To Drink Forever of the Life-giving Spirit
October 2, 2014
On Thursday, September 25, 2014 Fr. Clement Burns, O.P. passed away peacefully at Mohun Hall in Columbus, OH. Below is the homily preached by Fr. Nicholas Lombardo, O.P. at his Mass of Christian Burial celebrated at St Gertrude Parish, Cincinnati, OH, on September 30.
Jesus journeyed to a city called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him. As he drew near to the gate of the city, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. A large crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” He stepped forward and touched the coffin; at this the bearers halted, and he said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, exclaiming, “A great prophet has arisen in our midst,” and “God has visited his people.” This report about him spread through the whole of Judea and in all the surrounding region. — Luke 7:11-17
After Jesus raised the widow’s son from the dead, people were stunned. They had never seen anything like it before. They said: “A great prophet has arisen in our midst” and “God has visited his people.” For sixty years, Fr Joseph Clement Burns served God’s people as a priest. For sixty years, God visited his people through him, and through him Jesus continued his ministry of healing. Over the years, he touched countless lives. For so many people, he was father, uncle, brother, friend. He served as a teacher, campus minister, prior, student master, pastor, novice master—and what was closest to his heart, a preacher of God’s grace. When talking about his life, it’s hard to know where to begin. Everyone has their favorite Fr Clem stories. He did not take himself too seriously, and it was hard to take yourself too seriously when you were around him. He lacked what is often called a filter. I remember many years ago talking with a parishioner here at St Gertrude’s. He’d been to confession with Fr Clem, and he was still kind of amazed and puzzled. He told me, “Going to confession with Fr Burns was unlike going to confession with any other priest. While I was confessing my sins, he was saying things like, ‘Yeah, I do that too.’” Throughout his life, in all the different things he did, Fr Clem had a gift, a charism, for encouraging others. He put people at ease, and he made the Christian life look easy, or at least doable, and he did what he could to make it easier for others. One year, on the feast of St Dominic, he was preaching at the community Mass. Toward the end of his homily, he was talking about St Dominic and how cheerful he was known to be. He then said another Dominican had once said to him, “I don’t know why people say St Dominic’s cheerfulness was a virtue.” Fr Clem said he responded, “I don’t know either, but I wish you were more cheerful.” And then he walked away from the pulpit. But while Fr Clem had a charism for encouraging others, he was also ready to fight for what he thought was right, no matter what other people thought. In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr invited clergy from around the country to Selma, Alabama, to demand voting rights for black Americans, and Fr Clem was one of those who came. The next year, in a non-violent protest, he walked into a whites-only restaurant in Maryland with black friends and ended up arrested and in jail. Twenty years later, in the 1980s, he found himself in jail again, this time for protesting with the pro-life movement. Not many people can claim the double honor of being jailed for both civil rights and protection of the unborn. More recently, his favorite Chinese restaurant in Madeira changed its menu and raised its prices, and Fr Clem would not go quietly. The restaurant did not want to lose one of its most faithful customers, and they allowed him to pay the old menu price. So every time he went to get his vegetable stir fry, he ordered off the old menu and saved fifty cents. Fr Clem was born in Manhattan two blocks from St Vincent Ferrer. He had two brothers and one sister, still living, whose daughter Ann, his niece, is here with us today. He was baptized in a Dominican church, taught by Dominican sisters, and from an early age he knew he wanted to be a Dominican. After he was ordained, he was asked to study for an advanced degree so that he could teach. And for ten years, he taught in New Haven at Albertus Magnus and in Philadelphia at LaSalle. It looked like he would spend most of his life teaching theology. But then something happened. He spent a few years doing campus ministry, and while he was head chaplain in Norfolk, Virginia, he got invited to a charismatic prayer meeting. It was the late 1960s, and the Catholic charismatic movement had just begun. He was skeptical and didn’t really want to go, but out of curiosity he went, and while he was there, someone prayed over him to receive the Holy Spirit. He felt nothing and was generally unimpressed by the whole thing. He had another meeting, so he left early and drove away. And then, while he was driving, he suddenly felt the presence of Jesus sitting next to him in the passenger’s seat. He didn’t see anything, he didn’t hear anything, but he felt the presence of Jesus next to him. His life was changed, and