In January 2004, our family lost a close friend, Marianist Brother Ed Kiefer, who was a member of our Marianist Madeleine House Community and served as the Director of the Office of Religious Education for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. When our family of six visited Br. Ed a few days before his premature death from melanoma, his only question was, “Where is the baby?” We gave our eight-month-old son, Sean, to him. Little Sean remained with Br. Ed, who enjoyed the gift of Sean’s tender presence as the dying religious brother was present to the rest of the family.
Sean was born during Br. Ed’s final year of life, when he was already struggling with the onset of melanoma. As part of our faith community, Br. Ed would always attend Sunday Mass with us. At the celebration of the Eucharist, I received a new insight into how Jesus was truly Br. Ed’s life force. He lived a Eucharistic mission, sharing in Jesus’ own mission “to bring glad tidings to the poor” (Luke 4:18), which meant he embodied the caring Spirit of Jesus in his reception of the Eucharist. For Br. Ed, receiving the Eucharist was no passive event but a clarion call to serve the poor. The Eucharist was also a communal—not only a personal—event for Br. Ed, which is why, whenever we attended Mass together, Br. Ed would hold Sean and carry him when he went to receive Holy Communion.
People would occasionally remark how nice it was that the baby’s “grandfather” was so much a part of our family’s life. My wife and I would only laugh and do our best to explain how Br. Ed was a community member, not a grandfather, which seemed only to confuse people. When we said community, it was our way of understanding that family has a much broader implication—especially because we believe in the communion of saints. At every Mass, the whole Church—those alive on earth, those triumphant in heaven, and those experiencing purification in purgatory—are united to the one sacrifice of Jesus. We truly become one family, one body in Christ.
Even before becoming ill, Br. Ed had struggled with the vicissitudes of life. His welcoming and hospitable nature masked the inner sorrow he felt as he embraced those who suffered, be it people who were homeless or incarcerated, or even friends who were ill or who had lost loved ones. He spent his free time doing community organizing to help cultivate a more just world. These daily activities were an extension of the Eucharist for Br. Ed—how he participated in the Paschal Mystery in his everyday life. The Catechism reminds us that “the Eucharist commits us to the poor” (CCC, par. 1397). He was quick to find hope in the poor, as well as in children. He would often say, “I love babies. Parents only have babies when they have hope. So babies are a sign of hope for me.” It’s no small wonder that he held Sean throughout Mass each Sunday and again on his deathbed. Br. Ed was clinging to hope.
While serving as a lector at Mass recently, I received Communion first, allowing me much time for thanksgiving and reflection. For some reason, that day there were many families with babies in tow—some being carried while others toddled along holding the hand of one of their parents. Most made eye contact with me, desiring to play games with their faces. I was sensing the presence of Jesus within me and how the Holy Spirit was moving in my life, when suddenly the babies became my reflection! Their smiles, joy, and happiness reminded me of Br. Ed’s comment about babies being a sign of hope. I became utterly filled with hope and joy almost to the point of tears.
Rather than the sense of quiet and stillness I would usually experience after receiving the Blessed Sacrament, I experienced an energy and dynamism in the assembly through my engagement with the little ones. As Catholics, we know the Holy Trinity to be a dynamic communion (or relationship) of three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—constantly giving and receiving love. That Sunday, my reflection after I received the Eucharist was something like that: an encounter that led to communion and thrust me into mission, girded by hope and love. Words fail to capture the full sensation of knowing God’s lively and energetic presence in the congregation, even as he was silently yet powerfully present in the Blessed Sacrament. It was as if an electric current bound us all together through the Eucharist.
The great spiritual thinkers warn us not to expect to receive consolation every time we pray or receive the Eucharist. But they do acknowledge that consolations can take place in prayer and during Mass—the highest form of prayer we have as Catholics—often at unexpected moments. These moments of consolation, much like when Thomas Merton was overwhelmed with a sensation of love for all at a downtown corner in Louisville, Kentucky, are a spark and a reminder of the Holy Spirit moving among us in silent and creative ways. “The wind blows where it wills and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (Jn 3:8).
When Br. Ed held Sean on his chest as he experienced the process of dying, it struck me that this was a window into the Paschal Mystery, an encounter with death and new life in that single moment. Death can be a frightening and intimidating experience, both for the person dying and for the loved ones standing by. There is so much we simply do not know about the afterlife, but we hold on to the hope of resurrection and the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. When we attend Mass and receive the Eucharist, it is a lived experience of this cycle of death and new life, which gives us nourishment for the journey.
In life, we face many afflictions—not unlike Br. Ed’s affliction of melanoma—but “hope does not disappoint” (Rom. 5:5). How well Br. Ed knew this verse through his own experience: hope does not disappoint. Our hope is rooted in the person of Jesus Christ, who remains with us always in a most special way in the Eucharist, sustaining us through the many challenges we face in life until we finally see him face-to-face!