A Eulogy for Val LaFrance, O.P. by Fr. Bruce Williams, O.P.
July 8, 2011
Dear hearts: Every day since the notice on Fr. Valerian LaFrance’s funeral went out from our Dominican Provincial Office, I’ve been getting e-mail messages from Friars of our Province offering exceptionally warm and heartfelt tributes to him, and wishing me well in this assignment as funeral homilist. The very first and also the most effusive of these messages was sent from Rome by our brother, Archbishop Gus DiNoia. It was followed later the same day by a message from Fr. Joseph Barranger, who is presently completing his mission in Mexico and preparing to come here to St. Dominic’s as our new Prior. Both of these Friars, along with several others who have written, are very much with us in prayer right now. To no one’s surprise, Fr. Val left behind a written request that his funeral ceremony be, in his words, “a happy, bright liturgy” with “no sad songs.” He specifically asked that the preacher use “humor” and that he be “straightforward” and “honest.” I propose that we honor Fr. Val’s wish for a joyful funeral service by reflecting for some moments on the great divine truth that defined his unique life. In fact the same truth defines all of our lives, each in our own unique ways. We heard it expressed by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus prays first in thanksgiving for His disciples whom He embraces as a gift from His Father; then He goes on to affirm that He has made the divine name known to these disciples whom the Father has gifted Him with. So, simply put, being blessed with divine gifts involves a calling, a responsibility, to glorify the divine giver. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone in life who was more thoroughly imbued with this truth than Fr. Val LaFrance. Val himself knew and appreciated the fact that he was exceptionally gifted in several ways, including (to name only a few) his powerful physique and particularly his powerful voice, his talent for music and theater, his magnetic attractiveness that drew so many people to him. Along with these natural endowments, Val was the beneficiary of wholesome upbringing in a very large and well-knit family, military experience in Europe during the Second World War, specialized training in speech and drama at several prestigious institutions in America and also in London, England, and of course the intellectual and spiritual formation he received in the Dominican Order. Val put all these gifts at the service of the many people God placed in his life. I observed this for the first time some 50 years ago when he was Assistant Novice Master and I was one of the novices under his tutelage. Among other things, he was responsible for training me and my fellow novices in the basics of voice production, speech, and chant music. It was unmistakable how much he enjoyed sharing with us the fruits of his professional education as well as his wide exposure to the theatrical and literary world. No one who experienced it could ever forget Val’s lively instructions on producing “bone tones,” or the exercises in diaphragmatic breathing that he relentlessly put us through with the aid of selections from Gilbert and Sullivan as well as Robert Browning’s poem “Kentish Sir Byng.” Sure enough, Val drove us hard, because he himself was driven hard by his sense of urgent imperative to glorify God with his gifts, utilizing his considerable talents as so many tools in preaching the word of God and forming us novices into preachers of the Word using our own particular gifts. This came home to me with special force in my very first one-on-one with Fr. Val a few days before I would be clothed in the habit. He was auditioning me as a prospective organist and cantor. After listening to a sample or two of my playing and singing, he indicated that he found me fit for service in these roles. Then he told me, pointedly: “Now remember, you’re not here to be an organist, you’re here to become a priest.” And just to make sure I wouldn’t make light of that reminder, Val followed it up in practical ways over the course of the novitiate year. He did indeed assign me to major responsibilities as an organist and cantor. But he set terms on this assignment that significantly limited my freedom to carry it out in the way I would have liked; I’ll spare you the details, and just tell you that under the conditions Val set up, playing and singing were often less than gratifying to me. Finally as that year was ending and I was preparing for First Profession, Val one day took me aside and very candidly explained to me that his purpose in subjecting me to those frustrating conditions was to protect my religious and priestly vocation. He was concerned that without those imposed limitations, I would get over-involved with music as a source of gratification and in the process, as he put it, “you would forget why you were here.” As I’ve much later come to understand, that spiritual challenge Val put before me in the novitiate was very much the same challenge that confronted him; and in fact it confronts us all in various ways. It’s nothing other than the challenge of recognizing and responding appropriately to the gifts God has given each of us. Jesus’ prayer in today’s Gospel shows us that we are each called upon, first of all, to cherish our unique gifts. At the same time, we are to remember that these blessings are not meant for our own self-gratification or self-glorification; they’re meant for us to glorify God by being blessings for others, exercising our gifts in ways that effectively make the Lord’s name known to others. So, be confident and even assertive in exercising your gifts, especially in the service of others, and always give the glory to God without whom you’re nothing. In a word, be humble. Now it seems there’s no better way to safeguard humility than by being confronted with our limitations. Minutes ago I spoke of how Val had long ago challenged me by imposing certain limitations on me as a novice. Little did he or I know that some 50 years later, here together in the Center for Assisted Living at St Dominic’s Priory, both of us would be challenged again by much more severe limitations. In different ways and in different degrees, both Val and I have had to deal with the encroachments of advanced age and the physical and mental afflictions this brings. We’ve both experienced the pain of having to withdraw from very enriching ministerial work that we had been deeply engaged in for decades. Particularly saddening has been the diminished interaction with people that had made our ministries so rewarding. Right up to the end, Val’s persevering efforts to stay in touch with his hundreds of “dear hearts” was truly heroic. I couldn’t honestly say that either Val or I was uniformly successful in accepting and adjusting to our limitations with good grace. But there was some considerable measure of success here, and whatever success I can claim for myself is very largely thanks to the example of Val’s brave struggle especially in these last months. The attitudes expressed by Job and by St. Paul, in our first two Scripture lessons, are key to understanding this struggle. Like both those holy men, Val was sustained by his firm faith in the divine promise of eternal life even as he became progressively more powerless in his earthly life. Indeed Jesus himself, about to undergo his Passion and Death, prayed for his disciples that in the life to come, “where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” In the depths of his heart Val always understood – and so must we – that he was included among the disciples for whom Jesus prayed, and that Jesus’ prayer could not fail to be effective. To be sure, Val waited a long time for that prayer to be finally fulfilled in him; he’ll be laid to rest today exactly one month shy of his 90th birthday. We needn’t worry about Val’s not getting to celebrate number 90 here on earth. The joy of that earthly celebration would have been nothing compared with the joy Val has now of hearing Jesus say to him at last: “Welcome home, dear heart!” Fr. Bruce Williams, O.P. St. Dominic Priory Washington, DC 7 July 2011 (Funeral of Fr. VAL LaFRANCE, O.P. Job 19:1, 23-27 2Cor 4:14-5:1 Jn 17:24-26)