Henry.

Those who do not believe in a Higher Harmony will balk when told an accident crunched in the parking lot at the very moment the altar boy’s nose began to bleed. He bled on the surplice, the cassock, the candle, the other altar boy, and the priest’s unlaced shoe which bulgingly carried an Ace-bandaged ankle. The priest was stuffing a purificator up the boy’s nose, damming the blood into his eyeballs, when the Lector asked “how do you pronounce E-L-I-S-H-A? and the organist pounded the entrance “Praise to the Lord …”

They processed, the bleeding, the halt, and the mute unto the altar of God.

Ranzino 3.pdf

Saturday was late and liquored and delivered God’s people, sun-glassed and slumping, to the epilogue of weekend life, the Gothic Church. They were not the community of liberal theology nor the scrubbed inhabitants of filmstrips. They were one endless face–and that face was asleep.

“May the grace of our Lord …” A hungry pause for repentance. A quick feast of sins.

The Lector murdered the prophets once again and bypassed a section where a certain E-L-I-S-H-A was having prophetic truck with a widow. The homily parlayed a fairly clear gospel (you are either with me or against me) into sentences of vacillation and paragraphs of double think. The priest ran to the Creed for refuge only to find a special Creed had been prepared for this mornings’ liturgy by Mrs. Zardek “I believe in butterflies and the breath of …”

The courage of the president of the liturgical assembly drained into the bolt holes of communion – rail days.

The offertory gifts never made it. They were dropped by an elderly couple (“We never liked the new Mass anyway.”) who collided with a small but speedy child whose high-heeled mother was in klicky-klack pursuit and whose name was “Rodgercomeback.”

The consecration was consistent. The priest lifted the host and said “this is my blood.” Instantly aware of his Eucharistic goof, but also momentarily in the grip of a bizarre logic, he changed the wine into Jesus’s body. Then, with his whole mind, heart and soul he genuflected – never to rise – to a mystery which masks itself as mistake and a power which perfects itself in weakness.

(John Shea, “The Prayer of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass,” the Hour of the Unexpected.)

For 60 years Henry Clay Vavasseur was a priest of God. He knew lectors who murdered the prophets, he knew such spontaneous goofs and glory. He was aware that the true definition of a good liturgy is that no one died; and he could preach fiercely about human brokenness and yet be tongue tied about other important things. He was of the human church embraced by the Divine, a church whom he loved, who ordained him in pre-Vatican II years and raised him up all over again after the council had stirred up the dust of centuries. Henry loved this church and because of his love was not afraid to be her faithful critic. In all this, he desired his whole mind, heart and soul to genuflect to a mystery which masks itself as mistake and a power which perfects itself in weakness. The reason was, in Hank’s own life, power was perfected in his own weakness. Henry is living proof that God’s grace works through nature; that God makes things grow; that there are wounded healers among us.

Henry Vavasseur’ s life was spent in the place he most wanted to be – in a parish, with people with whom he could form relationships, people for whom he could help save and with whom he could genuinely love. He led the liturgy of the Eucharist, he reconciled, he preached, he baptized, he anointed, he counselled, he challenged, he worked with, he administrated – he did all sorts of things a priest did and does. Many of you are here today to remember that moment with Hank which either delighted you or infuriated you. He was a complex man. He could be comforting as a “paw paw” – and cutting as a razor. He delighted in the turn of a phrase or an exasperating prank or joke; and yet, I don’t think Henry ever realized how to best use his ability to see deeply into things and people. He both laughed and recoiled at a nickname like “Old Mud Face,” admitting, “dammit,” that his frown often did look frozen. His humor was strange; his mind keen; his was a life that hummed along within the familiar pace of a parish; and Henry was a pastor thru and thru. He also was a man haunted by sorrow, unsteady on his emotional feet and wounded by hurts which he had difficulty hiding. Like most all of us, Henry wore his self sometimes tightly wound; sometimes he wore his self as if he wanted to shed his skin. And then again, he was not like most of us in his multi-color clergy shirts, his LSU paraphernalia displays and his vestments that could and did make a liturgist blanch. I loved Henry – as did you in your own ways – and you well know Henry did not always make loving him easy.

The readings for this Mass were chosen by Henry and give us some insight into his mind about all this. I’m sure he preached on them many times over his 60 years as a priest.

