Saturday, November 15, 2014

Rest in Peace, Fr. Jerry Dorn: Homily for the Funeral of a Good Friend and a Great Missioner

We all know that Jerry was creative and had many artistic talents.  But I think it is safe to say that one could never really nail down just what kind of artist Jerry was nor could you specify what medium he usually used.  There was paint, to be sure, but there was newspaper, mud, grass, bushes from the yard, concrete, pinecones, I think you get the picture.  What made up his artwork was as diverse as his creativity would lead him.   His missionary life, as a work of art, was just as diverse and creative, too.

Last night we heard much about the work of art that was Jerry’s missionary life.  I would like to tie some of those memories and a few more in with the scriptures we heard today.  As most of you know I knew Jerry much later on the scene than many, just after he finished up in the administration.  I think perhaps when I met him he was entering into a new phase of life:  one more of reflection, perhaps a little less energy, a few more health problems, less mobility, but still filled with joy and a missionary spirit—that spirit never left him.  So much of what I share is actually stories of the way he saw life when reflecting back on it.  We know he had a tendency at times to, well I don’t want to say exaggerate, but color his stories as they were told.  So please forgive me for inaccuracies. 

I think part of what went into the artwork of Jerry’s life as a missioner would include a tension between letting go, and in letting go, receiving so much more.  He understood this to be: God cannot be outdone in generosity.

The experience of letting go began early in Jerry’s life.  He told the story often of his first trip to Glenmary with his family.  Jerry always said that when they arrived in Cincinnati he was more scared on that day than maybe ever: scared of what was to be, scared of not knowing, but especially scared of having to let go.  He would say that they drove around the property 3 or 4 times before finally having the courage to enter the residence.  Jerry said his dad knew his fear and said to him:  “Give it one year.  After a year, if you don’t like it, I will come and pick you up and we will farm and make a million together.”  So Jerry chose to let go, and so much more came

Letting go was also part of his novitiate.  It was a time for him of seclusion and solitude. He chose to let go of the world for that year.  In doing so, he found an abiding love for Jesus and for mission that would stay with him his entire life.  The year was so profound that his family, his parents especially, said the letters he wrote home were the most meaningful they ever received from him in his life. 

Some time later in Western Kentucky, known then as Brother Jim or BJ, he shared his heart and joy with the people, but that same heart would be torn open when a scroll of hundreds of names written as a petition to the president of Glenmary to keep him in that mission, could not keep him from changing assignments.  Driving to Cincinnati with tears in his eyes he let go, but much more would come.

And then there was the Farm.  New groups coming in, other groups leaving.   With all of the singing and guitar strumming and decisive volleyball playing, there were many friends that came and went, lives that were changed forever, but letting go that had to come. 

From the beautiful homes of Connecticut to the prisons of Eastern Kentucky, from the mountains of Georgia and Tennessee to the hills of Arkansas and St. Meinrad, letting go but always receiving more produced the piece of art that was Jerry’s missionary life.

From the outside one could easily ask why.  Why go through the pain of having to let go, over and over again, of being separated, of loving when you are at first not welcome nor loved, and leaving when no one wants you to go.  Why do this mission when it is so tough?

But Jerry had a deep theology on this. He talked about this a lot.  He understood it in the same way we see in today’s Gospel.  Jesus is getting ready to leave.  He knows he has to go. His disciples have that hollow feeling of emptiness forming in their hearts.  They don’t want him to go.  But he says that he must.  And that if he does, they can be assured that he will be waiting for them.  And that the spirit will come in his place.  In his leaving there will always be something more given.

But believing Jesus’ words requires faith, and it requires trust.  For us in the midst of our loss this day it might not be so easy.  But perhaps thinking back on our memory of Jerry can give insight into how we can make sense of this.  For if there is another element that went into the work of art that was Jerry’s missionary life, it would be the faith and trust he had in both God, and in others, something that was an example to so many of us.

There are people here who probably were once 50 feet up in a tree or on a cliff listening to Jerry yell up to them:  “Trust a brother, Trust a brother” as they prepared to repel down to the ground below.

And trust was important for Jerry, too, serving on the Council or serving with others in the mission.  He would always want to check in and see how the group was doing, to be honest even if it hurt, but to always hang there when times were tough. 

When Jerry was elected to the administration he often said that deep down inside he wondered how people could have so much confidence in him to do that job.  He actually went back home and asked his parents this very question:  “Mom and dad,” he said, “why do people keep trusting me with these different responsibilities?”  After a long period of silence his mother responded:  “when people sit across from you they think that you truly understand them, and that they can trust you, through and through.”

Perhaps that is the way that most of us have been affected by Jerry.  His ability to sit down and listen for hours, sometimes all through the night.  And when he listened to you, you pretty much knew that you were loved and that there was at least one other person in this world who knew you, and you could trust him to love you.

It is this kind of trust and faith that Paul is inviting the Romans, as well as us, to consider today.  It can be so hard for us to trust in this world. It can be especially difficult in a time like this.  But Paul says that we can trust God’s love.  And absolutely nothing can separate us from that love.  Many of us learned that trust and love from Jerry and so we can believe that the same is possible in God, along with so much more.

The last element that I would like mention that I think went into the piece of art that was Jerry’s missionary life was that of joyful, faithful commitment. 

I want to say to his family here today:  I know you know this, but he was so committed to you all.  He talked about you all constantly, he hung up every picture he received around that beautiful portrait of his parents, of your parents: Mr. and Mrs. Dorn, next to his mother’s rosary and his father’s wrench.  He prayed for you all in so many Masses, uniting you all to Jesus in the Eucharist.  And the foundation of joy and commitment he learned from you all he carried with him into every assignment he had.

The last year or so of Jerry’s life while he was living in East Tennessee he told me often of how happy he was.  He found in that house on the hill a place of quiet and peace where he could reflect on what he had experienced and learned over his 50 plus years as a missioner.  He said that the overwhelming feeling that kept coming back to him in the quiet of his heart was thankfulness to God for his call to missionary life. 

To us Glenmarians and to others who knew Jerry, his commitment was no less.  He loved this community to the end.  He would often mention that we were certainly a wild and crazy group of missioners, and that for all practical reasons there is no way we should still be going.  But he believed that God wanted and wants us to continue on—to continue to spread the love of Christ to those most in need.  To continue doing what he joyfully tried to do for over 50 years.  He always said that it was important to him to stay committed as a priest and committed to his Glenmary Oaths until his death.

Well that time has come now for Jerry.  The piece of art that was his missionary life is complete. 

And now he waits for us in that banquet of heaven (and he is probably telling God how to prepare the food, but of course eating it, too).  Our work as missioners is not yet complete.  But with the help of grace we will one day be united with Jerry in that Heavenly banquet with the Father.  I am sure we will be singing Alleluia.  But probably also, “Hey its good, to be back home again.  Sometimes this old farm, feels like a long lost friend.  Hey its good to be back home again.”