By Rev. Ronald P. Raab, C.S.C.
In November, the Church remembers the dead. The month starts celebrating our universal saints and then the souls of loved ones. November moves us into deep reflection as we ponder the gospels of end times. We celebrate Christ the King as the culmination of our liturgical year. In November, in our northern hemisphere, rains arrive, cooler air prevails, and the sturdy brown oak leaves whirl across backyards. Death occupies our preparations for another winter.
At the University of Notre Dame, one of our cemeteries for the Congregation of Holy Cross, also becomes a focus of our common prayer in November. Once a year, our Holy Cross members gather for Eucharist and then process to the cemetery to remember our dead. Men bundled in heavy coats slowly process into the quiet of our brothers’ graves. We may protect ourselves from the rain in some years, but we can’t protect ourselves from the reality of death. We ponder the beauty of those who have spent their lives in the Church, opening the way for us. The path we trod along the grave markers is the path others will walk when we die and are buried in the tight rows.
I have spent most of my years in Holy Cross, away from this cemetery. I love taking my place in the prayerful stroll in and among the concrete crosses that mark the burial site of priests and brothers. Our names are carved on the bottom of the cross, along with our date of birth and death. RIP is carved in the center of the gray concrete cross. We are buried next to the man who died before us. The only exceptions are provincials and superiors general. No matter who rests next to us on the earth, we remain the same in the beauty of God’s eternity. We are all offered home in His face.
As I stroll this year through the garden of burial, I will take special note of men I remember when I worked as an orderly at Holy Cross House in 1976. I will greet Fr. Garvin and Fr. Margraf, who taught me that physical vulnerability is a home for God’s grace. I will listen again to the voices of men who taught me that memory loss and isolation may still be sources of prayer learning to trust in our Savior. Most significantly, I remember Fr. John, struck by a car in the 1960s while riding a bicycle. The priest was bedridden for nearly twenty years. The nurses challenged me to care for him, and even though he could not speak or move, he taught me what it means to be a brother to him and these men. I am grateful for all who taught me in the past to trust in God and to believe in my gifts.
I will stroll among the many crosses in November and, in my mind, hear their voices and delight in their sense of humor. I will listen to Fr. Sheedy tell stories. I will still hear Fr. Gorski’s singing voice, strong and vibrant, echoing the songs of Easter. I will recall Fr. Carl playing the classical guitar and Fr. Maloney’s tenor voice singing a psalm during Holy Week. My favorite artists, Fr. Lauck and Fr. Flanigan, will tell me in my imagination how to take away what doesn’t belong in my artwork. I will hear several spiritual directors’ voices still offering me advice. I will listen to them also tell me how much Jesus cares for me. I will treasure those voices along the path of the past.
My former pastors will be present to me as I walk slowly and intentionally in our cemetery this year. They will tell me jokes and stories that crack me up as I quietly glance down at their headstones. I can’t wait to tell them about the various communities they serve. These verbal exchanges happen like old friends getting together after a long absence. Even though I can no longer see their facial expressions, I can imagine their reactions and voices. These men walked me through the ups and downs of parish life. They encouraged me to fight for justice and rouse the weary to serve impoverished people. They entrusted to me the hope and vision of Vatican II. They are still my pastors.
The priests buried along the tidy rows were buried in liturgical vestments. I find this consoling. Chasubles claim them. The identity of the priest is revealed even in death. We wear identical clothing visible in caskets upon our viewing at death. I believe they are still offering prayers for our well-being. I imagine their arms are open wide at altar tables, and their voices still boldly proclaim the wonder of love, the extravagance of grace, and the abundance of mercy. I cling to those who once sat in confessionals and prayed over the sinner aching for new life. I know now they, too, have received such a gift.
As a seminarian, I remember helping carry caskets to the cemetery. They were strangers to me then. I remember Brother Clarence always dug the graves in those days. I don’t know who dug his grave when he died. I see Brother John’s grave marker, and I wonder if he is organizing all the paperwork for them in heaven since he was the secretary for many provincials for over 50 years.
I remember Brother Marcellus quietly clipped grass from around the concrete gravestones. He must have prayed in rows. His one shoe always squeaked when he walked the long hallways in the seminary. The rhythmic and often annoying sound reminded us seminarians that he had been walking among the dead. I was always grateful.
Some of my brothers in the ground came to religious life beginning in high school. Others had fought in wars and desired to dedicate their lives to peace. Others worked in the world as teachers, counselors, and administrators. Some were bakers and cooks. Some were salespeople or bankers. Many discovered new gifts in religious life after being sent into ministries well beyond their expertise. Many found their way into contemplative prayer, while others are known for fundraising and building new buildings. Some of these men were known internationally. Others preferred to be hidden workers in the confines of daily life.
Some priests and brothers learned new languages after being sent into mission territories. Others spoke Latin to celebrate sacraments. Some knew the new language and perspective of Vatican II. Many men were serious about their vocation and still made everyone laugh. Many of our priests and brothers carried their lifelong grief. Others found the support of their blood family and friends across the globe. Some of these men hoped their influence would be lasting and strong. Some men articulated regrets before their last breath, while others silently held them until the end. Others lived life in the moment, seeking the grace of our Savior.
I remember Fr. Toohey, whose preaching reached students across the years. I wanted so much to capture his words and sentences and fashion my life in the gospel. Fr. Gerber was my spiritual director for six years in formation. He still reminds me that flaws are the places in which God works to heal and mend us. Vulnerability becomes a container of grace. He was the first priest I knew who was allergic to alcohol, the Precious Blood of our Savior. I still thank God on my knees for his years of sobriety. Fr. Kelly led the seminary while I was in college. He helped in our parish years later during his mental decline. I hope he knows how much he formed us in those beginning years. Four men were named “Ron” in our province some years ago. Now, three of them can be found under a cross in our cemetery. I pray more men named Ron will someday join us. Fr. Oddo was killed tragically, as was Fr. Schultz. I miss them.
In November, I will walk with intention among the crosses that mark the lives of Holy Cross priests and brothers. The rain will soak me as I tromp through piles of leaves. Once again, I will uncover past memories as I long for new generations to see my tears. Christ, our King: Open the gates of paradise for us
About Rev. Ronald P. Raab, C.S.C.:
Rev. Ronald Patrick Raab, CSC serves as religious superior of Holy Cross House, our retirement and medical facility at Notre Dame, Indiana. He is an award-winning author, blogger and visual artist. Learn more: ronaldraab.com
Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, image from Fr. Ron, 2018