection. I believe that this was really the key to Fr. Jim’s life, he saw himself as striving to live the life of Christ, to live the mysteries of Christ’s life in an ever greater way in his own life. And he understood that the best way to accomplish this was to be one with Christ in praying and celebrating the liturgy of the Church. Indeed, it was one of the greatest points of emphasis in Fr. Jim’s teaching. It was the reason he placed such emphasis on liturgy prep or lectio divina. It was the consolation and mystery surrounding the dying of little Danny George, they rejoiced and received great consolation on certain feast days, and entered into Christ’s passion in a particular way on other more somber liturgical days. This was the constant invitation of Fr. Jim, to enter into union with Jesus Christ by living the Church’s liturgy! It was also therefore the reason why he emphasized so greatly the Paschal mystery – the culmination of the salvation won by Jesus Christ and therefore the high point of the Church’s worship in the liturgical cycle!
Fr. Flanagan’s Love for the Eucharist and Priesthood
How beautiful and fitting it was then that Fr. Jim died on the morning of Holy Thursday, the day on which we celebrate the Institution of the Priesthood and the Institution of the Eucharist. It is also the reason why we chose today’s Gospel reading on the Eucharist. Fr. Jim truly believed that Jesus in the Eucharist is “the living bread that came down from heaven” and “whoever eats this bread will live forever.” As a result, Fr. Jim placed the Eucharist at the very center of his life and often reminded us that our life is meant to be lived from “Communion to Communion.” With great fondness, Fr. Jim would recall travelling with his family and searching for places for daily Mass and determining when they would need to begin their 12 hour fast in those days. It was a love for the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, that he received in faith through the instrumentality of his family that marked his life. Indeed, his love for the Eucharist was truly his “soul thirsting for the living God, longing to see Him face to face”, as we heard in the Responsorial Psalm. As a priest, whenever Fr. Jim received word of the death of someone, whatever time of day, he would immediately rise to celebrate Mass for that person! Nothing was more important for Fr. Jim than celebrating the Eucharist, and for that reason he had such a remarkable esteem for the priesthood!
I was told following Fr. Jim’s death that he would be entitled to a military salute and burial, with the casket draped in the American flag. While we are all very proud of Fr. Jim’s and Fr. John’s heroic military service in World War II and have a great deal of respect for the great honor of a military burial, I am certain that the only symbols Fr. Jim would want to be associated with in his passing from this world are the ones on his casket: the Cross – the sign of our salvation; the pieta of Mary receiving Jesus from the Cross – the sign of our Mother’s care for the Body of Christ; and the Last Supper – our foretaste of eternal life in communion with the Lord! Besides, when asked about his nationality, or where he came from, Fr. Jim would always say, “heaven” – quite fittingly he was born on Ascension Thursday! Furthermore, Fr. Jim founded a community present in 13 different countries around the world and he was equally a father and brother to all of our Philippino, Thai, Papuan, Vietnamese,Guatemalan, Mexican, Ghanean, Malean, Belizean, Haitian, Irish, English, Canadian and American brothers and sisters.
The Beauty of Blessing
It was precisely the Cross that marked the life and final days of Fr. Jim. Indeed, it was beautiful and even slightly humourous the number of times in his final days that Fr. Jim would seemingly so naturally either make the sign of the cross or send a blessing off. Indeed, the giving and receiving of blessings was a great point of emphasis for Fr. Flanagan and also I believe a real key to his life and teaching. The Latin word for blessing is benedicere which literally means – to speak well of. In order to bless someone, or speak well of someone, one must perceive some goodness in the person. When you think of it, this is precisely what God has done for us in blessing us! He sees in us a goodness which He Himself placed there, He makes us His adopted children in Baptism and therefore when He looks at us, He sees the goodness of His divine Son Jesus to whom He conformed us because Christ first conformed Himself to us. The blessing in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, marks the great gift of God bringing us into His family, in communion with Him. He couldn’t do anything greater for us or seeing anything greater in us than His children. And at the same time, the gift is given in the sign of the Cross to remind us that the gift of being a child of God carries with it the responsibility of conforming one’s life to the life of Christ, of living in communion with Him, of living as St. Paul says, the life of Christ!
