Saturday, April 19, 2014

Erica in El Salvador. She will be remembered by the flowers! Easter Homily 2014


Last year our parish took it's first ever mission trip to El Salvador.  One of the most cherished things that we do is visit the families in their home.  Last year the leader of the group called "Obras de Caridad" ("Works of Charity") led our group.  She allowed us to deliver sacks of beans to the people that lived along the hillsides of the mountain of Teotepeque ("God's Mountain").  When we finished visiting all of the sick, the elderly and the disabled she wanted us see her home.  That is when we met Erica.

I remember being in the house with a number of people from our group and as we looked around at the pictures of family and Holy images of the Sacred Heart and Mary... Dr. Ohliger (who is a parishioner of St. Joseph and family doctor) came up to me and said: "Fr. Michael, you need to come here..." he brought me over to Erica who was a twenty year old mother holding her daughter.  He said look at her shoulder.  I could see a bulge by her neck.  He gently moved her neckline to reveal a large cyst about the size of my fist.  He said: "Fr. Michael this is bad, she's got cancer."  I was stunned and didn't know what to say or do. Again, Dr. Ohliger, this family care doctor from the states said: "We need to pray over her and you need to bless her."  He pulled out his Holy Water which he had been carrying discreetly in his pocket and handed it to me, this clueless priest.

photo (2)
(Erica, on the right, holding her daughter)

Our group gathered around Erica and laid hands on her and then I blessed her and made the sign of the cross with holy water on her tumor and asked God to heal her.  As with many people that we meet on a mission trip we left never knowing what would happen to her.

Last week we took our second mission trip to El Salvador, it was just one year later.  The first thing we experienced after arriving from the airport was the party we threw for them in celebration of the Academy that we helped to start.  There was singing, dancing, food and laughter.  There were familiar faces, and memories from a year ago.  There was a birthday party planned for one of the nuns.

It was on our second day that the priests mentioned to me that they had someone in the community who died midmorning.  It was Erica.  Fr. Johnny O. and Fr. Stalla had both been to see her and care for her many times.  Earlier that morning Fr. Stalla was with her to administer last rites.  Fr. Stalla, though saddened by her loss expressed a great deal of excitement on his face because he was there before she died to give her "The Apostolic Blessing with the Plenary Indulgence."  This is a special privilege that we as priests are granted for people "in danger of death."

The priest says:

Through the holy mysteries of our redemption,
may almighty God release you
from all punishments in this life
and in the life to come.

May he open to you the gates of paradise
and welcome you to everlasting joy. R. Amen.*

We were informed that her wake would be that night and the funeral the next morning.  I found it hard to believe that I was there in El Salvador one year later grieving with the family at the loss of their daughter.  I have to believe that God in His great providence brought us back here for some purpose.  

In poorer countries he wakes are often held in the home.  When we got there Erica's father just broke down and cried in Fr. Stalla's arms.  The mother remembered me from last year and I held her while she cried.  We crowded into their tiny one room house and the people spilled out into the walk leading there and onto the street.  I recognized her face through the glass opening of the casket.  She was dressed in pure white and looked very much like one would picture a saint.  

The next morning I realized as I distributed communion to her loved ones was that it is only through the Eucharist that we are able to remain connected to those whom we love.  It really is only through our union with Jesus as we receive him in communion "I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you." (John 14:20)  If we want to stay close to Erica then we must stay close to Jesus.  If she is with Him and we are with Him, then we are together.... Especially in the Eucharist.  I realized too that when I received the Eucharist that day I was with all the people throughout the world receiving.  I realized too that I would continue to be in union with the people of El Salvador even when I return home, whenever I receive the Eucharist we are one.... "I am in you and you are in me."
After the funeral mass the casket is carried in procession to the cemetery.  It was then that I realized the sheer number of people as they left the church and crowded into the streets.  This young girl, who was rarely able to leave her home had touched many lives.  

When we got to the cemetery there was a deep hole already in the ground, the rite was prayed and her body was lowered into the earth.  And something I've never seen before.  The family began to shovel dirt together.  There were three shovels and one by one the men began to shovel the dirt, her brothers, her father, her relatives and friends all releasing their tears with each movement of dirt.  When they got tired and had cried enough they passed the shovel until the hole was filled and the soil shaped a mound on top of her body.  At some point Erica's mother had disappeared and was being comforted by her other children.  That was the worst part... the silence at the end of the shoveling.  

But then something wonderful began to happen.  The ladies stepped forward with flowers planting them one at a time into the mound of dirt.  Before you knew it there were a dozen and then two dozen and then dozens and dozens of flowers.... one of the ladies watered the earth while more and more brought forward flowers until hundreds of flowers transformed the once dirt mound into the most beautiful vision of life.  It was then that I saw a transformation in the faces before me. Their tears had subsided, the once bare mound of dirt was now radiant with beautiful flowers.  There was a softening to the grieving and joy began to appear on the faces as they looked upon their arrangement reverencing her final place of rest.  The mother was brought forward for one last goodbye and that will be the last moment we all remember... the flowers, the colors, the smell of life and the ease of the tension of the faces that carry so much pain.  This is an image of the Resurrection.... the flowers that cover the earth.   

A few thoughts remain with me after this experience that relate to the mysteries we celebrate on Easter. 

We believe "We were indeed buried with him though baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life."  Erica shares in eternal life now with Jesus because of her baptism.  It was in and through her baptism that she already began eternal life.  This Easter all around the world people are being born into everlasting life through baptism.  It is by our very baptism when we are freed from lives of sin that we can finally hear clearly the Father's voice: "You are my beloved daughter... You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased."  If you are reading this and you have never been baptized you are not only welcome to, but you are being called summoned by Christ to life eternal.  

Bishop Pilla often says at funeral masses: "If you want to stay close to your loved one, stay close to Jesus."  The only one that has ever risen from the dead is Christ.  And our rising from the dead, your loved ones rising from the dead is completely and totally dependent on him.  This is why in the Eucharist Jesus gives us His very Body and Blood to eat and drink, so that He can be in us and we can be in Him.  

If you've been away from the Sacraments or away from the Church maybe now is the time to come back.  Divine Mercy Sunday is celebrated on the octave, the eighth day after Easter.  As St. Augustine says that these next eight days are "the days of mercy and pardon".  In the year 2000 Blessed John Paul II (Who will be canonized next Sunday at the Vatican) declared that the octave day of Easter be declared from now on "Divine Mercy Sunday".  If you have been away from the sacraments you are missing out on eternal life... and there's opportunities at every Catholic Church this week to confess your sins and be reconciled to God and to the Church. 

It in the Celebration of the Eucharist that we are joined with the Communion of Saints, surrounded by all of your loved ones who have gone before us in Christ to the Resurrection.  And if they are with Christ and we are with Christ, and if we receive Christ and He is in us and we are in Him then in a very deep and mystical way we are with them.  

This is eternal life.  Being born anew by baptism and becoming one with Christ in the Eucharist.  It is these sacred mysteries that transform a pile of dirt, death, the wood of the cross, the empty tomb... into the Risen Christ in all his glory.  It is through the Sacraments that we experience life and are no longer trapped in the horrors of sin and death.  It is because of eternal life that Erica will be remembered not by a pile of dirt but a beautiful bouquet of flowers.  We use flowers to imagine it because it is the flowers that first bud after the long and cold dead of winter.  Erica, alive in Christ, surrounded by the bright beaming joyful faces of her loved ones and flowers.


(Click below to see the pictures)


(Watch the Videos)

To see all of the pictures from the Mission Trip click here
And to see last years pictures click here.  

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