Remembering a fellow SCJ and a good friend
Fr. Jan de Jong, SCJ, president-rector of Sacred Heart School of Theology and long-time friend of Fr. Michael van der Peet, SCJ, gave the homily at Fr. Michael’s funeral Mass on April 28. Fr. Michael had asked Fr. Jan years ago if he would speak at his funeral.
“I felt privileged by this request and I have often thought what I would say in this homily,” said Fr. Jan. “I always came up with some ideas, some thoughts about his life, some stories, or some anecdotes. Now that he has died in reality I feel feeble in fulfilling this task.”
Fr. Jan’s homily in full:
Father Michael van der Peet, S.C.J.
A Man of Oblation
April 28, 2010
Isaiah 25:6a, 7-9: The Lord will destroy death forever.
Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39: Who can ever come between us and the love of Christ?
John 12:23-28: If a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it yields a rich harvest. The Father will honor whoever serves me.
“In heaven I will forever sing the compassion of the Heart of Jesus.” “Cantaré eternamente las misericordias del Senor.” “Van uw liefde wil ik eeuwig zingen.” (Ps 89, 2) This is what Father Michael van der Peet wrote in his “Reflection on my life” This text was printed on his ordination card. This was the dream of his life. Father Michael has now arrived at the fulfillment of his life’s dream.
This morning we come together to celebrate the many diverse aspects of the full life of Father Michael van der Peet. With his family and friends in Holland he was known as Joop van der Peet. His baptismal names were Johannes Petrus van der Peet. Some years ago Father Michael asked me to give the homily for his funeral Mass. I felt privileged by this request and I have often thought what I would say in this homily. I always came up with some ideas, some thoughts about his life, some stories, or some anecdotes. Now that he has died in reality I feel feeble in fulfilling this task. During the last years Father Michael has become a close friend and as compatriot for me. Being from Holland we had very similar experiences about our rootedness in the Dutch province of the Priests of the Sacred Heart. He was like an uncle to me, a Dutch uncle for that matter. Through the years I discovered his deep spirituality and faith. As I was trying to cope with the new challenges of being President-Rector of Sacred Heart School of Theology, he became my consultant. His wisdom and insights were profound and simple. I know I am not the only here who benefited from his care and love.
Father Michael has not made it easy for me to give this homily. He himself was a prolific writer. For many years he kept a daily journal which was a source of comfort and strength for him. Volumes of his journal are found in his room. By checking his journal he would be able to tell me what had happened on such and such a day in Houston, for example. Besides keeping a daily journal, he was a letter writer. In the latter part of his life his correspondence with Mother Theresa became a rich source for her beatification. By keeping a diary throughout the major part of his life and writing numerous letters to friends and family, Michael developed an uncanny way of reflecting on his life and his experiences. Many of you have read some examples of this skill in these last days. How could I add anything to his words? As I read and reread these last days some of Michael’s reflections I discovered new dimensions of a mystic quality in his spirituality. He had a deep life of union with the Lord, during his life with its ups and downs.
Michael was a deeply religious person with a passion for life. He enjoyed and loved people. He was definitely a people person. He enjoyed the simple things of life. He loved nature. One of his last pains was to see the trees removed from the property across the street where a new retirement community is being built. He took many pictures of the orchard that is no more. He enjoyed simple celebrations, attendance to a concert. Our traditional celebration of St. Nicholas on December 5 was a joyful annual event. In Houston, Michael and I formed a subcommunity which we fondly named St. Nicholas community, of which Mary Gorski became an honorary member.
Michael had his definitive routines. One of these was his habit to begin his Christmas correspondence on Thanks giving day. More that 200 hundred letters were mailed every year to family and friends in the United States and elsewhere. He cultivated the art of letter writing, an art we are now losing because of the electronic information technology. One of the fruits of this art is the 22 letters we have from his correspondence with Mother Theresa of Calcutta. It must be added though that Michael became quite skilled in the use of computer and e-mail.
Another routine in his younger life was the custom of building the nativity scene in the chapel, beginning with his years in the minor seminary in Donaldson. It was a major project. A month before Christmas he would begin collecting moss, bark, and stones in the woods. He would build a crib and the barn, provided it with hay. It involved a lot of carpenter work. He did this for the last time when he was associate novice master with me in Chicago.
For many years of his life, he was a teacher of Latin, French and music in Donaldson. During Vatican II he began a very fulfilling ministry of retreat work. He blossomed in this ministry of leading retreats. He assisted thousands of sisters by assisting them dealing with the changes of Vatican II. These were exciting and also tumultuous times. But Michael dove right into the process of aggionamento. He became a well known and appreciated spiritual director in the USA, Australia, and Papua New Guinea.
After his successful years as a retreat director he began parochial ministry in Houston. He engaged in ministry to AIDS patients. Together we often celebrated liturgies at Hermann Hospital, where I was a chaplain supervisor. After one year of retirement in Florida he joined me as associate novice master of Chicago. The last ten years Father Michael was working as a spiritual director here at Sacred Heart School of Theology. He had told me this year would be his last year here and indeed it was.
What drove this man in his ministry as Priest of the Sacred Heart? Where did his deepest inspiration and motivation come from as he was engaged with love and commitment in so many ministries and relationships? I would like to raise three points.
1. Michael was a man of feelings. He was a feeling person. In Dutch we say: he was a “gevoelsmens.” He knew this very well of himself. As he was dealing with the literal demolition of old home to make room for the construction of the new building, Michael was upset and emotionally disturbed. However, he knew in his head that this had to happen. He had the courage to bring his head and his feelings together and eventually resigned to the plan. Throughout his life he had learned to cope with many transitions.
2. Faith and music. These were in his genes. Faith and music were his passions. His family and his first rector of the minor seminary were musicians. His mother had taught him: music and faith. These were Michael’s two wings which kept him going through the crisis of life. With regard to his love for music some of you recall the Dutch Medley Michael and I presented at the Follies last February. You all saw Michael’s passion for singing.
3. Thirdly and most importantly, Father Michael was a true son of Father Dehon. He and I often talked about the Founder. When I was trying to cope with a particular challenge: he would tell me to pray to Father Dehon and ask him what he would do. This always helped me and gave me a new perspective on things and life in the seminary.
During his first stay at St. Luke’s after his stroke, I was visiting Michael at the rehabilitation unit. He was in good spirits. His physical therapy seemed to be progressing well. Together we sang the Salve Regina. It lifted up his spirit. He then told me that his life on earth was coming to an end. He hoped that it would not take too long. He thanked me and all the SCJ and his family and friends. As our conversation progressed, he stated that he was ready to let go. It was his ultimate act of oblation. He was truly a man of oblation, which is a part the life of an SCJ. Oblation means to live in union with God in surrender and abandonment (abandon): availability (disponibilite) to the desires of the Heart of Christ. He lived out of the conviction that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. “Who can ever come between us and the love of Christ?” (Romans 8)
Michael has returned to the House of the Father. I imagine that he is in joyful conversation with his parents, his friends, and especially Mother Theresa. I imagine that he will ask Mother Teresa a lot of questions about her experience with the dark night of the soul. I always suspected that Michael at times had his own struggles with the dark night of the soul. His response to this experience was one of oblation. For him the trial of the dark night is ended and he sees God now face to face.
Let me conclude this homily with a little prayer of farewell, which I rehearsed a few times with tears in my eyes.
Joop, rust in vrede.
Tot ziens en bedankt voor alles, voor je vriendshap.
Michael, may you now sing God’s love with the choirs of heaven for all eternity.