As the bishop incensed my father’s casket I chanted the hymn In Paradisum, “May the angels lead you into paradise.” My father had helped lead me to the Catholic Faith; now I was helping lead him to heaven.
Sometimes parents hesitate or even refuse to encourage a son to consider becoming a Catholic priest. Perhaps they have vague fears about the challenges a priest’s life entails, or maybe they have formulated their own hopes and plans for their son’s future. Well, permit me to share some very concrete, tangible blessings my family received recently by having a son as a priest. This reflection is not about me, but rather about priesthood itself.
Two weeks before Thanksgiving, on a Sunday morning, my father fell in the backyard and sustained devastating injuries. He entered into intensive nursing care, unable to speak and needing assistance with breathing and eating, and would remain bed-bound for the remaining few weeks of his life; I gave him the Sacraments of Confession, Anointing of the Sick, and
Holy Communion. Two weeks later one of my brothers got married at a parish close to our home; I offered the wedding Mass and preached the homily. Five weeks later we celebrated Christmas; I offered 4 Christmas Masses in my own parish and then a private Mass with my father and family the next day. One week later my sister got married at our family’s home parish; I presided and preached. Two weeks later my father died; I anointed him and offered the funeral Mass and preached. These were eleven weeks of intense family drama: of human life and death, of love and sorrow, of joy and tears. And the priest was at the center of it all!
I particularly remember the day of my sister’s wedding. That morning I offered Mass at my dad’s bedside along with my mom and sister, giving dad the Holy Eucharist. Later that day I celebrated the Catholic wedding ritual for my sister. Then the next day I visited one of my uncles who is dying and gave him the Sacrament of Anointing, helping prepare him to meet God. It was an incredible experience for me; Sacramental encounters with three different family members at poignant and critical moments in their lives, all in the span of 24 hours!
Permit me to reflect a bit more on my encounters with my father the last few weeks of his life. Sadly, he could not communicate verbally over those last weeks. However, when I would visit and offer Mass in his bedroom he would mouth the prayers; they apparently lay deep in his psyche and soul. Though he could not take food or liquid by mouth, when I offered him a sponge soaked with the precious blood of Christ, he sucked and savored it (reminding me of Christ on the cross sucking wine from the sponge). Nothing seemingly could be done for him materially at that stage of his ailment, and yet I could serve him in an existential way, encouraging him in the depths of his soul and spirit with the Holy Eucharist.
The night my father passed, I gave him the Sacrament of Anointing for the second time and then prayed a candlelit Mass in his room with my family, singing Silent Night together. As word got out about his death, priest friends of mine began to offer Masses for him. Within 4 days of his passing, Mass had been offered 24 times on 4 continents for him by name! At the funeral Mass itself, 20 priests attended and concelebrated, and the local bishop offered closing prayers. The bishops of my own diocese also offered private Masses for him. If Mass has any effect – and we believe it does – then dad has a powerful spiritual force behind him, purifying his soul and pushing him toward heaven!
Recently I preached to my parish and proclaimed to the parents present; “If you want to get to heaven, encourage your sons to become priests!” Some of them won’t be called to it, but some will. Hope that at least one is called; it might be just what gets you into heaven! And it will bless your family in many unanticipated ways!
Having read this article, please now offer one prayer for my father, Leon, that the angels will lead him into paradise so he can see God face to face.
Fr. Michael DeAscanis is the former Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Baltimore and current pastor of St. Philip Neri Parish in Linthicum