Fr. John Emmett Walsh Funeral
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V. November 16, 2020
Cari amici, chers amis, dear friends of Fr. John:
Although Fr John and I were priests of different generations – he was ordained in 1966, I in 1991 – one thing we had in common was an experience of profound joy, when in March 2013, we witnessed the election of the first Pope from the global South: Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, now universally known as Pope Francis. In his recent encyclical letter on fraternity and social friendship, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis proclaims:
In this our time, by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we can contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity. Fraternity between all men and women. “Here we have a splendid secret that shows us how to dream, and how to turn our life into a wonderful adventure. No one can face life in isolation… We need a community that supports and helps us, in which we can help one another to keep looking ahead. How important it is to dream together… By ourselves, we risk seeing mirages, things that are not there. Dreams, on the other hand, are built together”. Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all. (Fratelli Tutti #8)
Fraternity. Social friendship. Reconciliation. Human dignity. Equality and justice for all, in the church and in the world. These were the values that marked the life of Father John Walsh: the man, the son, the brother, the uncle, the disciple, the pastor, the activist, the teacher, the artist, the friend. These are the values that unite us as we gather to remember him, to honour his remarkable contribution to our diocese and our city.
Those of you who followed the online interfaith service on Saturday evening were privileged to hear so many testimonies to the tremendous impact Fr John had on so many people: his family, his fellow priests, his parishioners, friends in politics and in the media, those who worked side by side with him in the many good works he supported, the religious leaders of so many different faith traditions he counted as his dear friends. Fr John was a man who seemed equally at home conversing with prime ministers and the Governor-General, as when he recently received the Order of Canada or having a coffee with the residents of Nazareth House of Anne’s House. As I left the funeral home Saturday, I could just imagine John beginning one of his jokes: “Three priests, a minister, two rabbis, a cantor, and an imam walked out of a funeral parlour …”
Most of the media coverage this week has understandably been focused on John’s many good works, especially given the recent opening of John’s house, named in his honour as the third home of the growing Nazareth community, that he and Sheila and all the board and staff have worked so hard to inaugurate.
But it would be easy to overlook the fact that first and foremost, John was a man of faith, a disciple deeply rooted in the word of God, his daily bread. Each day of his priestly life, Fr. John read the Scriptures: he studied them, translated them, meditated on them, taught them, preached them, was challenged by them. He put into practice those words spoken to him (in Latin, back then!) by Cardinal Leger at his ordination in 1966:
“Receive the Gospel of Christ whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”
The readings chosen for today express how Fr. John’s life was shaped by the Scriptures he read, believed, taught, preached, and put into practice. Whether it was his deep love for the Jewish people and his long commitment to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue; or the many years he spent forming men and women for diaconal and lay ministry in the church; or in his embracing of the Gospel of justice and peace, inviting us to stand in solidarity with the poor and abandoned of this world, and embrace the challenge of building a better world – it was always rooted in the power of God’s word, that cuts more sharply than a two-edged sword, yet also consoles and comforts the vulnerable.
Our first reading, drawn from the book of Deuteronomy, is a text immediately recognizable to any devout Jew: the Sh’ma Israel, as much a part of the daily prayer of a good Jew as the Lord’s Prayer would be to a Christian. In our world which often confuses diversity with a formless relativism, it is a rousing confession of the Oneness of God beyond all the religious differences which tend to separate us.
It is also a reminder of the importance of the family and the community as the prime place where that faith is taught and lived and handed down. Many centuries after this text was written, the Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth would refer to it as the first and greatest of commandments, deeply connected to another text from Leviticus which reminds us of our duty to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
The unity of these two commandments marked John’s life and ministry. Although John was an intelligent man, a scholar, he did not have a theoretical faith, but a practical one. If faith is real, it has to make a concrete difference in your life, and in the lives of people around you. Every day for him was an opportunity to express his love for God through good deeds that helped a neighbour. He was also blessed to grow up in an Irish Catholic family that not only instilled the gift of faith in him, but formed him as son, as brother, as uncle. John’s family speaks of him as first and foremost Uncle John, who happened to be a priest. But they also shared with me about family Masses in campgrounds and impromptu prayer gatherings, about the blessing of having an uncle who married them to their spouses and baptized their children, who celebrated with them in good times and supported them in tough times.
When I saw that cartoon early on in the pandemic where Satan points down on the world and says “I closed all your places of worship”, and God immediately responds, “yes, but I opened one in every home,” I am reminded of how one of Fr. John’s greatest pleasures was to visit the home of one of his Jewish friends for Shabbat or for one of the evenings of Passover, or in recent years, to break the Ramadan fast by joining a Muslim family for the Iftar meal. He also enjoyed the simple pleasure of a good meal and a bottle of wine shared with good friends – whether he was doing the cooking and hosting, or visiting a home, or going out to one of his favourite restaurants. Whether he was presiding at the Eucharist or sharing a sandwich with someone at Nazareth House, John knew the sacramentality of food and drink shared in fellowship and friendship.
