First Christmas in Heaven

I'm not the world's greatest fan of Christmas falling on a Saturday! First, the confusion: All week long I've been somewhat confused as to which day is which, is it Thursday, Friday or Saturday, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day ...or Sunday? Second: It makes for pretty busy days with little time to prepare for back-to-back homilies for Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Family, the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God and the great Solemnity of Epiphany. Throw in a wedding next weekend; those days will be just as confusing next week as was this week. Today I am spending Christmas at the Priory because there's not really enough time to head to my family home only to turn back around to gear up for Sunday back in DePere and Green Bay. Remaining at the Priory, though, gives me the available time I need to update the blog -- much overdue -- and to say Merry Christmas and Thank You to all those who showed extraordinary kindness to my family and me at the time of my Father's recent death.

It was on Thursday, November 4th that I received a phone call from my sister Teresa who called me to alert me that Dad's scheduled doctor's appointment did not go well. It seems as though Dad had two pretty bad days leading up to the appointment but he was patient with his condition knowing that he'd get word from the doctor regarding his condition eventually. The phone call was to tell me that the doctor had told Teresa and my Mom that Dad had about a week to live. This news came as a bit of a shock to my family and me. Yes, we were aware that Dad was getting weaker and weaker, but we did not know that the prostate cancer had spread so rampantly into his bones and now into his liver. This began the process of cancelling all standing appointments to journey home as quickly as possible. I cannot begin to tell you how kind my staff at the college was and how accommodating and helpful my Norbertine brothers were and are when it requires a timely need to be with my first family of origin.

When I met Dad at Langlade Hospital a few hours later that Thursday, Dad was happy to see me but he was aware that I had a Packer Mass and game coming up that weekend and that I was to journey off to Los Angeles to help lead the annual Major League Baseball retreat the following week. Dad stated emphatically that there was no way that he would allow me to miss those obligations. Of course, there was a much greater obligation that I has honored to be a part of that would require my stay in Antigo.

Because Dad's pain was so intense, the hospital staff began to "up his meds" quite rapidly. I have seen this so many times in other hospitals while ministering to parishioners; I regret that I did not have the foresight to reveal to my family that once this happens, Dad would be entering into a different world, almost of no return, given he would be so highly drugged so that he could bear the pain.

The next few days were blessed indeed as his hospital room, situated next to the beautiful chapel of our Catholic hospital, was filled with all sorts of people including his wife and children, every one of his grandchildren, his two sisters, his neighbors and Father Conrad and Father Tim as well! My siblings would generously offer their nights to be with Dad to allow me to spend some necessary time with Mom back at the family home; much of this time was spent planning for the immediate and long-term future given the way things were unfolding so quickly.

Dad would finally pass away as gently and as peacefully as he lived his life -- with the sunshine filling the room with light at 1:15 PM on Tuesday, 9 November 2010, the Feast of the Dedication of the Saint John Lateran Cathedral. At his side was our original family including Mom, David, Gina, Teresa and yours truly. All would be well.

In the days that followed, all of the issues we had to face with funeral arrangements all fell into place so naturally. All of the tasks that needed attention were dealt with so easily given so many people came to our aid. Joe Schinkten, our dear friend from Ryan Funeral Home, couldn't have been kinder to my family and me. He's always been so kind to the families under his care, he went far beyond the call of duty to care for my family during our loss. Father Tim Shillcox was quick to offer his parish as the sight for a funeral dinner to host so many out of town guests. While I am so grateful for the generosity of my Norbertine brother and his funeral dinner staff, the fact that he offered this dinner to my family amidst a long-scheduled wedding makes Tim's gift even more of a special offering. The kindness of the happy Bride and Groom to share their space with us is also a great expression of kindness and compassion to all of us.

On Saturday, 13 November 2010, we would celebrate Dad's Mass of Christian Burial at Old Saint Joseph Church on the college campus. Ironically, Dad would be buried on the Feast of All Saint of the Norbertine Order; given my parents' love for the Norbertine Community, the unique date of Dad's funeral was not over-looked by my family. As if the Norbertines did not already have enough to do that day, my family was and is in total awe of the number of Norbertine abbots, priests, brothers, fraters, sisters and associates who attended the celebration. To see this "honor guard" lead my Dad into the college church would have made my Dad blush, indeed. He was such a down to earth man, this scene would have been 'over the top' for him! I was especially moved by the numbers of parishioners who showed up for Dad's visitation and Mass. The choir members sang their hearts out; they sounded their very best that Saturday morning.

In the days leading up to the funeral and the days that followed, I was overwhelmed by the number of people who wrote cards, sent food, texted messages and emailed notes to express their condolences. My work during this Christmas week is to write to them to express my thanksgiving for the numerous acts of kindness such good people showed to my family and to me. My family was especially moved by the kindness shown to us by my Norbertine Family, by the written cards, letters and prayers offered by the inmates at the Green Bay Correctional Institution, and for the presence of Coach Gary Grzesk and the Green Knight Basketball team at the visitation that early morning. There are so many more people to thank; again, to thank that group will be the task that now lies before me. I will never forget these acts of kindness and such kindness will empower me to be even more present and sensitive to those who suffer losses as I continue to exercise my priestly ministry.

But before that task begins, I cherish some quiet time today to once again recall what a good and decent man Jack Baraniak was and still is to me. In my eyes, he was a great role model and the perfect Dad. Never did a day go by that he did not tell me how much he loved me: that is an example of true manhood, true fatherhood. Not only would he convey that in his speech, but he would show it to me on so many levels. Today I also recall those who are celebrating their first Christmas today without a loved one. I am especially remembering today the friends and family of Alvina Gibson, Aleta Ferris, Father David Baeten, Margie Fostner, Father Paul Schumacher and my dear friend, Tom Faase. As I spend Christmas today with my Dad, I know he's spending it with his new friends I just named -- and no doubt, given the good people they are, they're spending it with Jesus Christ this year.

I see the countless Christmas trees around the world below
With tiny lights like heaven's stars reflecting on the snow.

The sight is so spectacular, please wipe away that tear
For I am spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year.

I hear the many Christmas songs that people hold so dear
But the sounds of music cannot compare with the Christmas choir up here.

I have no words to tell you of the joy their voices bring
For it is beyond description to hear the angels sing.

I know how much you miss me, I see the pain inside your heart
But I am not so far away, we really aren't apart.

I can't tell you of the splendor or the peace here in this place
Can you just imagine Christmas with our Savior face to face?

I'll ask him to lift your spirits as I tell him of your love
So then pray for one another as you lift your eyes above.

Please let your hearts be joyful and let your spirit sing
For I am spending Christmas in heaven, and I'm walking with the King.

--Wanda Bencke

In Heaven and here on earth, "Glory to God in the highest!" Merry Christmas; and to all a good and peaceful night!


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