(The day of the funeral was rainy.) Marilyn sent a text this morning “From Gene’s Molokai T-short ‘No Rain – No rainbows.’” And we all know what dad would say, “you gotta work with what you got!”
On behalf of mom, my siblings and all the family by blood and the Blood of Christ, I would like to express our deepest appreciation for all the love and prayers, kindness and concern from you and so many at the loss of our beloved Fr. Gene. We know that it is not only our hearts that are aching within, but also many others. We miss and mourn together, but we also comfort and console together, worship and pray together, and find hope and joy together.
Some of the fond memories of our family were fun trips with the nieces and nephews to Chuck E. Cheese’s, a place filled arcade games, pizza, pop and ice cream for all ages. Dad probably thought it was like a casino for kids. Gene and I would take anywhere from 10 to 20 kids at a time. Gene was the socializer, I was the organizer and mom was the worrier and warner. “Are you sure you can handle all those kids? Don’t lose any!” From my count, we never lost nor forgot any. As a brother, friend and pastor, Gene never lost nor forgot anyone, in our Schnipke and Verhoff family, in his military family, his parish families and his many families of friends, whether they lived in Glandorf, Maria Stein or Dayton; Falls Church, Virginia, Mountain Home, Idaho or Little Rock; Texas, California or Hawaii; Kirsten and Sr. Edith in Germany or Mrs. Yi in Korea, Gene literally had a world wide web of family and friends that he never lost and always loved.
Whenever there was a family homily for a wedding or funeral, Gene and I always worked it together, whether he was in Kuwait, or I was in Florida. Today’s homily was different and yet the same, I revisited many of our shared funeral homilies and spent time in prayer listening for his whispering, or as mom would say, his mumbling voice. I also am relying on the voices, notes and emails from so many family and friends.
Life and ministry for Gene was a labor of love. When I did a search of the most common word he used in the homilies we did, whether for funerals or weddings, it was love. It always began with God’s love for us, the sacrificial love of Christ made so visible and real in Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist and that all-consuming love of God promised to us in the gift of heaven. He often spoke about the love of husband and wife as the symbol of Christ’s love for the church and the mutual sharing of their life and love for life and love in the world. He lived the words of Jesus that “there is no great love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The theme of his ordination, life and ministry, was John 13:34 “Love one another as I have loved you.” We as family chose the second reading from Corinthians because that’s what Gene preached and that’s what he lived, a love that is patient and kind, love that is not jealous, does not put on airs and is not self-seeking, a love that is not prone to anger nor broods over injuries, a love that does not rejoice in what is wrong but rejoices with the truth. There is no limit to love’s forbearance, to its trust, its hope, its power to endure. Love never fails. There are in the end three things that last: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.
The first reading from Sirach was originally a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from danger. It was likely the prayer of an individual person offering thanks for God’s protection, reminding us that the true mark of a Christian is one who always praises the Lord – remembering the kindness and mercy of the Lord. The Christian is one who not only turns to the Lord in times of trouble, in the midst of the storms and dangers, but at all times. One who takes refuge in the Lord and is saved. The Christian is constant in prayer and trusts in the Lord, because he or she knows the Lord’s care and concern for them. Gene certainly was a person who trusted and turned to the Lord in prayer; in journaling and in the quiet of his heart, in the church as presider and pastor, visiting in the homes of families, anointing children in the play house in the backyard, honoring state champs at Mass and eating donuts with students every Friday morning. And Gene passed this faith on to his family, his friends and his flock – encouraging them to be active in faith, living the gift of faith and sharing it with others; while they were driving on long trips, attending the LA RE conference, celebrating Mass at the river, riding the train in Europe, playing sports in high school and talking with everyone at the wedding bar. It may seem odd at first to speak of God’s protection after the death of a loved one, and yet we believe in faith that Gene has been delivered from all danger and harm, he has been freed from the troubles and struggles of life, and that he is now giving thanks and praise for the Lord in the heavenly kingdom. These are also words of assurance for all who remain.