Fr. John had an expansive and inclusive understanding of family. At a time when we can be tempted to turn in ourselves and to narrow our groups of belonging, Fr John was always breaking new ground. He was an Irish Catholic priest, but he was so much more than only that. Ordained shortly after the final session of the Second Vatican Council, John wholeheartedly embraced its mandate of a greater openness to and dialogue with the world. He sought to foster and develop this sense of dialogue and belonging everywhere he went: high school students, couples in the Christian Family Movement, members of the various parishes he served, the men and women he helped form for ministry through the Christian Training Program or taught at Concordia, his dear friends in the Mohawk community, his CJAD Sunday evening radio congregation, his many interfaith connections, as well as the many boards and charitable associations he participated in. He knew that if you wanted to get things done together, you had to get to know each other, build relationships of mutual respect and affection. Fr John came to learn that working together is not only more effective when it is rooted in friendship, it’s also a whole lot more enjoyable!
In our second reading today, Paul is writing to the fractious early Christian community in Corinth, marked by a number of painful divisions. Anyone who has worked in a church – a parish, a diocese, a religious order – or, for that matter, a synagogue or mosque or temple – knows only too well that it is rare to avoid that experience completely. What Paul is suggesting, though, is that if we let those divisions become the most important thing, all hell breaks loose, and we completely miss the point. Each of us is God’s field, God’s building, living stones making up a holy Temple. What matters is not who leads or who gets the credit, but the fact that we are working together, celebrating the gifts each person brings rather than needing to compete with each other for recognition. What matters is that we all belong to God, and that when we work side by side, bearing common witness whenever and wherever possible, we are transformed, and the world around us is transformed. And that is what really matters.
Like most of us, Fr John had to grow into this realization. When I was ordained back in 1991, we had just received a new Archbishop a year earlier, and attempts to “unify” the diocese by decree were not always appreciated. Although I have identified John’s primary vocation as a bridge-builder, his prophetic side sometimes made him a polarizing figure, especially in his own church! As I got to know him over the years, especially after his retirement as a full-time pastor, I found that Fr. John mellowed, became less forceful about his ideas. Freed of the burden of having to constantly represent the “institution”, he could invest himself wholeheartedly in those activities which mattered most to him. Whether it was developing his creative side – painting, writing, using social media – or having more time to dedicate to areas of ministry that were important to him, like giving workshops, working with the homeless, advocating for the vulnerable, and building bridges of ecumenical, interfaith, and secular dialogue – Fr. John became a prophet of unity.
We were all moved by Cantor Gideon’s chanting of the familiar 23rd Psalm, “The Lord’s My Shepherd”, in Hebrew. Fr. John was, in his unique way, a reflection of this image, and a challenge to it. For one, he knew that God was the shepherd, and that in Christian terms, Jesus was the ultimate model of what that kind of shepherding looks like. He knew that when human pastors are too quick to identify themselves with that role, they often make the mistake of treating their congregations like … well, sheep!
Every so often, John and I would e-mail each other interesting articles that we had come across online, and one of the topics he was deeply concerned about was the re-emergence of a certain kind of clericalism in recent years. Many of you know that at Mass, Fr John often avoided sitting at the presider’s chair in the sanctuary, choosing to sit among the people of God. He was also one of the priests who inevitably turned up at gatherings in a suit and tie, rather than clerical garb: I think the only time I’ve ever seen even a picture of Fr John in clerics was when he met Pope John Paul II during the 1984 papal visit!
At Mass, Fr John prayed not only for popes and bishops, but for all those who exercised leadership roles in the Christian churches, whether clergy or laity, male or female; and he prayed for leaders of other faiths, and those in civic and political life. As he matured and mellowed, John used his big personality less and less to draw attention to himself, and more and more to advocate for others, to raise them up. More and more, he became a shepherd after God’s own heart. And he would want those of us who follow in his footsteps to do the same.
Finally, we come to the Gospel. We mentioned earlier that for Fr John, as for Jesus, love of God and love of neighbour were not two commandments, but one: two sides of the one coin whose image is Love. The way we show our love for the God we cannot see, is the care and concern we extend to the brother or sister who is in need. It is, according to Jesus, the ultimate criterion by which each of us will be judged. Not how many Bible verses we have memorized or Catechism questions whose answers we have learned by heart, but how we have responded to the concrete needs of our neighbours, especially those who are poor or vulnerable in any way.
When Jesus taught this twofold great commandment, a lawyer in the crowd famously asked a follow-up question: “Yes, but who is my neighbour?” Jesus responded not with a legal answer, but as he so often did, by telling a story: about a man robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road; about two self-identified religious men who passed him by, and a hated foreigner who, moved by compassion, reached out and helped, made himself a neighbour to the man in need. Then he said, “Go and do likewise.”
