[This homily was delivered to the Sunday Mass Community at St. John Fisher College following the sudden, unexpected death of Fr. Joseph Lanzalaco, C.S.B., Director of Campus Ministry]
26 July 2015
“No Ordinary Sunday”
It was the Sunday immediately following September 11, 2001. I don’t remember what church I was in that morning but it was not here. The place was packed with people who were in shock. They were sad, crying, angry; dismayed at the tragedy that caught us all off guard. There were no words of consolation. Nothing was even said. I don’t even think there was an intention in the Prayer of the Faithful. The homilist preached the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time as if it were just another Sunday. It was hard to see God that day. People left feeling worse than when they arrived. Left to deal with their suffering – OR NOT – on their own.
Today, we are those people once again. Sad, angry, dismayed at the tragedy which has gripped us. But we are not left to deal with our suffering alone and this is not just to be the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time. We have lost in every sense our Father, brother, uncle, cousin, friend, confident, mentor, our own Fr. Joe. For us, today is as much a funeral as will be this Wednesday. How can it not be? We are his worshipping family and we must…we will, deal with his passing together.
When suffering and grief are not addressed bad things happen. Many turn angry at God. Lose faith. As Christians we must understand God does not want us to suffer but assures us that when suffering and pain come our way he will walk with us through it and we will emerge from it closer to him. To do any less is to turn from the Cross instead of picking ours up. To do any less is to minimize the suffering and pain of his Son Jesus whose Cross was not something to run from but embraced by him and therefore his suffering and pain was made redemptive – not for him alone but forth us. His suffering, death was made perfect in the resurrection and offers us today – as every day – a way out of our suffering and pain. It is our way to deal with it. It is our way out of the darkness and despair and into the light.
The apostle St. Paul asks a question in his letter to the Corinthians. It is a rhetorical question. He asks “Death, where is your sting?” Being rhetorical, he answers it – “Death is swallowed up in victory through Christ.” It is a reality that our heart of faith knows to its very core. The problem is we are on this side of the resurrection and we not only have willing hearts of faith but hearts of flesh and there the sting is real. Very real. It hurts terribly.
So we turn to the cross. Not only the One Cross of Jesus, but the one that has come our way. We will pick it up together with God and God will see us through.
Friday morning as news of Fr. Joe was unfolding, I was in Steubenville Ohio Friday, high up on the mountain that is Franciscan University with two students at a bible conference. I literally had one foot in the shower and my hand on the phone talking with Dr. Rooney about Fr. Joe and what would, should and could happen next. [Sorry for putting that image in your mind.] We consoled each other remembering little things about Fr. Joe and the deep friendship we each had with him. I mentioned that Fr. Joe was the most unlikely of priests…and the very best of priests at the same. After that call I began my own reflection on the long ride back home. I thought back to the very first time I met Fr. Joe. It was right here in this chapel. Then director of Campus Ministry, Fr. Paul English, announced he would be leaving but in the same breath said he was leaving us in good hands with one of his Basilian conferes, Fr. Joseph Lanzalaco. Fr. Joe stood without saying a word but just waved his acknowledgement. I remember thinking….hmmmm, what’s with the ponytale? After Mass, out front on the sidewalk…hmmmh, a smoker. And those gloves. Biker glovers. (people still think he was this hippy, biker dude-priest….but those gloves were so his fingers wouldn’t get cold smoking)
Little did I know I would soon spend almost every day of the next fourteen years either being with him or at least talking to him. He was not only our Father…but for me became the older brother I never had. And I soon realized we were in good hands…very good hands.
When tragedy befalls us we lose our bearings momentarily. We become unsure of the very things that used to hold us fast. I am still there…in shock, unsure of many things…but there are two things of which I am sure. 1) Rev. Fr. Joseph Lanzalaco is in heaven with his Savior. (Heck with all those Carmelite prayers, he was there before his eyes where fully closed) 2) The other thing I’m sure of is ten minutes after his arrival….all the No Smoking signs came down. As much we are pained knowing his smoking would never lead him down a good path….I cannot think of him without it.
The most unlikely of priests….and the very best of priests. Through God’s grace, our beloved Fr. Joe I believe, is going to help us out of our pain and suffering and lead us back to wellness. My reflection his made me aware of three things about him we cannot overlook if we are to get there. Even through our pain is great, his example is greater.
