Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Tribute to Bert

One of the areas of ministry in which I have been called upon to serve, both as ordained minister and as a pastoral musician, is bereavement. As a deacon I would represent the parish community at the wake service and lead prayers; as a musician, I am called upon to sing at funeral services. I'm blessed with a flexible work schedule that allows me to be present for others at a time of loss.

I wasn't necessarily predisposed to serve in the bereavement ministry. Indeed, I really wasn't accustomed to attend wakes or funerals, even as a teen. My wife and her siblings will tell you that I had a rough time (to put it mildly) the first time I attended a wake and funeral on her side of the family. Without going into a lot of verbiage, the experience was a wake-up call. It and other events like it made me appreciate the presentation on grief ministry that was part of my overall formation and studies for the diaconate.

Now let me tell you about Bert.

Bert 'entered eternal life', as is sometimes said when someone passes away, one year ago last Friday. His funeral Mass was held one year ago today.

I know Bert through the coattail relationships of marriage. Bert's daughter-in-law and my wife are sisters. As such, Bert and his wife Jenny were usually invited to all the extended family gatherings. They were usually present and happy to be among family.

I knew Bert for well over 20 years, but honestly didn't know a lot about him. Everything indicates that by the time I made his acquaintance, he had already retired from full time work. He and Jenny owned an apartment building in Chicago, near one of the old Polish neighborhoods; on weekends he and his son would do much of the maintenance of the building. If nothing else was pressing and the weather was good, they might catch a White Sox game at the old Comiskey Park. Bert was apparently a Sox fan.

It seemed to me that Bert always gave you respect. He was gracious enough to ask me how I was doing; he and I would often enter discussions about issues and how they affected Catholics. If I made a point with which he disagreed, he was still genuinely polite and courteous.

Bert and his son also introduced me to one of the crown jewels of Chicago church architecture, St. Mary of the Angels. Though Bert and Jenny had moved out of the city years earlier, this was their 'home' church. When the call came for donations to renovate and restore its aging structure, Bert contributed. When the Archdiocese of Chicago hinted that lowering attendance threatened to close the church, Bert and others from the old neighborhood signed petitions. They would also drive into the city and attend Mass there if circumstances allowed. It was from this historic church that Bert received his rites of passage from here to eternity.

When the word came that Bert had passed away, I went to Chicago to represent my wife's side of the family at the wake. I had already committed to sing at another funeral Mass the following day, but promised I'd try to catch up with the family afterward; either at the cemetery or at the luncheon. I had gone on no pretenses other than to be present for the family. However, because I was known to Bert and his son as a deacon, the son wanted me to lead at the wake. I told him quite frankly that it wasn't my place to do so, not being attached to the church Bert was from. But the son was insistent, and when the priest from the church ran late, I finally agreed to lead prayer. At that point I also promised I would meet him at the cemetery, even though it meant sitting in my car in a huge cemetery on a cold March day unsure as to when they would arrive.

Bert might have asked for a small favor from God; it may just have been a blessing of grace. I noticed the remembrance cards, and took one which I carry with me nearly every place. I also have a framed portrait of the same image from the card. It is an image of Jesus, welcoming home the newcomer. I received that portrait at the end of last summer, from my friend Pastor Paul, as a reminder of the journey we're all on and what we ultimately long for. It's another story in itself, but if it hadn't been for Bert, I might have missed at least some of it.

The morning of the funeral there was a gap in time between the start of the two services, even though they were fifteen miles apart. And the Mass at which I was to sing started even earlier than expected. Making some calculations, there was a chance I could still catch Bert's procession before it left the city. It was a close call. It had been some time since I'd last been to St. Mary of the Angels; I wasn't sure I remembered exactly where it was; traffic approaching downtown Chicago was slowing down as it generally tends to do. I made it to the church only minutes before Bert's funeral Mass ended. The son was outside waiting. We made the long procession out to the cemetery, practically around the corner from Bert's suburban home, where I gave the prayers at the graveside. Though cold and biting, it came to me that I should sing. Bert was a bit more traditional, so I offered one of the classics; here, a bit updated.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved and set me free,
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved,
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

My chains are gone, I've been set free,
My God, my saviour has ransomed me,
And like a flood his mercy reigns,
Unending love, amazing grace.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures,
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

My chains are gone, I've been set free,
My God, my saviour has ransomed me,
And like a flood his mercy reigns,
Unending love, amazing grace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine,
But God who called me here below
Will be forever mine,
Will be forever mine,
You are forever mine.

My chains are gone!!
I've been set free!!
My God, my saviour has ransomed me!!!
And like a flood his mercy reigns
Unending love, amazing grace...

--John Newton and Chris Tomlin

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