John took seriously the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and the parable of the judgment of the nations which we have just listened to. Who is my neighbour? The child who is hungry or thirsty; the mentally ill person lacking clean clothes or a safe shelter; the elderly person enclosed in a hospital room or a nursing home, the inmate of a prison cell whom no one has bothered to visit for years. The person in need is my neighbour.
John took this message to heart. Especially in the later years of his ministry, John became less preoccupied with the inner life of the church, its politics and its structures and strictures, and more with what Pope Francis has called an “outward-bound church”, a church that goes to the peripheries, a field hospital, a church ready to roll up its sleeves and get its hands dirty, willing to take the risk of getting bloodied and bruised, rather than staying safe and sterile within its own walls.
In this world marked by the globalization of indifference, Fr. John heard the invitation of Pope Francis to embrace a “revolution of tenderness.” Yes, he advocated for the homeless through his contacts with politicians, religious leaders, and wealthy benefactors. But he also made the time to drop by NH or Anne’s house, just to hang with the residents, to share a cup of coffee a bowl of soup, to give the gift of his attention and friendship. He knew that you could only advocate for the poor if you knew them personally, if they counted you among your friends. And this, according to Jesus, is what will assure his transition into Paradise: not how many degrees he earned, not how many ecclesiastical titles he had, not how many people he impressed, but rather the ways in which he was present to the “sat-upon, spat-upon, ratted on”, in the lyric of Paul Simon.
Fr. John was on his way to concelebrate with me the funeral of his good friend George Wong, when he was taken from us, so unexpectedly. There is always some unfinished business when we leave this earth, especially when that departure is sudden: one homily undelivered, one project unrealized, one e-mail unsent, one friend uncontacted. I was especially moved when, after the interfaith service, Cantor Gideon shared with me a birthday video-message which John had recorded for him the night before his sudden death, expressing the desire that their friendship might go on for many more years. The same morning he passed, he had written to Sheila Woodhouse about a new property on St. Marc that he thought could become the next expansion for the Nazareth Community.
When we lose someone suddenly, we think of what we have lost. But I believe Fr. John would want us first and foremost to be grateful for all that was. He was – he is – a man of hope. As a Christian, as a Catholic, as a priest, John believed in the promise of eternal life. But he did not think of it as “pie in the sky when you die.” He really believed that when Jesus said “the kingdom of heaven is within you” (or “among you”, depending on how you translate it), he meant that although we await its ultimate fulfilment, heaven can begin right now, right here. His life and ministry were about getting to know and love, and helping others to get to know and love, the God who created each of us with dignity, with infinite value, with an eternal purpose and destiny. He believed that the work of the kin-dom begins right here and now.
John loved God. He also loved the world. He believed in a God who so loved the world, he sent his Son to show us the way to the Father. As a priest and theologian, he treasured the revelation of God in Sacred Scripture and in the church’s rich and varied Tradition. But John also saw and responded to the traces of God in every human experience: in truth and goodness, in friendship and love, and in the beauty of art and music, of literature and poetry, of film and theatre.
In the recent revival of the musical Godspell by Stephen Schwartz, loosely based on the life of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Matthew, there is a beautiful song, sung by the Christ character in the play, which expresses John’s profound faith in God, and his belief that faith must be lived out right here, right now, as we work together, side by side, to build a “Beautiful City”:
OUT OF THE RUINS AND RUBBLE, OUT OF THE SMOKE
OUT OF OUR NIGHT OF STRUGGLE, CAN WE SEE A RAY OF HOPE?
ONE PALE THIN RAY REACHING FOR THE DAY
WE CAN BUILD A BEAUTIFUL CITY, YES, WE CAN; YES, WE CAN
WE CAN BUILD A BEAUTIFUL CITY
NOT A CITY OF ANGELS, BUT WE CAN BUILD A CITY OF MAN
WE MAY NOT REACH THE ENDING, BUT WE CAN START
SLOWLY BUT TRULY MENDING, BRICK BY BRICK, HEART BY HEART
NOW, MAYBE NOW, WE START LEARNING HOW
WE CAN BUILD A BEAUTIFUL CITY, YES, WE CAN; YES, WE CAN
WE CAN BUILD A BEAUTIFUL CITY
NOT A CITY OF ANGELS, BUT WE CAN BUILD A CITY OF MAN
WHEN YOUR TRUST IS ALL BUT SHATTERED
WHEN YOUR FAITH IS ALL BUT KILLED
YOU CAN GIVE UP, BITTER AND BATTERED
OR YOU CAN SLOWLY START TO BUILD
A BEAUTIFUL CITY … YES, WE CAN; YES, WE CAN
WE CAN BUILD A BEAUTIFUL CITY
NOT A CITY OF ANGELS
BUT FINALLY A CITY OF MAN.
A CITY OF MAN.
Dear Fr. John, it is our fervent hope and conviction that, as you come before the face of God, you are hearing the words proclaimed in the Gospel today: “Well done, good and faithful servant! Come and inherit the Kingdom, the Beautiful City, the Heavenly Jerusalem, prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Amen.”