Fr. Joe, would never, ever say this about himself but the first is humility. What a humble soul he was. In all my time with him I cannot remember a moment when he had a single thought was about himself. He would relish in small, yet deliberate ways to help and be there for others. Ya know, this is how God in his infinite mercy and love is good – we don’t even have to go any farther then todays readings to find our consolation and a way to begin to bear this cross. Our second reading from St. Paul to the Ephesians says,
“I urge you [brothers and sisters] to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness…”
Is this not Fr. Joe to a tee? We know a lot about his ministry from the things he would share with us in his homilies. But many might not know how he would bring coffee and doughnuts to the security guards on Christmas or Easter because while we were home with family, they had to be here on campus. The countless he helped with assistance our Chaplains fund allowed him…books or tuition assistance for a student who could not make it otherwise; a plane ride home for one of our housekeeping staff to attend her mothers funeral; a few hundred dollars to an alum just days away from being homeless; I remember he even helped a student get a dress for her prom after she came in tears feeling so poorly about herself (I know that student now – an alum these many years after graduation who is a wonderfully beautiful and confident person – who still remembers that simple kindness as a turning point in her life.) It had nothing….and EVERYTHING to do with the gospel…in his humility Joe knew that.
I mentioned I was at Franciscan University with some students this past we at a bible conference. Part of that conference was for two days to study the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians. In it Paul says,
Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vanity; rather, IN HUMILITY regard others as more important than yourselves [2:3a] Fr. Joe…to a tee!
We don’t, and never probably will, know the details of his last moments with us but some things that have emerged are again perfectly Fr.Joe. Knowing he was not well, before calling an ambulance for himself, he called the Carmelite Monastery, to let them know he was going to call for paramedics and wanted to give them an opportunity to find another priest for Mass on Friday morning as he expected he would probably be in the hospital. Although he would never make it there alive, after making that call he quietly went out on the front porch to wait their arrival because he did not want to wake his brother priests and disturb their sleep. I’m sorry but I cannot believe otherwise….you just gotta know Fr. Joe had one last cigarette there on that porch while he waited.
In his humility he leaves us an example not only on how we can turn from needs of self and to the needs of others but in it he offers us a step through our pain and towards healing.
Secondly. In his humility, he was quick to say…well, Dcn. Tom’s responsible for that; or Julie does that; community service? Well that’s all Sally and Tyler. He would never claim any credit for himself. He was quick to simply say his was, “A ministry of presence.” And what a presence he was. His unique and sometimes, shall we say, “edgy” sense of humor left us immediately at ease and welcomed. There was no doubt after an encounter with Fr. Joe that you were accepted and loved…not just by him…but by God. What a gift! The wonderful American writer and poet Maya Angelou, has said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This is the presence Fr. Joe had to help us feel loved and accepted. As we move forward let his ministry of presence lead us deeply and ever closer to the presence of Christ.
Lastly…and I believe most importantly. In his humility, completely satisfied to simply be a presence of Christ in this world, there was one thing he was so proud to be….and that was a PRIEST. As free as he was to give accolades to others for the work that they accomplished, he would always say, “I do the one thing I can do and that is to offer sacrifice… because I am a priest…and that’s what a priest does….he offers sacrifice.” Here at this altar…offering sacrifice so as to feed us with the body and blood of Christ. How could today’s gospel be any more perfect? Prefiguring the last supper Jesus, there on the hillside with the ones he loves, feeding those who had come before him. Meeting them where they are. Meeting their needs at the moment. They were hungry so he fed them. That’s it. Not shoving theology at them. Not prophesying. Feeding them.
That’s Fr. Joe. Meeting each who came before him where they are. Not shoving theology at them. Not prophesying. Feeding them.
“I do the one thing I can do and that is to offer sacrifice…because I am a priest…and that’s what a priest does….he offers sacrifice.” With those words never more real he has offered us one final sacrifice. One, that just like every day at this altar, does not point to himself but points instead to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ….his Lord….his Savior. And I believe more than anything else…through his humility…through his ministry of presence….through his loving, gentle, edgy humor…he was witnessing that message for us. Telling us to turn here, to the altar, with our pain. Turn here with our suffering. Let the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, feed us; redeem us; and ultimately lead us to heavens gate where we can hear the words I am sure Fr. Joe heard Friday morning…”Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Joseph M. Lanzalaco. The most unlikey of priests….AND… the very best of priests. May he RIP.