There are few things in the liturgical life of a priest more difficult than the funeral of a family member, all the more so when that family member is a parent. In the midst of your own grieving and loss the family calls upon you to set aside your “son” hat and put on your “father” i.e. “priest” hat. While this is a difficult task for any priest, though in its own way often cathartic, I cannot imagine having to do so under the spotlight of national attention. For Fr. Paul Scalia to simply get through his Father, Justice Antonin Scalia’s, funeral well would have been an achievement. Yet, in the midst of this very difficult situation Fr. Scalia gave us one of the most beautifully profound homilies I have ever heard. While it would certainly be worthwhile to write about Justice Scalia’s funeral, that is not the point of this post. Rather, Fr. Scalia’s Homily is a great inspiration during this season of lent.
In his homily, Fr. Scalia states:
We thank God for his goodness to Dad, as is right and just. But we also know that, although Dad believed, he did so imperfectly, like the rest of us. He tried to love God and neighbor but, like the rest of us, did so imperfectly. He was a practicing Catholic—practicing in the sense that he hadn’t perfected it yet. Or, rather, that Christ was not yet perfected in him. And only those in whom Christ is brought to perfection can enter Heaven.
Here, Fr. Scalia beautifully draws out the verb “to practice” from the adjective, “practicing” Catholic. That is to say, so often when people refer to somebody as a “practicing” Catholic, they do so as if that was the completion of the task, or that some sort of perfection existed in this state of “practicing.” Instead, Fr. Scalia highlights the fact that “to practice” is only the road by which we seek perfection.
When I think of practice, I think back to my time playing soccer in high school, particularly that dreaded time before school or the season had begun when we had two-a-day practices. For those of you not blessed to experience such a time of pain allow me to explain. Since school had not started yet, our coaches were able to gather us in the morning for the first practice of the day. They ran us through various drills and exercises, attempting to kill us. Having failed to do so in the morning, they would gather us together in the afternoon with the same goal. Of course, this was not their real intent. In reality, they recognized most of us were not in the physical condition necessary for the upcoming season, and that they had a finite amount of time to correct this lest we embarrass ourselves during the season.
In many ways, this is what the season of Lent is all about. None of us are as fully prepared to meet Christ as we ought to be, and, while the whole of our lives will be spent in this mission, Lent provides a special opportunity to focus on the mission, especially as we prepare for the Triduum: Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. By our Lenten practices, we are better able to participate in the Triduum and Easter Seasons.
Our faith requires such practice, a fact that the lives of so many before us have made abundantly clear. St. Peter is possibly my favorite example of this practice. It took him the entirety of his life to be perfected as Christ desired, despite the intimacy with which he knew Christ and the zeal he had to follow our Lord. St. Peter left his whole life and livelihood to follow Jesus. He was able to get out of the boat and, at least momentarily, walk on water. He saw our Lord transfigured upon the mountain, standing with Moses and Elijah. He proclaimed Jesus as Son of the living God and was given the Keys of the Kingdom
Even at the end, as tradition tells us, St. Peter initially attempted to leave Rome to avoid martyrdom, and only in encountering Christ, who was carrying his cross to Rome to be crucified again, was Peter given the strength to return and face crucifixion. What strength it was, for in that strength was the humility to seek to be crucified upside down lest he die in the same way as our Lord.
Allow me to finish by returning to Fr. Scalia:
We are gathered here because of one man. A man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to even more; a man loved by many, scorned by others; a man known for great controversy, and for great compassion. That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth.
In the mess of our day-to-day lives, in the business of the world, it is easy to forget why we are here and what we are doing. Lent calls us back to the recognition that we are all here for one man: Jesus of Nazareth. It is only in the practice of the faith that that man, Jesus, can be perfected in us and that we will one day be called to celebrate eternally with him the feast he has prepared for us.