The Order of Saint Benedict

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Homily for the Funeral of
Abbot Primate Jerome Theisen, O.S.B.

by Abbot Timothy Kelly OSB

 

The picture given to us of God by Jesus in the gospel we have just heard is the picture reflected in the very life of Christ himself, for Christ Jesus is the exact image of the invisible God through whom we come to know God intimately. Here is our God who is the owner of the house, who rewards faithful servants by seating them at table, fastening his own belt and serving them as though God were the servant.

In our experience, servants do their work for money or for fear of punishment. But our servant-God serves out of love and compassion for those served so that they might truly know their worth, that they are -- that we are -- the very image of God and are valued so highly that we are invited into the banquet of love with God as Servant.

Jesus himself is revealed as the Servant of God and the one who because of his service is raised up by God, victorious over sin and death. Not only is this Servant of the Lord raised up, but he is given the name above every name so that at the name of Jesus every knee must bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

The servant follower of Jesus Christ receives Christ as the model of servanthood. The true servant of the Lord is one chosen by God and with whom God is pleased. God gives this true servant the spirit without which he could not be God's chosen servant.

When such a servant sees people of good will he will not crush them in their weakness but, like Christ, will rather draw them too into the justice established through God's gracious gift. This servant of God will be seen by those who seek God as that one who teaches with the authority of photoGod. The servant chosen by God knows his dependent state and gives glory to God alone for any good accomplished. This servant is effective because he knows that it all comes from God.

 Jerome Theisen entered this community as a novice in 1951 and learned through the community what being a servant means. He assimilated what he received by example and spent his life becoming the icon of Christ the servant. When he was elected abbot of Saint John's in August 1979, he accepted the office with characteristic humility in thanksgiving for all that our community had given to him. It was the service of others that benefitted him so well, and it was for the sake of the community and the Church that he accepted an office of service to others.

The abbot is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery. But no abbot can be Christ for others if he does not welcome Christ in others. If he is to teach what is good and holy more by example than by words then he must be that icon of Christ who helps others see that same Christ in themselves.

Hospitality was an outstanding characteristic of Abbot Jerome. He welcomed Christ in the guest, in the sick, in his monks, even in himself. He was a very patient man, compassionate, distrusted his own frailty, and in relationship to others strove not to crush the bruised reed. And he had humor and a laugh that bespoke an affection and respect for others that could not be mistaken.

There was no ambition in him for high office or any kind of pre-eminence. He saw himself as the chief steward in the midst of fellow servants. His love touched all, for he was chaste, temperate and merciful.

When, three years ago, he was elected Abbot Primate he accepted the position, again with characteristic humility in thanksgiving for all that Sant' Anselmo and the Benedictine Confederation had given to him. His gratitude found expression in service. His service was his example, teaching us the presence of Christ who was the foundation and total meaning of Abbot Jerome's life.

There was a quality about Abbot Jerome's person that probably cannot be described in words but could only be described by the experience people had with him. In the several days I spent in Rome for his funeral liturgy I heard over and over again the word "humility" repeated to describe both men's and women's experience of him. I heard this from prelates, professors, nuns, monks, and kitchen workers. No one could be in his presence without feeling welcomed as Christ, knowing that in Abbot Jerome's eyes they were all worthy of his attention and deserving of his service.

This reminds me of the incident in Luke's gospel of the cure of the woman with the hemorrhage. She senses in Jesus the fullness of life that she is seeking. She touches him not so that she could convey her legal uncleanness to him but so that he could convey to her the healing that brings wholeness of life as God wants her and all of us to have it.

Jesus says, "Someone has touched me; for I know that power has gone out from me." For so many, power means taking to self what belongs to others. For Jesus, power meant giving to others what requires the spending of his own life for them. He knows when power goes out from him and makes no complaint; for that is why he has come: that all might have life in abundance.

Yes, Jesus was charismatic, not because he could draw others' powers to himself but because his love for all was an experience of the completion of meaning each of us seeks. He is sought out not just because he is a cheap substitute for medical help, but because he is the icon of God who gives life, preserves life, and raises us back to life.

Jesus is the key to the meaning of our existence, to the wisdom we need if we are to choose what is truly life-giving, to the healing and forgiveness of God we all need, to the service to one another that is the fruit of touching Jesus and letting the power that goes out from him into us now continue through us to touch others. Thus do we experience his healing power and complete the circle of life by serving all others.

Abbot Jerome was believed to hold the place of Christ in our community and in the world-wide Confederation. He came to be for us the icon of Christ who revealed, as did Christ, the love and compassion and forgiveness and mercy of God. When he became Abbot Primate, (and tomorrow would be the third anniversary of that election) , this monastic community mourned the loss of his presence. In his death the whole Confederation and the Church, along with his family, now mourns. To his family, on behalf of the monastic community I offer you sincere condolences. But in our faith in the resurrection we believe we are even now with him, for how can those who are one in Christ be separated by death?


Abbot Timothy Kelly, O.S.B.
Saint John's Abbey
Collegeville, Minnesota

18 September 1995


About the Funeral Liturgy

The Liturgy of Christian Burial began with Abbot Timothy and the deacon covering the coffin of Abbot Jerome with a white cloth. On it Abbot Baldwin Dworschak OSB, sixth abbot, placed Alcuin Library's oldest copy of the Rule and the pectoral cross given by Saint John's; next to the coffin, Abbot John Eidenschink OSB, seventh abbot, positioned the pastoral staff designed for and used by Abbot Jerome as eighth abbot. About thirty abbots and three bishops attended the liturgy.

At the close of the Liturgy, Abbot Melvin Valvano OSB, Abbot President of the American-Cassinese Congregation, speaking on behalf of the Congregation, Abbot Patrick Regan OSB and the Swiss-American Congregation; S. Ephrem Hollerman OSB, Prioress of the Monastery of Saint Benedict, speaking on behalf of our sister community and the Presidents, Prioresses, and sisters of the Women's Congregations; and Most. Rev. John F. Kinney JCD, Bishop of Saint Cloud, briefly eulogized Abbot Jerome.

 

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