By MSGR. LEIGH LEHOCKY
Homily at the Mass of Christian Burial for Msgr. Louis F. Sterker held on Sept. 9 at St. Joseph Church.
For you Agnes and Helen, Lou’s sisters, for all of you his relatives, and for you Roy [Msgr. Aiken], Lou’s dearest friend, allow us gathered here to form a circle of faith and support around you today. Together with you let us commend our priest and our friend, Msgr. Louis Francis Sterker, into the eternal embrace of our good and loving God.
People say you can always spot a Catholic in a crowd. We are those folks seen making the sign of the cross all the time — at times of prayer, at news of some tragedy, at some exciting or joyful moment, or, alas, even at a sporting event.
Why do we do that? It seems such an odd habit. Think about it. The cross itself is a reminder of our humanity, especially of all the weakness and frailty to which our human nature is heir. Nevertheless, we do not hesitate to trace that symbol on our bodies while at the same time making bold to proclaim the name of Almighty God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Let us make the sign of the cross together.
What we have just done is a strong statement of faith. That is our way of announcing to the whole world that we see the splendor of God shining through the humanity of Jesus, especially his suffering and death — the divine seen through the human, the perfect glimpsed through the imperfect, the creator seen through the creature. To some that seems like foolishness, but to us who believe it — it is the Gospel, the witness of the saints, the mystery of faith.
The vocation of each of us, the baptized, is to end the mystery of the cross wherever we go, to echo the life of Christ in our living. We are bound in such close union with the Lord that those around us can see something of the loveliness of God shining through our humanness.
With that in mind let us turn to the sad task before us now. We must bury Msgr. Sterker. It is a hard task to bury someone you love. But today with the sign of the cross as our guide, let us make a hard task holy. Let us do more than simply grieve here; let us also look through our tears and see all the wonderful ways in which we caught a glimmer, got a peek of the Holy One through the humanity of Msgr. Sterker.
A few weeks ago I was visiting Msgr. Sterker’s home, and as I left, I walked out with Msgr. Aiken. I asked him: “Roy, what’s the most wonderful thing about Lou?” He said (I wrote it down as soon as I got in the car so that I could bring it to this moment): “Lou just seems to love people. It’s hard to understand, but it’s beautiful to watch. He meets everyone with such a positive attitude. People easily sense his trust, and they just feel better about themselves when they are with him.”
What a wonderful thing. Jesus, our Savior, came for that very reason, to help us into the experience of God’s love. Lou helped us grasp what we heard in the first reading today: “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Haven’t we all been richly blessed by the power of God’s strong, yet gentle love, through this man — our priest and our friend.
Earlier this week, I asked you, Agnes, to tell me something about your brother. You said (and I wrote this down also): “He was so kind. Even as a child he was kind, even when he would get upset with someone he still found a way to be kind to that person.”
Listen to those words. In the Psalms, we read that God is “full of mercy and rich in kindness to all who come to him.” Weren’t we all touched by God’s tender mercies through the kindness of this man — our priest and our friend.
I asked a neighbor, and she told me what so many of you have observed as well: “Father Sterker took great pleasure and pride in his little garden; he loved to care for his plants. And from his room at the back of the house, he delighted watching the many birds and rabbits and squirrels, all the creatures that make up a backyard symphony.”
In the very first pages of the Bible, we read that God looked on all he had made and saw it was very good. Didn’t we get a glimpse of God’s delight in creation through Msgr. Sterker — our priest and our friend.
One of his many friends told me (and here I add my voice as well): “There’s nothing that monsignor liked more than a good meal with friends, except perhaps to prepare a meal for you and to serve you dinner.”
Jesus liked that sort of thing as well. There is, of course the Last Supper, but also many of the most important moments in Jesus’ ministry took place at a meal. We here believe Christ’s real presence is still to be found at a meal, the Eucharist. How many of us experienced the hospitality of God while at a table with Lou — our priest and our friend.
Last night at the vigil service a long-time parishioner of Msgr. Sterker’s said to me: “He was a good pastor. He stayed with me during my wife’s death. He helped me return to the church after being away for many years. He baptized my grandson. I liked it when he said Mass; it made me feel close to God.”
Jesus came to open a way to God for us. The second reading reminds us that we Christians must “walk confidently by faith” on that way. Throughout his priestly ministry, Msgr. Sterker helped many of us do just that. He pastored us well; he was our priest and our friend
Some of the Hospice workers, the doctors and nurses who helped him during these last months have remarked at the gracious way Msgr. Sterker received their care — seldom complaining — rather, thanking them continuously for visiting and attending to him. Like his friend, Cardinal Bernardin, there was grace in his dying. Isn’t that what we see when we look upon Jesus approaching death on the cross. Msgr. Sterker has even taught us a lesson about how to die as God’s good servant. He was our priest and our friend.
And now, dear brothers and sisters, we must bury our priest and our friend. We must give him to the Lord. As we lay down in the arms of God, let us give thanks, for God has shown us himself through this man in so many beautiful ways. We can honor his memory by giving ourselves more faithfully to Christ, the one monsignor served so well.
Like Martha in the Gospel, surely we want to ask: “Lord, shall we meet him again?” The answer comes: “Yes, in the resurrection on the last day,” but also, in every celebration of the Eucharist as we gather around the altar. For there we have communion with Christ and with all who live with him. There we shall still find our priest and our friend.
With that in mind Msgr. Aiken has told me that on the tombstone for Msgr. Sterker the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson will be inscribed:
Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in Thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.
Let us make the sign of the cross together.
Msgr. Leigh Lehocky is pastor of St. Peter Church in Columbia.