he felt called to renewal. He started attending the charismatic prayer meetings in Norfolk, and he would often preach at them. And then something happened again: people starting come up to him and telling him, “My life has changed after hearing you preach.” This got him thinking that maybe he should start preaching full-time. So he did. He didn’t want to go out by himself, so he started preaching with a layman and a religious sister, Sr Edna Maier. They would preach Family Missions for the whole family. Soon the layman had to drop out to support his family, and it was just Fr Clem and Sr Edna. And for the next 20 years, they preached Family Missions in every part of the country, over 300 in total. Some years ago, I had been reading about how Archbishop Fulton Sheen had once said that every priest preaches the same homily again and again. I was thinking about this, and I asked Fr Clem if he thought this was true. He thought for a moment, and then he said, “Yes.” So I asked him, “What’s your homily?” This time he didn’t pause, he didn’t hesitate. He just clenched his fist and said, “Get Holy Ghost power!” He brought that message to everything he did. He was always ready to see the Holy Spirit at work in new ways. When he was pastor here at St Gertrude’s, some men in the parish approached him about hosting a conference for Catholic men. He recognized its potential immediately and gave it his full support, and that conference was the beginning of the Catholic’s Men Fellowship, which spread from here across the United States. It was also because of his example that St Gertrude’s has a healing service every First Saturday. And that brings us to another of his great passions—praying for healing. If there was one thing that got Fr Burns excited, it was praying for healing and anointing others. He would often tell people to make the prayer before receiving communion—“Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”—truly a prayer for healing. Every one of his parish missions had an evening where parishioners would be invited to receive the anointing of the sick. Often so many people came, priests from other parishes had to come help. While miracles did not always happen, this ministry brought peace to many people. And sometimes, miracles did happen. One time, on a parish mission in Kentucky, a young woman came up to be anointed. She’d had serious heart trouble all her life, and her mother had brought her to the parish mission. When it came time for the anointing, her mother encouraged her to go up, but she said, “I don’t think I should, I haven’t been going to church, I’m not a good Catholic.” But her mother said, “Go up,” and she did, and Fr Clem anointed her. He didn’t find out until later, but as she was being anointed, she knew immediately that she had been healed. Later her doctors confirmed that her lifelong heart condition had vanished. The following year, Fr Clem was giving another mission in the same parish, and the pastor said, “Would you like to meet the woman who was healed?” So of course he said yes, and she came out to meet him. She told him that she’d been away from the Church and her marriage had been breaking up, but now her heart was healed and her marriage was healed—all because she came up to be anointed. Sometimes the healings weren’t physical, they were spiritual. One time, while he was prior in Dover, he was preaching a mission in Boston, and a woman with a sad heart came up to ask for prayers. Several months before, her daughter had been out with two of her friends, and they had gotten into a serious car accident. The woman got called to the hospital and was sitting with her daughter. But the hospital couldn’t reach the parents of one of the other girls, and she was all alone in another part of the hospital. So the daughter said to her mother, “Why don’t you go sit with her? I think she needs you more I do.” So she did, and while she away, her daughter died. Ever since, this woman had been devastated not only to have lost her daughter, but especially at not having had a chance to say goodbye. So Fr Clem prayed with her, and he prayed that God would give her peace. The next morning, she called and told him that his prayer had been answered. After the healing service, she had gone home, and that night she had a dream about her daughter. In the dream it was a normal school day, and her daughter left for school without saying goodbye. When she returned home that afternoon, her mother asked her why she left without saying goodbye, and her daughter told her, “You never have to say goodbye, I’m always with you.” We’re here today to say goodbye to Fr Clement Burns, to remember his preaching, and to pray that he receives the same mercy he preached for sixty years. In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah says: “On this mountain [the Lord] will destroy the veil that veils all peoples…He will destroy death forever.” Until that day, we give thanks to God for the gift of his Son Jesus and the hope he has given us, and we pray that just as light follows darkness, and resurrection follows death, God will receive Fr Joseph Clement Burns into his kingdom and give him to drink forever of the life-giving Spirit.