Homily for the Funeral of Fr. Al
by Fr. Gerald McBrearity, PSS
As I began to consider what I could possibly say on this occasion, I knew in my heart that Al was telling me: “Gerry, you fathead, it’s not about me, it’s about Someone else.” I believe that what Al would want us to do would be to turn our attention from him to Someone else. In the early twentieth century, the British spiritual writer, Evelyn Underhill, wrote: “The primary declaration of Christianity is not ‘this do’ but ‘this happened’.” What was central to Al Giaquinto’s life was his conviction that “It happened.” Jesus died for us. Jesus was raised from the dead for us. And each time we celebrate the Eucharist we proclaim that “it happened” and that now everything is different: love has overcome hate; hope has replaced despair and, because of Jesus, our lives have meaning. And I believe our scripture readings can assist us to more fully grasp the meaning of the revelation of God’s love in Jesus and in our brother, Al, and its implications for each of us this morning and for the rest of our lives. Our Gospel highlights Jesus’ love for his friends, his gift for relationship. And Paul’s letter to the Romans reveals how this Apostle felt compelled to share the love he had experienced in Jesus with everyone he met, even with those who might at first misunderstand. For Paul, the mystery of love he experienced in Jesus led to a life of mission. Some years ago, friends took me to a memorial in San Francisco at the base of which was written: “Memory is a monument harder that stone.” Today’s Gospel tells us that, for the Apostles, their experience of Jesus created within them a memory harder than stone, an experience never to be forgotten, an experience that fundamentally changed their lives, that transformed them from fearful, anxious, and confused people into people who could not wait to tell everyone what had happened to them.
At this Eucharist, we remember Al Giaquinto, who was always there for so many of us, who always said the right thing to so many of us, who did the right thing for so many of us at the right time and thus created within so many of us a memory harder than stone, a memory that has transformed so many of us and from which we will continue to draw strength. But we also celebrate the fact that Al was graced by loving and attentive Italian immigrant parents who, despite very, very limited financial resources, raised eight children and from them a huge extended family. We celebrate the fact that Al was given the opportunity to serve over several years as the Newman chaplain at the University of Connecticut upon his ordination to the priesthood in 1948, an initial pastoral immersion that gave birth to so many of his priorities as a priest and Sulpican. We celebrate the fact that Al was graced with a network of friends crossing many generations of priests and seminarians whose love and understanding gave him the strength and courage to become, throughout his long life, a man of integrity, a man who was ready and willing to do for others what had been done for him. Teresa of Avila wrote: “When one reaches the highest level of maturity, one has only one question left: How can I be helpful?” At this Eucharist, we celebrate how Al answered that question and the fact that he was able to do so because of so many of you who are gathered here today, because of so many who are now with God, because of so many from across the country whom he accompanied in prayer and friendship. For Al, the mystery of love he experienced from his family and his friends and from the very seminarians he served for so many decades encouraged and animated his lifetime of mission.
The American writer, Edith Wharton, wrote that “there are two ways of spreading light: to be a candle or to be a mirror that reflects it.” Jesus spread the light of his Father’s love both as a candle casting a clear and bright light on the religious and political culture of his time and as a mirror, becoming for everyone he encountered a sacrament, a reflection of the Father’s compassion, gentleness, healing, and mercy. I believe that when Al asked himself, “How can I be helpful?” he answered that question by committing himself to becoming the kind of person who could embody these two essential dimensions of Christ’s life. He committed himself, first of all, to be like a candle, a proclaimer of God’s message of truthfulness, responsibility, and justice. Although a quiet, self-effacing, and reserved man, who preferred to be in the background, almost from the beginning of his ministry as a Sulpician he was asked to move into the foreground: as rector of the high school seminary and later as rector of the college seminary in Mountain View, California, and later in life as the rector of Theological College in Washington, D.C. These and other highly public responsibilities were assumed during times of rapid societal and ecclesial change and in each instance he was like a candle, casting a clear and bright light on the religious and political culture of his time: while serving as the rector of the college seminary in Mountain View, California, he assisted those collegians who were leaving the seminary to apply for conscientious objector status during the war in Vietnam, guidance that evoked criticism in high places; he raised questions about the American Province’s commitment to staffing high school seminaries, evoking criticism from some; at age 44 he was elected to serve as a member of the Provincial Council as the American Province began to implement the changes in priestly formation required by directives of the Second Vatican Council, changes that at first were in some quarters resisted; he was later elected a second time to serve as a Provincial Consultor with a new generation of leaders who then looked to him for guidance; he recognized the need for an external forum formation relationship in the contemporary seminary, and designed a model and guided its implementation at Theological College during the 1970-71 school year, the first Sulpician seminary to do so; he lived a life of simplicity, saying publicly that he would never take a vacation that any one of his siblings could not afford to take. Yes, it is correct to describe Al as a humble, kind, dignified, and thoughtful person and priest, widely admired for his holiness of life, a man who preferred to be in the background yet throughout his life as a Sulpician he was called into the foreground and as many of you know when Al did decide to speak either privately or publicly everyone sat up, shut up, and listened. He sometimes said things that only he could get away with saying. I suspect many of you who are gathered here today have your own stories to tell of the ways in which Al was like a candle casting a clear and bright light on the religious and political culture of your time.
Secondly, he committed himself to being like a mirror, a reflection of the Father’s gentleness, healing, and mercy. St. John of the Cross once wrote: “They can be like a sun, words, they can do for the heart what light can for a field.” Al’s soft voice and welcoming manner; his sense of humor; his gift even in the most difficult of circumstances for leading by persuasion rather than force; his capacity to evoke communion in communities of strong-willed and argumentative Sulpician confreres, faculty colleagues, and seminarians; his pastoral concern for an entire seminary community — not only faculty and seminarians but administrative, kitchen, and cleaning staff as well; and, above all, his gift for accompanying multiple generations of seminarians and priests as they discerned God’s will for them in his open, non-judgmental, and loving manner as a spiritual director and formation advisor. In all this he created, for so many, memories harder than stone, memories of a love that assisted so many to live a life of mission. Once again, I suspect everyone gathered here has his or her own story to tell of the way in which Al was like a mirror for you, reflecting the Father’s gentleness, healing, and mercy. Reiterating the words of John of the Cross: “They can be like a sun, words. They can do for the heart what light can for a field.” Al’s words were for me like the sun, doing for my heart what light can for a field.
I would like to conclude with the reminder that for people of faith love is not some concept or lofty ideal. Love must be the verb of our faith. The American writer, May Sarton, wrote: “Love is the great enlarger of the person because it requires us to ‘take in’ the stranger and to understand him, to exercise restraint and tolerance as well as imagination to make the relationship work.” To love as the Apostle Paul described it and to love as Jesus lived it is to be forever “enlarged,” to be forever “taking in” the other, to be forever understanding, and to be forever exercising restraint, tolerance, and imagination. To love as Al lived it was manifest in his gift for relationship, his curiosity and interest in others, his profound wisdom gained from a lifetime of prayer and service, his willingness to make commitments in friendship, to remain loyal, and to never forget. For Al, love was indeed the verb of his faith. Again, from John of the Cross: “In the evening of life we will be judged by love alone.”
As we celebrate this Eucharist, we give thanks for our “memories harder than stone,” Al’s life so fully and passionately lived. We give thanks that he is now experiencing eternal life and peace with God and that he is now praying for each one of us, telling us to live life to the full. At this Eucharist, we pray that the remarkable mystery of his life will compel us to proclaim by our lives what was at the heart of his life — that “it happened” and now everything is different; love has overcome hate; hope has replaced despair and, because of Jesus, our lives have meaning.