Two weeks ago, I lost a very important person in my life, Father Jerome Dittberner. Most people saw just a few lines in an obituary that ran in the Star Tribune, but few people knew what a profound impact this priest had on so many.
A legend of the seminary, he taught there for 40 years. I did not have him for class until the third year I was there. I was initially afraid of him, hearing stories that he was a tough grader and that his courses were very challenging, and that you better be on his good side or else you’d have a rough semester.
Of course, all of these were unfounded. One day he walked up to me at the salad bar and said “So, do you still think I’m an ogre?” He had befriended a classmate of mine who told him of my concerns, and over the next few years, I got to know a remarkable man, and found I had one of the best teachers I ever had. He opened my mind, and helped prepare me so much for my ministry.
One of the things he mentioned in class, though, was his frustration with modern funerals in the Catholic church, his concern being that we as a society do not give people time to grieve. We also may use statements such as “grandpa’s up there playing golf with the angels” or “she’s probably playing cards with Agnes and Dorothy.” While well-intended, such statements miss the mark.
Heaven isn’t about some kind of golf or card game or doing things we enjoy; heaven, to the Christian, is about a place where eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love Him (1 Cor. 2:9). You eventually tire of golf, cards, or your favorite hobby; heaven though is beyond anything we can imagine.
We have the hope that our loved one lives on forever in heaven, but we also move forward remembering that we are still with them in a sense our relationship has just changed in that they are not physically present.
This past weekend in the Catholic church, we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension. It marks a significant event when Jesus rises from the dead.
Before He ascends to the Father in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15).
Acts of the Apostles begins with Jesus ascending to the Father and two men dressed in white telling the apostles to stop looking at the sky, as Jesus will return. From that point on, they receive the Holy Spirit and go out and preach the Gospel. In fact, in Acts 10, as Peter is speaking, the Holy Spirit comes upon all present.
Because of the Ascension, the Holy Spirit also comes to us. John 16:7-8a states: “But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes he will convict the world . . . ”
The significance of the event then for us is that Jesus is not gone, but is still alive, and because of the Ascension, the Holy Spirit has come to all. Because of this, everyone can be transformed by the Spirit into instruments of Christ. As one other priest put it, “We have become the Christs in the world.”
And that is where our loved ones come into play. My hope is that we do not look at our beloved dead as just kind of “out there” waiting for us to catch up with them, but instead, use the good things that they showed us to make a difference in this world. Jesus showed His apostles how to live by serving God and others, and loving to the extreme.
Father Dittberner, in life, loved theology, but he also loved to travel, seeing many parts of the world, and he loved a good meal and cooking for others. But I’m not just waiting around to hope in heaven he’ll make me an outstanding meal or give me a tour; I see in him the kind of priest I want to strive to be. He challenged me to open my mind, to always be thinking, to take preaching seriously, and to give people something to really think about.
Like other people in life who I have lost, I miss him greatly, and when I get together with my classmates, will certainly have stories and memories. But Father Dittberner, and no one on this earth, is not just a collection of photos or the subject for a story you bring up over a beer with a friend to reminisce. He is someone who still is, as is Jesus.
I may not be able to physically see Jesus, but I see His presence in the world in the Eucharist when I celebrate Mass, and in people who fill my life.
There is no getting around the fact that loss is painful and a reality for us all but my hope is we recognize that death does not have the final statement God does, and for me as a Christian, Jesus is not ascended into heaven and gone, but alive, here, present and real, and the Holy Spirit shines so brilliantly through so many people who have filled my life.
Fr. Dittberner’s tombstone has “resurgam” on it, Latin for “I will rise.” He passed on to the next life with the faith that Christ was His Redeemer, he lived each day on this earth, making it better by preparing for the next life.
May we look to those in life we have lost, who may be out of physical sight, but perpetually in our hearts and with us, spurring us on to be the kind of people we know we can be transformed into over a lifetime.