Transcript of the homily at the funeral Mass for Fr. James Henning, OFM Conv.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Following is the full transcript from the homily given Jan. 6 at the funeral Mass for Father James Henning, OFM Conv. The Mass was celebrated at St. John the Baptist Church in Clinton and has been archived for viewing here. The homilist was Father Paul Joseph Langevin, OFM Conv.
My dear friends in Christ,
The Lord give you peace. Along with our provincial minister, the Very Reverend Michael Zielke, and the vicar for clergy here in the diocese, Msgr. Halfacre, our vicar provincial, the Very Rev. Paul Mary Schneider, all the Franciscan friars here, your administrator here in Clinton and Farmer City, Father James, for all the diocesan priests and deacons who are gathered here this morning, our hearts and our prayers are united with yours – the wonderful people of Clinton and Farmer City – where you have all become like family to Father Jim throughout these past 15 years.
When a person joins religious life, the family may think they’re losing their brother, their sister, their uncle, their aunt or a cousin. And that is just not the case. Rather, you gain all of us as your family, and we gain all of you as ours.
It is for me one of the greatest blessings of joining the Franciscan family. Being the youngest of six, I loved teasing and being a brat to my brothers and sisters growing up, and it seems a natural fit with the friars to tease and to be a brat. And I certainly did find in Jim great competition. He’s far better at it than me because he was much older. He wore that badge of senior friar on his sleeve. He certainly deserved it.
My gosh, 44 years ago he made his first vows, and it was then that the minister provincial told you that you weren’t losing a brother, that you were gaining the Franciscan family. And so we thank you for sharing your brother with us. In my family we always thanked our in-laws for taking our brother or sister off our hands. So you’re welcome, for taking Jim off yours.
Of course it’s not fair, Jim’s not able to rebut at all. It’s the only time I’m going to get any of this in until, God willing, make it to heaven. Then I don’t know if he’s going to chew me out, or hug me or kiss me.
To all of Jim’s family, thank you for sharing your brother, your uncle, your cousin, with us. And he now is commended to the other family members that you have lost over the years . . . We remember all of your faithful departed and we add Jim’s name to this wonderful list of saints and the light.
Over the past 15 years the sheep of Clinton and Farmer City have especially seen in Father Jim the coming to fulfillment of the promise he made as he professed his vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. This has been the longest placement and assignment for Father Jim. It wasn’t “assignment,” it was an extension of his family and our Franciscan family. He has for the past 15 years, I know, instilled in you all the heart and the spirit of what makes us Franciscan friars. Love for one another. Looking out for one another. Fighting with one another. Being able to humble ourselves and be obedient, whether it is to our provincial, or to our guardians, to the rule of our way of life. And he has infused that spirit among you.
And so his departure isn’t the end of our family as Franciscans here, and in Farmer City and Clinton. But it continues on in his loving memory, and in your hearts.
I would have liked to have known Jim a bit earlier than these past 10 or 12 years, because in these years I’ve known him to struggle physically. But to see him persevere through it all has been for me, personally, as a friar — as a brother to him — a great source of strength and witness. He did not complain about his physical conditions or limitations or whatever he was suffering. You could see it, especially these last couple of years. As I became his guardian at the beginning of this term almost four years ago, I saw that it was harder and harder for him to come to house chapters. How long it would take him to go from his car into the friary. But it was so important to him to continue for us to come together as brothers in our house chapters and our fraternity.
(I don’t know why it took me so long to realize that all we had to do was open up the garage door and he could have come into the friary that way. I’m quite frankly shocked that he didn’t tell me that that’s how it was going to be! Once we did finally figure it out, it really did go so much better for him. He wanted to continue for all of us to be together.)
I’m not going to remember him struggling, physically. What I am going to remember are all of the ways he took this “newbie priest” – as he liked to call me — this “newbie priest” under his wings, and he became my go-to guy when I lost some of my other go-to guys over the past few years. To become a big brother to me, to help me when I had questions about the sacrament, or about the liturgy, or about the order, or just about life.
About eight months ago, Jim thought it would be a good idea if I started to go with him to his doctors appointments. And it was through that process that I realized how very sick Jim had been. He had been doing the peritoneal dialysis for so long. And you all helped to minister to him in his needs, just as he ministered to you in your needs. I would say that is the true grace, the true beauty, of parochial ministry for us as priests – to be able to walk with your families, to be able to baptize your children and your grandchildren, to be able to marry your children and baptize their children, to bury your loved ones, to journey with you.
Father Jim has journeyed with you for 15 years and I know that’s a loss for you. But I know in your new Father James as your administrator, that a new walk begins and continues for him and for you all. And I have no doubt that you all will walk it so beautifully together as a family of faith. Just as you have through these past 15 years with our brother, Father Jim.
When he had to be taken to the hospital in Springfield he called and said “I think you’d better come. I think it’s time to start planning my funeral.” And that was the hardest phone call to receive, but in typical fashion, Jim had everything planned out in his mind. All I had to do was take notes and not interrupt. And when I did interrupt, it was like “Oh why did I open my mouth — why didn’t I just stay quiet?” He let me know.
And that was the beauty of Jim. He’d let me know I’d put my foot in my mouth, and yet he still loved me. He was still my brother.
When I started walking this journey with him home to the Lord, I wasn’t sure the first time I did it how it would go, but I took a leap of faith — because he always took great leaps of faith in his ministry to you all and throughout his priesthood, to us as brothers in the order, at Mass and in his homilies, in the community, speaking out for what is right and true. And so it was his example that gave me the courage so that, when I would go and say goodbye, I’d give him a blessing and get up real close and kiss him on his forehead. I didn’t know if he was going to push me away and say, “OK, we won’t have any more of that.”
He never said a word. And so I knew it was OK. And I know that it touched his heart. Because really that’s all that any of us want, isn’t it? That as we are walking home to the Lord, that someone is with us there to bless us and to kiss our foreheads and tell us it’s going to be OK.
It’s more than OK. When he took that final leap last Thursday, a week ago today, he leaped into the arms of our Lord and our Blessed Mother, and they said at the exact same time, “Come. Come, you who are blessed, who have done what I asked you to do. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. That’s what he did throughout his whole priestly ministry. That’s what he did for you, and that’s what you, in turn, did for him.
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” What more beautiful words are there to hear at that moment we leave this world and go into the next. May all of us, in our time, be ready to leap into the Lord’s arms and Our Blessed Mother’s arms, and to hear those beautiful words proclaimed to us, too. Until then, let us keep living our lives in faith, hope, and love in the beautiful example of our brother, of your pastor, of our friend — Father Jim Henning.