This week, I was in Rapid City, SD for the funeral for Fr. Gerald “Jerry” Scherer. He died at 98 years and was a priest for 63 years. I had known him my entire life. Because he was my mother’s first cousin, he often visited our family. I preached the homily for his funeral Mass. The text is below.
On behalf of the diocese and Fr. Jerry’s family, I would like to say THANKS to all who have offered such good care to Fr. Jerry. Over the last four years, he has received loving care from the people at There’s a Hart and Bella Vista Golden Living Center. Thank you for your dedication and service to him and so many others. We don’t say thank you enough to those who serve the elderly and dying.
Homebound ministers from the parishes in Rapid City visited him regularly to bring him Holy Communion and listen to his stories. He was a story teller….. Last night someone said to me, “Tell the story of his first confession. He said that he was standing in line and didn’t know what to confess, so he kicked the kid ahead of him so that he had something to confess.” Thanks for listening to his stories and accompanying him on his final journey to the Father’s house. Also, Fr. Dan Juelfs has been especially attentive to his needs while acting as Power of Attorney. There are many others too numerous to mention.
Those who were privileged to be with Fr. Jerry over these last years would say, “It was a GIFT.” He was easy to be around…. most of the time! Even when we had to twist his arm to leave his hermitage, or the “R & R” as he called it, he maintained a gentle stubbornness.
After he had fallen on the ice and injured his shoulder, I told him that he needed to be closer to others. I said that his sister Darlene and other family members were worried about him. He replied, “I know. They’re afraid that I will fall and not be able to get up. And maybe I will freeze to death or die all alone. But I am not afraid of that. I am ready to die and feel peaceful about it.” Then I thought to myself, “Okay. How do you respond to that?”
He approached death with calm confidence. For Fr. Jerry, death was not something to be feared. Rather, he anticipated it with a sense that it would be the deepest experience of God in his entire life.
A few years ago, his brother Cliff sent me a copy of Jerry’s autobiography, over 50 pages of single-spaced typed reflections or “Musings,” as he titled it. Mostly, he wrote about how God TOUCHED him throughout his life. Toward the end, he described a near death experience in connection with an operation on his back in 1994. Something went wrong with how he reacted to the anesthesia, and the doctor later told him that they almost “lost him.” This is how he described it.
“It was a world of peace. Quiet. A world where God was present in a special way. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to move. God had blessed me from seminary days on with a contemplative and mystical way of prayer. This was something like that. I was to totally content to sink deeper and deeper into God.”
Then he wrote, “If I ever had any fear of dying it was all taken away in that beautiful experience I had following my back operation at the VA hospital in Iowa City. . . . Maybe my next ‘near death experience’ will be the real thing and take me all the way into the arms of God. A loving God.”
As his mind and body deteriorated these last years, Fr. Jerry lived with PEACE and CALM as he awaited the final embrace of God. Actually, in the Joy of the Gospel Pope Francis describes the Christian life as one of living between the embrace of God at Baptism and the final embrace of our merciful Father at death.
This faith engenders an attitude of sure faith in the midst of suffering that we just heard in the reading from Lamentations.
“I have forgotten what happiness is; I tell myself my future is lost, all that I hoped from the Lord. . . . Remembering it over and over leaves my soul downcast within me. But I will call this to mind, as my reason to have hope:
The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent. They are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness” (Lam. 3:17-26).
Over the years, Fr. Jerry said that he had become more and more aware of God’s blessings. As the writer of Lamentations says, “The favors of the Lord . . . are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness.” This attitude is essential for a Christian as he or she approaches death.
When we come before God in the final judgment, the LORD will ask us, “How well did you live a CHILD of God?” In particular, “How well did you live like my Son?” Another way to ask this question is: Do people see in my life the mystery of Jesus’ victorious death & resurrection? How was that mystery present in the life of Gerald Scherer? That is the ultimate question.
In the gospel today, we heard Jesus say, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father” (Matt. 11:27). As God’s Son, he was filled with every gift. That constant sense of the Father’s gifts carried him through the cross and into the resurrection. To be a CHILD means that I recognize the Father’s gifts ….. in every moment of my life. It means to live with gratitude.
Fr. Jerry wrote, “If we just take time to prayerfully reflect on our lives we realize that God has been part of our lives far more than we realized. What is the result of such reflection? Gratitude. We find ourselves thanking God for all the blessings he has blessed us with throughout our lives. And again, if we look at our lives through the eyes of faith we come to see EVERYTHING AS BLESSINGS!”
That is the attitude of a child of God…… even better, it is the attitude of an adopted child. That is one of St. Paul’s favorite images for a Christian, “You received a spirit of ADOPTION, through which we cry ABBA, ‘Father’!” (Rom. 8:15). The adopted child knows that they have not EARNED anything. Their life is pure gift. The adopted child ought to live with gratitude, with a sense of amazing blessings flowing from his or her parents.
It also means to have childlike trust in the worst suffering. That is what we hear from St. Paul as he continues his reflection on adoption, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us” (Rom. 8:18). Such trust in suffering is based on the lived experience that God is always with us as a merciful Father.
In his autobiography Fr. Jerry, talked about how God worked through his sins or experiences of evil. He describes several different times where God used bad events to teach him a lesson or to help him be more mature. He wrote that “everything is a blessing.” Most of all, he wrote about a growing sense of God being with him. Perhaps that is why he laid in bed (unable to walk) in the last days with such grace.
The person who lives as a child of God has a perspective of hope. They do not focus so much on their sins or the evil in the world, but on God’s great faithfulness. That is what I saw in Fr. Jerry. He had a joy and a peace that was rooted in this childlike trust in the Father’s love.
Today is the feast of St. John Vianney (August 4) ….. a good day to remember another good priest who was ever more being conformed to Jesus Christ.