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Reflections on death amidst a pandemic

Reflections on death amidst a pandemic

Father Jim Fitz, S.M. ’68 March 11, 2021
In a reflection he prepared for the University of Dayton Magazine audience, Father Jim Fitz, S.M. ’68, vice president for mission and rector, writes that — in the face of death — faith calls us to remember.

The University of Dayton has had to deal more starkly during this past year with the reality of human death.

Chapel of the Immaculate Conception with sun shining off the windowWe have mourned the death of five students, including one to the novel coronavirus. We lost a number of staff members and our beloved dean of the School of Business Administration, John Mittelstaedt, who died after a struggle with cancer. As a Marianist religious, I have experienced the death of 10 of my brothers since last August, six of whom were affected by COVID-19 contracted at a care center near the end of their lives. The list begins and ends with several prominent Marianists starting with Father Norbert Burns ’54 in August and ending with Brother Donald Geiger ’55 in January. Many of these brothers were people with whom I lived and worked.

And as you will see in this magazine, there is a long list of alumni and friends who have passed, again some from the pandemic. These deaths join us with many people around the country and the world who have lost loved ones to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

There have been times during the past months when the words of Psalm 22 have come to mind: “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” Perhaps better, why have you forsaken us? In the account of the crucifixion in Matthew’s Gospel, these words are prayed by Jesus. It is certainly a lament. But if you read the full psalm, you will see that it is actually recited at a thanksgiving offering and banquet by the lamenter for the action of God that saved the lamenter’s life. Interestingly, at a very crucial moment in his life, Jesus prayed a psalm of trust. So as we walk this journey, we not only lament the loss of our beloved family members and friends, but we also place our trust in the promises of our God, our creator and giver of life.  

Our faith calls us to remember! Whenever we as Catholic Christians gather at the Eucharist, we break bread as Jesus asked us: “Do this in memory of me.” Memory is important to us as Christians. Faith calls us to remember. At all of the funeral liturgies that I have attended, we are invited to remember important tenets of our faith — the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the creedal statement about our own resurrection from the dead and life everlasting. This truth is clearly proclaimed in a prayer used at many of those celebrations. “Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended.” This affirmation of our faith is reflected in many of the readings proclaimed at these funeral liturgies

What does it mean to remember and reaffirm our faith in the risen life?  It depends on our reading the signs of love. Is love a transient emotion in a universe that ultimately has no meaning? Or is it an experience of a transcendental love which is the meaning of everything? My faith tells me that love is at the center of our life:

  • “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. ... Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (I John 3:1-2)

I recently read the book Alive in God by theologian Father Timothy Radcliffe. As he points out, the writers of the New Testament cannot directly describe the risen life, the beginning of the new creation, any more than we can literally describe the “big bang,” the beginning of the old creation. “Are human beings caught up in a great mystery of ultimate meaning or are we, as one scientist thought, just ‘chemical scum on an average-sized planet, orbiting around a very average-size star, in the outer suburb of one of a million galaxies.’”

I agree with Radcliffe. I have no quibbles about living in an outer suburb, on an insignificant planet circling a very average-size star. It is just the “chemical scum” to which I object. Our faith tells us that human life is more than that; my experience tells me that human life is more than that. Human life has its origin in love, a love that is a transcendent reality that goes beyond this life.

“Human life has its origin in love, a love that is a transcendent reality that goes beyond this life.”

The funeral liturgies and prayer services for our Marianist brothers, for John Mittelstaedt, for our students, faculty and staff, affirm that faith. Of the ones I knew well, I can say that none of them was perfect; they would have been the first to admit that. However, they loved deeply and were deeply loved. Each had a special way of caring for and loving others. Every time we gather in prayer, we remember. We not only remember our faith in the resurrection, but we remember the energy of love expressed by each of these people. I do not believe that energy of love is silenced forever.

As people of faith, let us REMEMBER. Let us remember our faith in the resurrection of Jesus that convinces us that for our beloved departed life has changed not ended. Our faith will be the source of our hope and healing. Let us remember the energy of love that was expressed in their lives, an energy I believe will live on. Like the New Testament writers, I cannot directly describe what that new creation will be like any more than science can directly describe what came before the big bang that started creation.

“Our faith will be the source of our hope and healing.”

One of my favorite musicals is Les Misérables. Near the end, when Jean Valjean is dying, Fantine sings to him and to the audience: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Let us remember the gift that our beloved family, friends and co-workers have been in our life; how they have revealed to us the face of God.  

Faith flourishes: Sister Angela Ann Zukowski