In constantly blessing people, and I mean constantly blessing, it was a sign that Fr. Jim saw goodness in others, he perceived that they should be spoken well of, and his desire was to bring them into communion with the family of God. I think it’s the reason why so many people felt so close to him – he believed in us, encouraged us and thought that with God’s grace we could do just about anything! In fact, one can also easily see where this practically became a weakness of sort – perhaps he sometimes believed in us too much at times! However, in a world where people are more likely to be skeptical and isolated, Fr. Jim fostered hope and community.
Continuing the work of Fr. Flanagan
In the first reading we hear that the blessed “find rest from their labours, for their works accompany them.” In this world, Fr. Jim certainly did not know rest from his labor! He was constantly driven to do the work of his Heavenly Father. On Fr. Jim’s second to last night, at one point he started saying, “What do you want me to do? What do you want me to do?” Even at the end of his life, with his strength and energy sapped, he was still asking the question! Perhaps however, the answer to his question is that he simply needed to let go. He needed to trust. He needed to pass on his life’s work for others to continue. This is precisely where we enter the picture to carry forth the work that was begun by Fr. Flanagan. As we move forward together we surely need to achieve a balance: 1) First, between being faithful to the spiritual patrimony and charism received through the Founder but to trust that the living expression of said patrimony and charism is interpreted and understood through the living authority of the Church; And second, to remember and esteem the memory of our Founder, but to remember that none of us are called to be disciples of Fr. Jim Flanagan, we are called to be disciples of Jesus through Mary, living in Marian Trinitarian Communion, serving on ecclesial teams in areas of deepest apostolic need.
Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity
It would be impossible to conclude Fr. Jim’s funeral homily without a word dedicated to Our Blessed Mother Mary, Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity. Six years after the founding of SOLT, the Vatican II document on the Church, Lumen Gentium, spoke of Mary in a Trinitarian perspective as the beloved daughter of the Father, temple of the Holy Spirit and Mother of the Son. In my humble opinion, it was a significant and beautiful Providential confirmation of sorts of the inspiration Fr. Jim received to found a community dedicated to Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity. In our call to be the beloved children of the Father, the power of the Holy Spirit working interiorly within us leads us to be conformed to the Image of the Son in order to live as the family of God. And this expression of our spirituality is manifested most beautifully when we are able to serve meaningfully with one another as a family of priests, sisters and lay people, united to Holy Mother Church through the authority of the bishops under whom we serve! Fr. Jim entrusted his life to Our Lady, and we take great comfort in her intercession on his behalf and our behalf as well.
In recent years, whenever I see Jim O’Brien, one of the original SOLT members, he has from time to time indicated his shock at the growth of the Society and I suppose in some ways the fact that it is still around. He is right after all: too disorganized, too chaotic, too inefficient and too impractical! But despite our weaknesses and deficiencies, there is something in our experience which tells us there is something more there, which tells us to stay. In our graced friendships with one another, in our experience of communion in missions, we recognize that we experienced something that we never had before! It is a glimpse of the communion of the Most Holy Trinity and we understand that it is something worth giving our life to and passing on. It is really the heart of the gift that Fr. Jim and Fr. John try to pass on.
In some way, Fr. Jim has touched all of our lives. While our calling and vocation come from God, He allows us to be instruments to each other in that call and Fr. Jim was certainly an instrument for each of us. Returning to Fr. John’s expression of friendship to Fr. Jim, he also stated that night, “Jim Flanagan is the friend I didn’t deserve to have.” Indeed, perhaps we too can say similarly, that serving the Church in a community named and modelled after Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity is the gift we didn’t deserve! Rest in peace Fr. Jim, we love you, we pray for you, and we will do our best to continue the work you started!