Funeral homily: Father Tom Henseler was formed by, and then made, history

Father J. Thomas Henseler

EDITOR’S NOTE: Following is the text of the homily given at the Mass of Christian Burial on July 19 for Father J. Thomas Henseler, a senior priest of the Diocese of Peoria and a pioneer leader in the diocese’s Cursillo and permanent diaconate programs. The Mass was celebrated by Coadjutor Bishop Louis Tylka at St. Mary’s Cathedral and the homilist was Father R. Michael Schaab.

Father Henseler died on July 9, 2021, at Snyder Village Retirement Community in Metamora. He was 85. His obituary is found here and a video of the conclusion of the funeral Mass is found here.

De Colores!

Elizabeth Martinez, a historian of social change, writes, “History makes us, we make history.” That seems very true as I reflect on the life of Father Tom Henseler.

As an example, recall that he was in seminary from 1955 to 1963 and that he was in his first assignment as assistant pastor at St. Patrick’s in Peoria from 1963 to 1970. And also recall that the Second Vatican Council was in session in Rome from 1962 to 1965, the last year of his seminary training and the first couple years of his active ministry.

As we focus in on those years, we begin to understand how “history makes us.”

One of the most important documents to come out of the Council is known by its Latin title, Lumen Gentium, “A Light to the Nations.” It dealt with many issues but let me mention just three.

First, it spoke about lay women and men in the Church. It said, “the laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them may it become the salt of the earth.”

Second, it reflected on the fact that the Catholic Church “recognizes that in many ways she is linked to those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian.” Rather than stress differences, the Council emphasized how baptism makes all Christians brothers and sisters – no matter what their denomination.

Third, in addressing the subject of ordained ministry in the Church, it said “the diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy.”

So you see how this glimpse into Lumen Gentium helps us to understand how history formed Father Tom. From its manifesto on the role of the laity, came his involvement in Cursillo. From its recognition of all Christians as members of the People of God, came his insistence on a uniquely ecumenical Cursillo. And from its restoration of the diaconate, came his pioneering work for the permanent diaconate in the Peoria Diocese.

I hasten to add that my musings are not purely theoretical. They’re personal. In those first years of ministry, 1963 to 1970, Father Tom, as I’ve said, served at St. Pat’s Parish – my parish – and his years of service there coincided with my years in the seminary. As a matter of fact, Father Tom preached at my first Mass. So, I guess, it’s payback time now that I’m able to preach at his funeral.

HIS HOPE AND TRUST IN THE LORD

But back to the question, if this is the way history made Father Tom, how did Father Tom make history?

The answer to that in one sense is quite simple. Father Tom made history by cooperating with God’s grace. But in another sense the answer is, like Father Tom himself, quite complex.

By complex I mean that Father Tom was human. He had his strong points and his weak points, like all of us. And the first strong point that stands out for me was his hope.

The reading from Job says “yet is their hope full of immortality.” In breaking through barriers and leading innovative and challenging programs in the Church, there were times when obstacles and opposition seemed to be overwhelming. I faced some of those times with Tom and his hope and trust in the Lord always impressed me.

I don’t know where it came from. Maybe his family from Canton knows, or maybe fellow workers on the barges on the Illinois River could tell us, but his trust in God’s providence and his optimistic outlook always impressed me as being truly a “hope full of immortality.”

And there was his ability to communicate, and by communicate I stress his listening ability more than his speaking ability. It always impressed me at those late evening Cursillo sessions as I watched Tom simply listening, sometimes for hours, as candidates shared their stories. The words of the Gospel about Christ seemed to have been the model that he followed. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.”

I don’t know where it came from. Maybe someone from Cursillo or the permanent diaconate knows, but his humble listening always impressed me as his way of proclaiming Christ’s message that “the yoke is easy and the burden is light.”

SAW THE BEST SIDE OF PEOPLE

And finally there was that gift that Tom had to see the best side of people, and in doing so to be open to all people. St. Pat’s, when I was growing up, was in decline. We had older homes, increasing immigration, public housing and our share of urban problems. But in spite of it all, Tom could see the best side of people, that is to say, he knew “that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality.” So whether you were black or white, young or old, rich or poor, it didn’t matter. What mattered is that you were called to become something more than you were. You were corruptible and you were called to be incorruptible.

I don’t know where it came from. Maybe some of his friends from other denominations or his brother priests know, or his friends from the south end of Peoria or the country clubs know, but his openness to all he met was proof for me that he really believed that every one of us were called to be raised incorruptible and that we all had the hope of being changed.

Reflecting on Tom’s qualities reminds me that one group of people that I’ve not mentioned who were the beneficiaries of his gifts and dedicated service for 16 years are the people of Mount Sterling. Whether they were Holy Family parishioners or inmates at Western Illinois Correctional Institutution, Tom’s spirit of hopefulness, his willing ear and his ability to accept people for not only who they are but for who they were called to be, those gifts were given to them and they knew where they came from.

THANKING GOD, AND COOPERATING WITH GOD’S GRACE

So where do we go from here? What do we do with our memories of Father Henseler? I suggest two things. First, we thank God for Father Tom, and second, we ask ourselves, “How has history made me, and how am I called to make history?”

The reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians says “thanks be to God who gives us the victory,” and Father Tom now shares in Christ’s victory over sin and death. Thanking God is exactly what we should do in this Mass, which is called the Eucharist, which is a Greek word meaning “Let us give thanks.”

And, regarding history making us and we making history, let’s be aware of the many different ways that this happens. Remember my opening words, “De Colores?” They’re the title of a Spanish folksong that talks about all the different colors that exist in nature, and how each one of those colors, by analogy, represents a different way God’s grace is offered to us. It is sung at every Cursillo gathering.

And remember the author I quoted about our relation to history, Elizabeth Martinez? You might have thought that an odd way to begin, but I was attracted to her words by the title of a book she published in 2017. The title is “De Colores Means All of Us.”

If that’s true, that all of us are beautiful palettes of the colors of God’s grace, then the words of the song “De Colores” should be words all of us can say as we think about God’s grace and how we’re all called to cooperate with that grace in making history. The chorus in Spanish is “Y pore so los grandes amores de muchos colores me gustan a mi,” which translates, “And that’s why a great love of all colors makes me feel like singing so joyfully.”

And so, may our great love for God’s grace, which worked in Father Tom and which is working in this world, fill our hearts with joy. And, in the future, may that joy abide with us longer than the grief we now experience.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. (And let perpetual light shine upon him.) May the soul of Father Tom Henseler and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

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