Fr. Tom Cassidy, SCJ, provincial superior of the U.S. Province, gave the homily at Fr. Charlie Bisgrove’s funeral at St. Martin of Tours parish, Franklin, Wis., on April 15:
Several years ago I read The Life of Pi, the story of a teenage boy traveling with his family by ship off the coast of India. His father owned a small zoo and they were moving lock, stock and barrel. An accident sinks the ship and the boy, Pi, finds himself alone on a lifeboat with a tiger and a number of other animals from the zoo. One by one the tiger eats the other animals until only Pi and the tiger are left. At about this point in the story Pi utters a line I have never forgotten: Life is so beautiful death has fallen in love with it. Life is so beautiful death has fallen in love with it!
You and I live in a society that shuns death. It doesn’t want to look at, think about or deal with it. We create video games and movies that maim and slaughter, but they are only games and the wounded and slaughtered will be back next time we turn on the switch. Death isn’t real, it’s only a game.
Charlie’s life and death are lessons to us that death is real and has meaning. We see it clearly in the readings we have just heard: the Passover Story from Exodus, in Paul’s letter to Roman Christians, and in the story of Lazarus, the gospel we heard last Sunday, the day on which Charlie went to his eternal reward.
We all know that among Charlie’s loves was the love of liturgy. The first reading’s Passover story is a story of great liturgy. It sets forth what our Jewish neighbors commemorate each year, their liberation from slavery by a God who, out of all peoples, chose them to be the nation from which mankind’s salvation would come. As God finishes instructing the people of what they must do God says: You shall observe this rite for an ordinance to you and to your sons [and daughters] forever. When you come to the land which the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall keep this service. When your children shall say to you, “What do you mean by this service?” You shall say, “It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He slew the Egyptians but spared our houses.”
Death is very much a part of the Passover story and, perhaps, it is a metaphor for Charlie’s life and our own. We all must make that final passage from this world to the next and it is a journey none of us can avoid. We can dread it, or embrace it, for indeed Life is so beautiful death has fallen in love with it.
The Passover and Lazarus stories only make sense in light of Paul’s words to the Romans. They make sense because we are people of faith who believe God has justified us, that is, placed us in right standing with God. It is faith that gives us hope. We realize that all of us are a mixture of saint and sinner. We all have our inner demons we must deal with. Our lives, Charlie’s life, is the struggle to shed the skin of a sinner and, to put it in Paul’s own words, to put on Christ — to become saintly. We never fully succeed but it is in the daily struggle to try to succeed that we make progress. That is a role Charlie filled well at Sacred Heart School of Theology by developing the Spiritual Pillar of formation in helping men preparing for the priesthood to shed their sinner’s skins to put on Christ. They become men who see that indeed, Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it.
That leads us to the Lazarus story. It was last Sunday’s Gospel story. I received the word of Charlie’s death right after we completed Mass at Villa Maria. It struck me that he died on the same day that the Church presented us with this powerful story of death and life, of love and friendship.
In John’s Gospel the story of Lazarus occurs not long before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the start of Holy Week. The Jerome Biblical Commentary points out that as John’s account of the curing the of the blind man demonstrated that Jesus was the light of the world, the raising of Lazarus demonstrates that Jesus is its life as well.
For me, an interesting twist is the central roll Martha plays in this story, where playing the host and practicing good hospitality are forgotten in her love for her brother and her belief that Jesus could cure him — if only had he arrived in time! Despite that, she is the one who professes both belief in the resurrection from the dead and that Jesus is truly the Messiah. Of course she couldn’t give up all her practicality for she also utters this memorial phrase: Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.
We have with us today many police officers and firefighters. They represent another aspect of Charlie’s life. He was pastor here at St. Martin’s when he began serving the Franklin police and fire departments as their chaplain. Men and women who serve in the police and fire service know only too well the grip death has on life as they struggle daily to serve and protect. Charlie was there to be a voice trying to make sense of it all. For while life is indeed so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, Martha reminds us there is life beyond death when she says: I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day. Martha’s faith is one we all share.
Let me close with the last stanza of a poem by the German Lutheran Pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written from his SS prison cell in the closing days of World War II as he contemplated his own looming death:
Come now, highest feast on the road to eternal freedom,
Death, lay down the burdensome chains and walls
of our temporal body and our blinded soul,
that we may finally view what we have been unable to see here.
Freedom, long we sought you in discipline, in deeds, and
Dying, now we recognize you yourself in the face of God.
Pi was right! Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it. For, as Bonhoeffer professes, [in] dying, we recognize you now in the face of God.