The prophet Isaiah speaks from a mountain, a place of vision above it all. It is here that God dwells. The Holy One who is beyond us, yet the Holy One here among us.

Countless times Henry engaged in that “web that is woven over all nations,” over the years touching into the sinful predicaments that plagued his parishioners: broken marriages, drug addictions, infidelities, conflicts, suicides, physical abuse, lost dreams, rancor and broken hearts, spiritual deadness, all of these being deaths’ children. Parish priests go in and out of this web that is woven (of the) world, as this world is consistently brought to our doors.

It would begin innocently with the words, “Father Hank can I talk with you?” Deep in Henry’s heart was compassion that the Lord God would wipe away the tears from all faces.

At his best, this word was fulfilled through his generosity and compassion. Somewhere in all this Henry found an enduring truth. God has already saved us. Faith is not an unfinished story. Jesus Christ has already defeated Satan and the story’s ending has been told. The evil one has lost and we the living are urged to receive this grace of awareness so that no matter what happens in life, with the Lord at our side, we will be all right.

Henry would probably put that in other words, but he believed this to his core. He knew it to be true from his own dark times, and he did not lose sight of this available grace. In fact, Henry has sent us this wager today to believe according to St Paul to the Corinthians:

“Death is swallowed up in victory

“Where, 0 Death, is your victory?

“Where, 0 Death, is your sting?”

Can’t you just see Henry smiling, saying, “Did you hear the one about the devil? The devil has lost.”

Each of us is a complex mystery within which God’s grace is at work. We begin our lives with high hopes and plans which may or may not work out, and about which we spend much of our lives reacting. We discover quickly that we cannot control most anything and that life is more dynamic than we thought. We run into the reality of sin and its blood – child, death, which always intrudes and finds its way to infect.

In many ways Henry had to maneuver with death’s unexpected impact in and on his own life. I don’t think Henry ever really recovered from his brother Stormy’s death. Their great plan was to retire together, a plan which would not unfold. So Henry marched on, without his brother priest and blood brother, marched on not as jauntily or carefully, carrying a wound that hurt and haunted him.

These last years were hard on Hank as he retired from active ministry. He struggled to keep his balance emotionally and physically, he was angry and gradually lost his awareness of the present time to the recesses of his faulty memory so that one could find him on one particular day a man alert and in the moment, and then discover later that same day, all the while he was somewhere else in his mind. During this time, catching glimpses of what Henry was – an insightful pastor – a generous teacher, a leader among our priests, made us more aware of the gifts Henry displayed when he was at his best and which were now locked away from us. And while we noticed his wounds, we were not able to ever soothe them for him. So what does this mean? What do we do when we cannot fix what is not in our power to fix? What do we do when we cannot make well what is unwell? What do we do when someone we love is receding away from us and for whom we cannot make feel safe?

This is not a question to be solved, rather it is a condition of the spiritual life. What we are to do is go back to that mystery that masks itself as mistake and the power that reveals itself in weakness. That great Paschal Mystery which is the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to whom Henry committed his life and of which Mystery we partake in every Eucharist. The Gospel of John 6 situates us in the heart of this Mystery: If you do not eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood you do not have life within you. This life is not dependent on the breath of the lungs but on the breath of Christ’s Spirit. Eating and drinking the body and blood of the Lord is our entrance into this great mystery of faith, so that we can live forever. Nothing prepares us for this Mystery except as gift from God. Here we are caught up in the secret of life, the ever deepening experiences of the dying and rising of Jesus Christ so that when it comes time to die to this world, we would have already known the pattern. In this mystery of faith Henry celebrated his own dying and rising experiences; with each liturgy of the Eucharist he rehearsed his own entrance into that Mystery which is the fusion of all our incompleteness, and in the single eye of God, tomorrows march toward the breaking brilliance of light.

There is a saying in the spiritual life: Always we begin again. It means there is always a beginning, even at endings. We trust that this is a beginning again for Hank, for him to become like God no longer encumbered by uncertainty or doubt that God truly does love him.

What can we say? You are OK Henry. Well done, good and faithful servant, adopted son of our father, ordained son of the church, big brother to your family, pastor of many, lover of the church. We could not wish more for our brother than to send him forth to the edge of his season of farthest reaching communion with God.

Henry deserves no less.