In our lives as Christians, we are called to follow all that Christ has taught us. The Beatitudes from today’s gospel capture the core of that teaching. They put forth an understanding of what it means to be a Christian and they reflect an attitude of service in life that finds blessing and goodness in the most unusual places. Most would assume that blessings are found more readily in the lives of those who have it made, those who have more joys than sorrows, those who have fewer struggles. And yet Jesus states, “blest are the poor in spirit, the sorrowing, the lowly, those who hunger and thirst for holiness….” Blest are they who show mercy, who are single-hearted, who seek peace. Gene was one who found blessings even in the struggles, in his own and among those he loved and served. Gene saw blessings in the sick and suffering, offering the healing sacraments of the church and in the grieving often meeting with each family to hear the stories and console the hurting. It may seem ironic and yet one of the places we often count our blessings most is in the midst of difficulty, sorrow and loss, as we say farewell to our son and brother, nephew and uncle, pastor and friend. The blessings are found in the memories we cherish and in the emptiness that echoes within, they are found in the tears of sadness and the laughter of funny stories. The other profound message of the gospel is that we are called to be Christ to others. Gene was a person who sought to do this in a life of service for others. He expressed it in his love and concern for family, the way he gave of himself to help others and in the way that he witnessed the joy and perseverance in life. The promise of Jesus in the gospel is clear – when we live this Christian calling, we can rejoice, for our “reward in heaven is great.” From all the comments we’ve heard that last few days, “Fr. Gene was a good man, Fr. Gene was a great man of faith in the community, Fr. Gene was an awesome shepherd and father,” we have no doubt Fr. Gene is well on his way, if not already in paradise.
Gene and I never discussed our Myers Briggs personality scores, but my hunch is that he was a high N, an intuitive, which means Gene preferred to wonder – not in the sense of getting lost, but by being curious and inquisitive. Gene preferred to wonder about anything and everything and think about all the possibilities. When our niece Kendra was at St. Jude’s in Memphis, Gene often came over to visit from Little Rock. The family joke was how long it would take Gene to talk about the latest car he was looking for with just the right horsepower and stick shift. Gene wondered about creation, making you stop with him every few steps to take a picture, to capture the perfect sunset that went forever beyond the horizon. Gene’s wondering was not only about cars and things, but also about second and third and even fourth medical opinions, about retirement possibilities of learning Spanish and ministering at St. Agnes in LA or living near Chicago and ministering with young people at Calumet College and the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation. Yes, Gene wondered about many things, more importantly, he wondered about people and about God. That’s probably what made Gene so disarming around people and comfortable to be with. Gene never judged others nor presumed. He wondered. He wondered how God was working in the lives of people, especially young people, so he would ask – whether an F16 pilot flying sorties over Kuwait and Iraq, a niece or nephew looking at college, a career or even a car, a gang member trying to get off the streets of Chicago, or the last person at the wedding reception – even if he had 7:30 AM Mass the next morning. He told me last week that’s what he loved about ministry and Maria Stein. He could go to Moeller Brew Barn or any wedding, even if he wasn’t invited and ended up at the wrong reception, knowing most of the people there and he could ask them anything and they would answer. Then he said, “that’s how God feeds me.” Gene lit up around people, especially young people, because he saw God. That’s why he had to stop and talk to everyone at church, riding in the car or enjoying Countryfest, why he was always ready to chat with family and friends, with Fr. Tom, Fr. Ken or Fr. Rick, with Dick in Houston, Sonny in Texas and mom every night at 10 or 10:30. It’s no wonder that Gene wondered, that’s where he saw and encountered God and he just could not get enough.
Granted, Gene could meander in his wondering, through his many stories, ideas and possibilities, but that was also part of his search for love, for God. It’s part of what made him so attractive to others, especially young people; attractive not in the sense of looks, but drawing people in and not to himself, but to wonder and ultimately to God. Gene’s gift of wondering not only opened possibilities for people here on earth, but in an even more grand and profound way made us aware of the infinite possibilities of eternal life in heaven. When I think of Gene in heaven, I see this inquisitive look on his face, a glimmer of hope and joy in his eyes, and him exhausting even God with his sense of wonder.
As we gather here today to say farewell to Fr. Gene, we pray for him and we pray for ourselves. We pray that he may be close to God, and that he may now enjoy the fullness of God’s love in heaven. We also pray for ourselves in our time of sorrow and loss. We pray that God’s healing touch may enter our lives and mend our hearts. We pray that we may be people of faith, hope and trust as Gene was, and we pray that we may be willing to share that gift with others. May this Eucharist unite us as one family in the Lord and with all those who have gone before us. Gene called mom every night, just as he did on March 16th at 9:30 saying to mom, “sleep well, I love you.” “Sleep well Gene, we all love you!”
My love, prayers and support,
Fr. Ken Schnipke, C.PP.S.
(& Fr. Gene too)