My brother and I seemed so different when I was younger. He was tall, I was short. He liked to watch the Three Stooges. I preferred cartoons. He read Hardy Boys books which seemed like too much work for me at age 6.
My favorite books were short features, found in books like the Guinness Book of World Records and similar collections of odd tales and strange happenings. I reveled in accounts of fantastic events like stranded motorists helped by a stranger who seemed to just appear and disappear without a trace. My favorite books were filled with humorous sayings. The most memorable of these books was filled with quips, quotes and limericks from tombstones. OK, so I was a weird kid.
As early as 6 years old, I looked forward to the passing of distant relatives. It wasn't personal. It was because then I could go to the cemetery with my mother. I loved to wander around the tombstones. I thought that the headstones would be filled with the same quips, puns and wisdoms that I read about in those books.
I was respectful and quiet during the service but afterward, I ran through the sea of headstones like a prospector searching for gold. This probably horrified my mother to see me running, as if on an Easter egg hunt, looking for odd names and sayings like "Here Lies Old Fred, a Great Rock Fell on His Head" or "Here Lies My Husband Jake. He Hit the Gas Instead of the Brake."
While working as a pastoral associate at a parish in Boston, Mass., from 2006-08, one of my duties was leading prayers at the wake and graveside. I still remember the day I drove behind the hearse into a famous, old cemetery that had the graves of such celebrities as the Kennedy family. After leading that particular graveside service, I decided to hang back and head slowly back to my car so I could explore the headstones again, like I did as a boy.
I came across one relatively new tombstone near the end of a row that had a Bible verse on the back side, which I thought both strange and inspiring. I walked around to see what kind of person would have arranged to have a passage like "Go and Make Disciples of All People" (Mt. 28:16) on their tombstone.
I was filled again with childlike wonder as I came around to view the face of the headstone. But when I came around, I was stunned to see that it wasn't for a person at all. It was for a church which must have closed just a few months earlier: The Church of All Saints, 1808-2008. What could have happened to a church that had withstood the ravages of two centuries?
I asked some questions over the next few weeks and found a bit about the last decades in the life of this community. It was a vibrant church during the immigration years of the 1920s, '30s and '40s, when so many were coming from Europe. The large congregation grew as the families grew through the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
What went wrong? Could they have simply become complacent in their sense of purpose? Did they expect to keep growing without any effort in the next century? I suspect that these final words on their headstone served both as their answer and as a warning to others. Parishes today have a choice between death and life. We choose life - a life in Christ.
A simple rephrasing of this recognition might be that our mission is to: encounter Christ, follow Christ, find joy in Christ and share Christ. One way we can regain this sense of purpose and grow as a parish is through the Christ Life process. Parishes are welcome to register representatives at no cost to learn about this process, be equipped for leadership and see what it can do for your parish on Oct. 16-17, at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish on Main Street in Harris Hill.
This is not just a training event. Participants will be personally inspired as on a personal retreat to encounter Christ, follow Christ, enjoy Christ and share Christ again. Contact Dennis Mahaney at 716-847-8393 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Dennis Mahaney is director of the Office for Evangelization and Parish Life.