As Remembered by Joseph McCarty
Below is the homily offered at the Funeral Mass of Fr. Howard Hall on Feb.4, 2012 at St. Joseph Cathedral in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, by his seminary classmate and close friend, Msgr. Paul Metrejean
I begin with a poem. It was written by Thomas Merton around the year Howard was ordained a priest. It sums up well what I want to say in this homily. And if you get the poem, you can ignore the words by me that follow. It is called "When in the Soul of the Serene Disciple..."
When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house.
Stars, as well as friends, Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions.
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.
Here you will find Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways, No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction.
What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom Of men without visions.
The poor in spirit whom Jesus blesses in the gospel we read today are those who ultimately surrender everything they are and have into the hands of God, the ultimate Mystery. And the ultimate surrender we make to him is our dying. Many of us walked with Fr. Howard Hall in his journey of surrender and his journey of dying. We learned up close what being poor in spirit means. We watched him make the ultimate surrender with Jesus on the cross through his own cross of suffering and his offering of trust. "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." But as we walked with him to that final surrender, we saw many other dyings along the way: his faith in Mystery, his letting go, his giving in, his becoming more and more a man who was truly poor in spirit.
The final journey began perhaps several years ago with his first bout with cancer. It was his first reminder, he said, of aging, of mortality, of weakening, of death. One health problem followed upon another until he lived in constant pain, bent over and stooped, barely able to move his head from side to side or to turn his neck at all. I must confess that riding while he drove became an act of profound faith and fear, and the only thing that frightened me more was the prospect of having me behind the wheel. Howard loved to travel: from New York to California, from Eureka Springs to Chicago he had friends and family whom he would visit regularly. Travel was always an adventure for him.
He and I spent a summer in Europe several years ago and although it was my sixth or seventh trip, it was his first. But I saw things and places I had never seen before or even knew about. He dragged me, I think, up every tower in Paris, Florence, Venice and half of Rome. "Why are we doing this?," I asked repeatedly. "Because it's a whole new way of seeing things," he would answer. I was exhausted. He was exhilarated. That was Howard, the explorer, the adventurer, the one who aways wanted and was open to new ways of seeing things.
We first met 56 years ago, gawky 20-year-old seminarians at Notre Dame Seminary. Our classmates, some of whom are here today, have met together for a reunion each year since ordination. Howard never missed. He was always loyal, faithful, dependable. As I recall those days, Howard was tall and thin and had a distinctly nasal Baton Rouge accent. He was artistic, talented, dedicated. But he impressed me most because he was interested in everything and had an unbelievable grasp for details and organization. And he had a deep passion for social justice. That passion was to play itself out through all the years of priesthood: his work for civil rights, for liturgies that children could grasp and understand, his devotion to the Christian Family Movement, Engaged and Marriage Encounter, campus ministry. His courageous and often heroic ministry for gay and lesbian issues, his care for the poor, the imprisoned, the marginalized, the misunderstood and the broken and his final ministering to the hearing impaired. They all taught him more and more to identify with the poor in spirit and to become truly poor in spirit. In his doing justice and loving goodness he learned to walk humbly with his God and to hunger and thirst for righteousness and mercy.
As his health steadily deteriorated, he had to surrender more. He had to let go of his beloved vicarage in Wakefield, his books, his art work, his cultural involvements in the communities he lived in, his travel treasures, his ability to travel, his apartment in Spanish Town and his constant companion, his dog, Nikki. After last summer's diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, he could visit out-of-town and state no more, but was happy to receive visitors. His special gift of hospitality never waned. Nor did his love and loyalty to his sister, his brother-in-law, his nieces and their families, his innumerable friends from every walk of life and his priest support groups. Not long ago when Doug Brouher, Michael Jung and I visited him, he was unable to come out with us, but provided us with a list of restaurants near the nursing facility with detailed directions on how to get there. And if I remember correctly, he pretty much knew the menus by heart. On another occasion when I visited him at Ollie Steele Burden he showed me how he had completely reorganized his phone and address book, his plans for renovating the prayer chapel next to his room and his detailed directions on how the kitchen services could be improved.
To be poor in spirit is to trust in God's unfailing, unconditional and steadfast love and to believe that neither death nor life nor any other creature can ever separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus. Like Jesus and Mary, Howard opened his heart to allow God to do great things in that great heart of his. The Father gazed upon his lowly servant and saw his own mercy and his Son's self-emptying surrender. Howard breathed his last quietly and peacefully and was welcomed joyfully into a new and eternal adventure. He was given a new home and offered divine hospitality he is sure to have recognized and appreciated. The last word, however, is to be Howard's. He left this mesage for me to read to you -- the last detail in a life full of wondrous detail.
"My dear friends: In whatever manner and at whatever time God chooses to close the book of my life on earth, I want the following footnote to be appended to my final chapter. I am grateful to the family that gave me life, my parents and grandparents whom I was privileged to know and live with. Special also was the love and support of my sister Lea and her husband Jack Allen and their two children, Donna Whalley and Shannon Guidry. Another meaningful gift has been the understanding and supportive gift of friendship of numerous persons who have touched my life over the years, including the fraternity of my brother priests. I recall my spiritual roots in St. Joseph Cathedral and Our Lady of Mercy Church and the guidance and inspiration of the Benedictine monks at St. Joseph Abbey. I deeply appreciate the people and events in the parishes and ministries I have served, especially the four parishes I pastored, as we shared both joys and sorrows together. From the blessings of the past I hand on now a request for p[rayer] for my eternal life and for a continuation of the ministry, especially toward those who are hurting or broken in any way. I also ask forgiveness of all whom i may have hurt in any way during my entire life. One of my frequent prayers has been: "Lord, grant that what I do or say may never lead a soul astray." I also forgive any who might feel they have hurt me. I want them to experience only peace and love." Peace and love to you, Howard,
...serene disciple, man of freedom, hero of justice. And thanks for letting us share your journey. Paul Metrejean 136 Metrejean Lane Opelousas, LA 70570 (337) 942-6123
March 16, 2012