Thursday, November 20, 2008

Between Heaven and Earth

Matters temporal might've served to upstage it this year, but -- as the days get shorter and the thermometer spikes downward -- the finest of traditions devotes November to a special focus on the "last things," with a particular obligation to remember those who've gone before us, and to pray for their happy and peaceful rest.

In that light, two especially poignant losses in the ranks have made the news... and, well, as part of being a communion is that each loss among this body is a loss for us all, let these stand for all those gone home from our midst.

Yesterday in Cincinnati, a suburban parish bade a final farewell to its popular, "inspirational" pastor who died at 57 after a long struggle with Lou Gehrig's disease.

In a unique angle, though, Fr Dan Schuh's lead mourners were his two children and six grandchildren; after his wife's death in 1992, the then-grocery store manager entered the seminary and was ordained in 2003:
"He gathered people," said Sharon Hill, a long-time St. Susanna parishioner as she prepared to go back inside to help with crowd control. "Anytime there was an issue, he would gather the people together and say, 'How can we solve this?' or 'What can we do'? After the first time he spoke to us, he went up the aisle, greeting everyone he passed with a handshake. You knew right away that he was special."

Two lines snaked around the vestibule as hundreds of people squeezed inside to get out of the cold. Even as the lines moved forward, they didn't seem to get any shorter as a steady stream of mourners continued to file in. A number of easels with photo collages were set up at various spots along the line for people to look at and reflect on the life of the man who continued to serve his faith community even after his diagnosis in April 2007.

Leaning up against a wall next to one of the easels were messages of condolence from students attending St. Susanna's school. One of the messages summed up the photos perfectly. It said "Father Dan had the best smile" and had a hand-drawn picture of him showing off his famous smile. It served as a reminder of one of the many blessings he brought to the church.

Hill added that another special gift that Fr. Dan brought to St. Susanna was the fact that he lived such a full life. "He is one of the few people who actually received all seven sacraments," she said. "He brought those experiences to us and it made him unique." In November 1992, Schuh's wife, Gail, died from complications of Hodgkin's Disease. After entering the seminary in August 1997, Schuh was ordained May 23, 2003, becoming a priest who had married, raised his own children and was a grandfather. Each of his grandchildren created a teddy bear to sit beside their grandfather's casket, and gave one to him. They all chose two hearts to go with the bears, one for the bear and one for the love shared between them and their grandfather.... All of the bears but one will be taken home by the children to keep.
...and in her column for today's Washington Times, the paper's lead religion-scribe Julia Duin pays a moving tribute to Susan Shaughnessy -- a staffer at DC's JPII Institute for Marriage and the Family, whose sudden death at 30 from a has left the capital's church-crowd "numb":
When I landed at Washington Dulles International Airport the afternoon of Feb. 17, 2007, after flying 7,000 miles with my newly adopted daughter, only one person met me to drive me home.

She was Susan Shaughnessy, a quiet, sweet spirit who kept my house warm and my cats fed during the seven weeks I was away. The world knew her as the executive assistant to David Schindler, provost for the John Paul II Institute at Catholic University, who spent her free evenings helping the poor in inner-city D.C.

Exactly 21 months after having met us at the airport, Susan left us for eternity. She was 30.

Standing vigil by her bedside was a man named Eduardo Granados, 38, to whom Susan was almost engaged. She had been to Madrid just a few weeks before to meet his family.

"They both felt it was a miracle they met each other," Mr. Schindler told me. "I wonder at the pain he must be feeling."

Her funeral is this weekend in St. Louis. A memorial service is slated at Catholic University some time in December.

We who miss her terribly have been consumed by theological debates as to why this evil was allowed to happen. She'd gone to a doctor, complaining of the flu and headaches, and was sent home to rest. After she went to bed the evening of Oct. 25, she never woke up. Her frantic housemates rushed her to the hospital, where doctors discovered Susan's autoimmune response to a freak virus had wiped clean her brain....

"God had a reason for this," a friend told me later over the phone.

"No, He didn't," I responded. "This was the devil."

Who was responsible for the fact that Susan, who wore a long, sweepy red dress as maid of honor at a friend's recent nuptials, will never attend her own wedding? Was it her doctor, who could have noticed something was gravely wrong? Was it God or Satan who structured - or interfered with - Susan's body so it would attack itself thus?

We struggle in the dark. The Jesus that Susan believed in was a healer. He never told people to wait or be content with dying. Two thousand years later, that power is missing. All the prayers, fasting and Masses offered for Susan did not prevent her death.

Burdened with these questions, I dropped by her office in Room 307 at the Institute. Posted on the walls were three Van Gogh prints that she hung on her last day there.

"Things have been very heavy here in the past three weeks," her boss said. "She is just a remarkable human being and infinitely patient. She never complained."

The view to the west outside her window and across the quad offered a sweeping panorama of the Shrine of Immaculate Conception. The sunsets, they say, are extraordinary from there.

And so Susan died just after sunset last Monday, rising through the orange and red mists to the angels who took her home.
In Cinci's paper of record, another story on the pastor's rites ended thus:
[The procession] passed poster boards of farewell messages from students at St. Susanna School.

"I will miss Fr. Dan," one boy scrawled in purple crayon alongside a stick-figure drawing of him and Schuh.

"And, I am happy that he is in heaven."
...and where we pray they are, in God's time, so may we also be. That is, after all, the goal we're all called to reach.

But on this side of the horizon, in the midst of this conflict and chaos-ridden world, always standing quietly among us are no shortage of folks feeling the pain of recent loss, especially with Thanksgiving and Christmas rapidly at hand.

Let's not just keep 'em in mind, but much in heart, and go the extra mile to lend a hand however we can. As it was once memorably put, church, grief isn't just something that comes to each of us at some point... but, truly, it's "the price we pay for love."