Homily for funeral of Colleen Ritzer
Delivered by the Rev. Peter G. Gori, O.S.A., pastor
St. Augustine Church, Andover,
Oct. 28, 2013
By our presence here, we all express our very sincere sympathy and compassionate support to Colleen’s family — specially her parents, Tom and Peggie; her brother, Dan; and her sister, Laura. The circle of those who love Colleen gets bigger and bigger, not unlike her beautiful smile. It includes her grandmother, Anne; her aunts and uncles and cousins, her classmates, friends, neighbors, parishioners, her fellow teachers and administrators and certainly her students, past and current. We welcome Bishop Peter Uglietto of the North Region of the Archdiocese of Boston, where Danvers High School is located. Bishop Uglietto is also here to represent and convey the prayerful sympathy of Cardinal Sean O’Malley. We also welcome Fr. Dennis Gallagher, representing the community of Assumption College. It is said that a burden which is shared becomes lighter. That is true, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now.
In the face of great tragedy, we are shocked and horrified. We are naturally inclined to ask, “Why?” It is immensely frustrating when, like now, there is no satisfactory answer to that question. This makes it hurt even more. We have names for a death like Colleen’s, words that burn our lips. Yet, no amount of evidence or facts can ever justify it or explain it, and that too hurts. From deep within each of us comes the same cry, “This should not happen!” Not to Colleen; not to anyone.
I will try to follow Colleen’s good example as a math teacher, who may suggest that a problem be approached from a different way to seek the solution. Perhaps we should ask not “Why or even how she died?” but rather “Why and how did she live?” When I ask that question, the answer comes into view. Colleen’s life was short. Twenty-four years is not a very long time, by anyone’s measurement. And yet, in that time that was hers, she showed herself to be a beloved daughter and granddaughter, a delightful sister, niece and cousin, a really good friend and student, and not least of all, a truly wonderful teacher. As a teacher, she fulfilled a desire and her dream and she did so with great joy and talent. Everyone would agree that Colleen was born to be a teacher. Indeed, she lived for it.
All those many beautiful qualities that were hers in life she brought to her role as a teacher, didn’t she? They are like so many streams flowing into one river! (I cannot help but think that if I had had Colleen as a math teacher, I might actually have liked math. As it is, the most I can do with a quadratic equation is to spell it.)
Not everyone who tries to be a good teacher succeeds. For example, as brilliant as he was, St. Augustine admits that he failed as a classroom teacher. (He blamed the students because he couldn’t understand them). However, St. Augustine did become a great teacher in the classroom of life. In his preaching and writings, he continues to teach people even 1,500 years later. Listen to what he has to teach us about our shared experience of grief:
"Of necessity we must be sorrowful when those whom we love leave us in death. Although we know that they have not left us behind forever, but only gone ahead of us, still, when death seizes our loved ones, our loving hearts are saddened by death itself. Thus, the Apostle Paul does not tell us not to grieve, but not to grieve like those who are without hope. (Here he is quoting that same Scripture reading Colleen’s family chose for this Mass.) St. Augustine goes on to say, let us grieve therefore, over the necessity of losing our loved ones in death, but with the hope of being reunited with them. If we are afflicted, we still find consolation. Our weakness weighs us down, but our faith bears us up. We sorrow over the human condition, but we find healing in the divine promise."
Colleen was inclined to see the good in people, especially her students. She enjoyed them and respected them; she cared about them and she cared for them; she loved them. She helped them see the good in themselves too. She helped them to see and to realize their potential. How often does a math teacher encounter frustration in her students when they just can’t “get it” and they want to give up? A good teacher won’t give up on them or let them give up on themselves. She will give them the encouragement to keep trying, together. Colleen taught so much more than just math!
Jesus was often addressed as “Teacher.” Remember in the gospel stories how often the questions put to him begin that way, “Teacher, what would you say about this?” Or “Teacher (or Rabbi, which means the same thing), teach us how to pray.” “Teacher, what must I do to inherit everlasting life?” “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus always listens to the question and He responds with word and action. The good teacher does that. The good teacher welcomes the questions and the questioner. Indeed, as the best of teachers, Jesus even teaches us how to question, how to search for answers, and how to accept the answer we may not like. He would often seize the opportunity of what we call “the teachable moment” to get his lesson across. That’s what happened in the gospel story we heard a few moments ago. The children were trying to get closer to the Teacher, to Jesus. Some cranky grown-ups didn’t like that and tried to shoo them away, to dismiss them. Then Mark says pointedly, “Jesus became indignant.” (We don’t usually picture Jesus as indignant, do we? That’s on the edge of angry. I bet he had that special “look” that teachers develop. You know what I mean.) He put a stop to it and demanded that the children be respected; that they be welcomed; that room be made for them; that they be allowed to belong.
Then he makes the insightful point that the children can teach the grown-ups a few things. The children can teach us about heaven, he said. We can still find cranky people who want to exclude others, who cannot see the good in others, not even in children. We even find them in church sometimes. Jesus sees the good and He helps us to see it, too. This reminds me of an experience I had some years ago. I was visiting with some friends not long after the death of the mother of one of them. I‘ll call her Janet. We were sitting at her kitchen table and Janet was going on a bit of a rant about her mother-in-law, with whom she did not have the best of a relationship. At one point, I said something like, “She (the mother-in-law) may have meant well.” Janet slammed her fist on the table, startling me and everyone else and loudly asked, “Do you always have to see the good in everyone?” I replied, “Yes, I do; that’s my job; I’m a priest.” Everyone laughed.
For Colleen, being a teacher was not just a job or a career. It was a calling, or as we say, a vocation. Years ago, she must have heard the question that is posed on this banner here, “God has blessed me in unique ways. How should I use my gifts to serve Him?” Colleen knew the answer and she gave it.
Not everyone learns to see the good in others. Sadly, not everyone is taught to do so in their home or experience. It is one of those lessons that is difficult to teach yourself. You need others to show you how. To master any important lesson requires work, practice and patience, on the part of the teacher and the student. In addition to learning from Jesus the Teacher, Colleen had the great blessing of her parents and family who taught her so very well. There, within her family, she learned to love God, love her neighbor, love life itself and to see the good in others. When she was baptized, this prayer was said by the priest or deacon and directed to her father and mother:
God is the giver of all life, human and divine. May He bless you Tom, Colleen’s father. You and Peggie, her mother, will be the first teachers of your child in the ways of faith. May you also be the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what you say and what you do, in Christ Jesus our Lord.
As we struggle with our questions today, tonight and tomorrow, let us not hesitate to ask the Teacher for extra help. He helps us to see that a good life and a long life are not necessarily the same thing. He teaches us to see the good in ourselves and in one another, because we are created in God’s own image and likeness. He shows us how to be selfless. He teaches us to be grateful for it all.
There is a beautiful chapel at the Pastoral Center of the Archdiocese of Boston. Over the altar there is an inscription which reads, “Come, the Teacher is calling you.” I am confident that those were the words Colleen heard when she entered Eternal Life.