The many names of Fr. Jerry
Fr. Jim Schroeder gave the following homily at the funeral for Fr. Jerry Clifford, SCJ, at Sacred Heart Monastery, December 28, 2011. Note that the scripture readings for the Mass were Hosea 11.1,3-4; I Thess. 4.13-14,17-18; and Lk. 15.1-3,11-32. They can be read in full following the homily text.
Father Jerry Clifford was a man of many names, and I mean beyond his official titles. I first knew of Jerry in high school, and as small boys can be irreverent, we looked at up Jerry’s size and named him “the Cliff monster.”
However, when we were in college Jerry came to teach. He was a Godsend and we named him “the wailing wall,” because like Jews at the Western Wall, we went to him to cry and to lament our woes. He was my spiritual director, and I probably would not be in final vows without his help.
Jerry was given more duties than teaching and had to circle the building at night to make sure we weren’t up late. We learned to black out our rooms and we called it “Clifford-proofing.”
Jerry was a brilliant teacher, one of the top five in my 28 years of schooling. He really knew his stuff, and gave it in an interesting, engaging and even funny way. However, he could leave the room and once more be the absent-minded professor. He taught us again in theology.
Like the elder brother in today’s story, Jerry was a hard working, dutiful man who did everything asked of him, even though he did not like teaching and hated the increasing load of administration. He did not find the burden light or the yoke easy. Finally he hit his limit and kicked it off. Like the younger son he decided to break loose and do it his way. As scripture says, however, he learned to surrender, learned obedience, from the things he suffered, and he came back humbled and ashamed.
As we know, conversion is not an on/off switch, and Jerry, like all of us, had, as we say in recovery work, more than a little of “King Baby” in him, wanting his own way and fighting surrender. Even near the end he fought returning to Milwaukee till it was too late, and he fought hospice, but he did surrender, and here he is.
We don’t hear in the gospels what happened to either the younger or elder son after the reunion, but, with some spiritual writers, I see them both transformed to be more like their father who prodigally, unconditionally loved them both.
Jerry came to St. Louis about fourteen years ago, and it became my time to help watch over and help care for him. As he said to me in rehab from pneumonia, “Be nice to your students; you might need them. I know that through his 12-Step groups and his Christian Life Community Jerry found something between the younger and older sons’ ways. He found a deeper spirituality that included his whole life, and through loving fellowship he came to know the love of a new Higher Power, the love of the Father of Jesus, like the God described by Hosea in our first reading, like the father in our gospel. This God was the healer of our first reading who restored him to sanity and new life, and can do so for us. Jerry not only knew love, be became more loving, and his kindness, hospitality, and wisdom helped many people transform their lives. He acquired a new name, the name of “sponsor.” At the St. Louis wake many said he was like a father to them, and several said he saved their lives. He leaves not only many SCJ spiritual sons and brothers like myself, but also many spiritual sons and daughters in St. Louis.
Jerry had been named “Father” for decades, but when he lived more as one he also grew in being a brother to Mary and in being an uncle to Beth, Joe, Kelly, and their children.
He had a great sense of humor that could even be a little wicked and mischievous. Just a day and a half before he died he called and said he was thinking of two other men I don’t care for much to preach at his funeral but he had settled on me, and he went, “Ha! Ha!” letting out a big laugh. In his last years he took on one more name that he delighted in, perhaps his favorite name. Through his nieces and nephew he learned of a character in a series of children’s books called “Clifford the Big Red Dog.” This was a small, lowly and disdained runt of a puppy who was loved so much he grew to great size and became the rescuer and protector of many. That is our Jerry.
A final note: When Jerry taught us biology he would say, “If you cannot explain this to your grandmother you do not know it,” so he would put on an exam such questions as “Explain photosynthesis” or “Explain cyto mitosis to your grandmother.” I want to close in following his dictum by using our second reading to talk about what this is all about.
God so loved us he sent Jesus, who lived, suffered and died among us, and rose from the dead. Through Jesus, God brings the dead to Himself, and he will eventually unite us with them, and we will all be together with God forever. Let us console one another with this truth, and let us now give thanks for it, and give thanks for the life of Jerry “Clifford our Big Red Dog.”
1st Reading: Hos. 11.1,3-4
The Lord said:
When Israel was a child I loved him,
out of Egypt I called my son.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
who took them in my arms;
I drew them with human cords,
with bands of love;
I fostered them like one
who raises an infant to his cheeks;
Yet, though I stooped to feed my child,
they did not know that I was their healer.
Second Reading: I Thess. 4.13-14,17-18
We do not want you to be unaware,
brothers and sisters,
about those who have fallen asleep,
So that we may not grieve
like those who have no hope.
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose,
so too will God,
bring with him those who have fallen asleep.
Then we who are alive, who are left,
will be caught up together
with them in the clouds
to meet the Lord in the air.
Thus we shall always be with the Lord.
Therefore, console one another with these words.
Gospel: Lk. 15.1-3, 11-32
The tax collectors and sinners were all gathered around Jesus to hear him, at which the Pharisees murmured, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then he addressed this parable to them:
“A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father give me the share of the estate that is coming to me.’ So the father divided up the property. Some days later this younger son collected all his belongings and went off to a distant land, where he squandered his money on dissolute living. After he had spent everything, a great famine broke out in that country and he was in dire need. So he attached himself to one of the propertied class of the place, who sent him to his farm to take care of the pigs. He longed to fill his belly with the husks that were fodder for the pigs, but no one made a move to give him anything. Coming to his senses at last, he said: ‘How many hired hands at my father’s place have more than enough to eat, while here I am starving! I will break away and return to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against God and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son. Treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ With that he set off for his father’s house. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was deeply moved. He ran out to meet him, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ The father said to his servants: ‘Quick! Bring out the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Take the fatted calf and kill it. Let us eat and celebrate because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and is found.’ Then the celebration began.
“Meanwhile the elder son was out in the land. As he neared the house on his way home, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked him the reason for the dancing and the music. The servant answered, ‘Your brother is home, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has him back in good health.’ The son grew angry at this and would not go in; but his father came out and began to plead with him.
“He said in reply to his father: ‘For years now I have slaved for you. I never disobeyed one of your orders, yet you never gave me so much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends. Then, when this son of your returns after having gone through your property with loose women, you kill the fatted calf for him.’
“’My son,’ replied the father, ‘you are with me always, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice! This brother of yours was dead, and has come back to life. He was lost, and is found.’”