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People have told me that the first week that Fr. Phil was assigned here at Ascension of Our Lord seven years ago, he presided over six funerals. So the parishioners are not surprised when in my first week here at Ascension I have faced four funerals. Over the past three years as a young priest I have presided over many funerals. For some of those who died, I journeyed with them from their advanced stage of illness to their last breath. I think Catholic priests have a unique privilege of witnessing souls putting closure on a very short-term earthly life to begin a very long-term eternal life in Heaven.
It's my experience that some souls are better prepared to put closure on their earthly life than others. I remember visiting a man whose cancer had spread through his entire body. When I entered his room, he had a beer in his hand and was joking with friends who were visiting him. The moment I mentioned preparing for dying and receiving the anointing, he jolted and dropped his beer, which spilled over his blanket. I left that house thinking this man was not prepared to put closure on his very short earthly life. A few days later I heard from his wife that he had passed. Some souls I encounter do not even have time to unpack for this earthly life. I remember standing over incubators at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Woman's Hospital with anxious new moms and dads. One child I was called to visit lived only two hours outside his mama's womb. I baptized the child and he was ready for his heavenly home but his mom and dad were not ready for him to go.
He said, “I kept crying, and as I looked up, I saw like a movie screen – that’s the only way I can explain it. My life was flashing before me…I saw my life and my sins, and it was not a pretty sight. It was a really, really ugly sight. I was trying to see something that I would be proud of, and there was really nothing there, because everything I did, I did it in my name, and I did it for me…I wasn’t doing anything for Jesus or Mary or God the Father or the Holy Spirit or the saints. Everything was about me. I was kind of like my own idol…I was devastated. I was crying some more, and now I have a puddle underneath me…I was just devastated – the sins that I saw.”
He said, "In this experience I saw the way God saw me. There was so much pain in my heart and so much remorse. I just kept saying, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Forgive me.’ He said he was led to confession and he came to realize that he was given a great gift and he thought, ‘I can change that hour!!!’ I can make it better. I can make amends. I can ask for forgiveness for all the people I’ve hurt.'"
Our Lord mentions in the gospel today what the kingdom of heaven is like. When you think of heaven and the people who live there, do you picture persons who are selfish, prideful, and greedy? Rather, we believe that persons living in heaven are self-giving, humble, and loving. If today Our Lord calls us to heaven, can we honestly say to Him, "Yep, I'm qualified to enter?" So Our Lord uses a parable of the weeds in the field to describe what happens at the end, where He will send His angels to separate out the ones who sinned and caused others to sin. A deeper meaning of this parable is that Our Lord sows daily the good seeds in us--the gifts to be able to be self-giving, to be compassionate, and to be loving. Yet we also have to contend with the enemy's attempts to sow weeds--selfishness, pride, anger, and greed. Each day we're called to look at our lives, to see that we are a reflection of God's love. Where do we see ourselves right now? Sorted with the good seeds or sorted with the weeds? It's a sobering question for all of us, that without God's mercy not one of us can confidently say that we deserve heaven. It's time for us to humbly admit that we need Our Lord to be the gardener of our hearts, carefully weeding out our selfishness. It is time to encounter this good, kind, and compassionate Gardener of our hearts through prayer, through Eucharist, and through Reconciliation. Our Lord has placed all of this grace before us and waits for us to ask Him for His help.