Column: Blessed aunt’s witness taught many life lessons

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

This past Friday, I was in Munster, Ind., to celebrate the funeral Mass for my Aunt Dolores.

She was my mother’s only sibling. As recently as this September when my aunt turned 86, she was still healthy enough to drive herself to a weekly bridge game. However, for the past several months, she has been in hospice care, so her death was hardly unexpected.

In the mid-1950s, my aunt and uncle moved to Griffith, Ind. — a suburban community between Gary and Chicago. When they moved to Griffith, they did not know anyone within 300 miles. At the time, they had five of their eventual eight sons.

Quickly, they became involved with their local parish — St. Mary’s. The elderly and very wise pastor formed what he called the St. Theodore Club, whose members were young couples with growing families. Through this club, my aunt and uncle made some incredible friends, who became as close as family.

My brother and I would spend most of the summer with my cousins. They would come to St. Louis for a couple of weeks and most of the rest of the summer we stayed with my cousins in Indiana.

What generosity it takes to give birth eight times — to endure the discomfort of nine months of pregnancy as well as the pain of labor and delivery. However, as every seasoned mother knows, labor and delivery are the easy part. The real challenge is spending the next 20-plus years nurturing, caring for, teaching and sacrificing for the children to whom you have given life.

During the prayer service at the wake, when various family members shared memories, one of my cousins expressed his gratitude for the discipline and tough love my aunt provided which saved him from becoming a spoiled child and a self-centered adult.

At the time of my aunt’s death, I was on retreat with the bishops from Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska at Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, Calif. As I boarded the flight from San Diego heading back to the Midwest, a very friendly flight attendant asked: “Father, did you know that you are on an unmanned flight?” She explained the pilot and co-pilot and all the flight attendants were female.

There was definitely a feminine touch to the flight. The pilot actually came out of the cockpit to address and welcome all the passengers. After complimenting us for having exquisite taste in choosing our airline, she took time to explain briefly our route and flying conditions. It was a great flight. The captain and entire crew did an excellent job.

The Gospel text for the funeral Mass concluded with Jesus saying to the apostles: “Where I am going you know the way.” Thomas asks: “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”

Jesus responds to this objection with the declaration: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” What does Jesus mean when he says that he is “the Way and the Truth and the Life?”

This passage from the 14th Chapter of John’s Gospel is situated right after John’s unique description of the Last Supper. John does not give us any of the details of the institution of the Eucharist found in the other Gospels. Instead, John recounts the washing of the apostles’ feet by Jesus. The One, whom they called Lord and teacher, assumed the role of a servant, performing the most menial gesture of service — the washing of the dusty, dirty, smelly feet of guests.

When Jesus completed washing all of the apostles’ feet and Our Lord resumed his place at table, he said: “Do you know what I have done for you? You call me teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Jesus is the Way! What is this way? It is the way of servant love. Jesus is the Truth! What is this Truth? It is the Truth that God so loved us that he assumed our humanity by being born into this world. Our Lord emptied himself. He humbled himself, accepting even death on the cross for our sake. Jesus is the Life! What is this Life? According to Jesus, we have to lose our life to find abundant life. We have to be like the seed that dies and (because it dies) produces fruit a hundredfold!

In my aunt’s era, being an airline pilot was not a possibility for a woman. Aunt Dolores was a very bright, gifted, spirited and fearless woman. In my estimation, she was capable of being an airline pilot or anything else she might have desired to achieve. Yet, I am hard-pressed to think of anything more important Aunt Dolores could have done or achieved than caring for her family.

When I reflect upon Aunt Dolores’ 86 years of life, I believe she really did follow the One who is the Way and the Truth and the Life. Aunt Dolores spent her life living the great command of Jesus — to love as he loved.

As a wife and mother, she chose in many ways to lose her own life in the service of her family. In fact, I do not know any group about whom it is truer than mothers — and especially mothers of large families, who willingly choose to lose their lives in order to give life and nurture the lives of others. Mothers lay aside so many personal preferences, their own privacy, and indulging their own desires in service to their spouse and children.

There is a lot of debate today about the very nature of marriage. What is lost in much of the debate about the definition of marriage is that, historically, marriage has never been just about the couple. Most definitely, one of the essential purposes of marriage is for the mutual good of the couple.

However, the reason that marriage is so important and throughout history has been given such a special status is that it is also about giving life and forming the next generation. In this, marriage serves a critical, absolutely essential role for culture, society, the nation and the church.

I suppose my aunt could have chosen to spend her life in many other ways and made a difference in the world. My aunt outlived most of her own friends and contemporaries. Yet, still there was a significant crowd at her funeral — many of whom would not be alive were it not for her and my uncle’s love. Everyone in that congregation had been significantly touched by a woman who had lost her life and, in the process, produced life a hundredfold. Stay tuned. Next week, I will conclude my reflection on lessons from Aunt Dolores.

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