It was the smallest funeral I had ever been to. The congregation totaled six, eight if you counted the priest and the acolyte. There was no body or cremains to mark the memorial; no holy cards; no flower arrangements.
The details came to me on short notice. A gentleman called me Monday night and left a message on my cell phone. “Sister, I just got word from Joe’s family that the memorial Mass will be tomorrow morning at 11 at Holy Family Church.” Then there was a pause. He seemed to be making sense of it all right there on my voicemail. “I don’t know if you’ll be able to make it . . . or if anyone will for that matter . . . It’s short notice, I know . . . and I don’t know why they picked that church, it’s clear on the other side of town . . . but hopefully you’ll be able to make it. Call me if you need anything.”
And with that the message ended.
I had been waiting for that message for nearly two months. I had missed visiting Joe in hospice, and I wasn’t going to miss this memorial.
I met Joe my first year in Philly, five years ago now. He called the community center and parish where I worked one day looking for the person in charge of social services. He wanted to donate food. Joe lived about a mile from the church I was working at, meaning he was in another parish's jurisdiction, but, he explained, they had come to visit once and told him there wasn't any need for his donation. Appalled at this comment, he was looking for somewhere that would accept his donation.
Knowing the deep need in our neighborhood, I told him I would come out on a house visit and see how we might be able to work together. The next day, I found myself on his doorstep. Medically home-bound, Joe was confined to his first floor. He received meals from a local organization but wasn't ever able to eat all the bread or drink the juice they sent him. These things, along with some other food, were what he wanted to give. "I know there's a need," he said to me in that first meeting, "I just want to help meet it."
Little did I know that my visit would soon become routine. Each week by Wednesday I got a call. It was Joe letting me know he had a donation. Sometimes I had a family in mind that could use the food; other times, I would take what was offered knowing that someone in need would come to our door soon enough. Nothing would go to waste, and I didn't dare miss my weekly "appointment" with Joe.
Our visits were often brief a – quick catch-up and some sharing – he'd slip a $20 donation into my hand and send me on my way. I came to know the sound of his voice as he called each week. "It's your good friend," he would say. His voice carried with it joy and happiness that had felt the weight of illness and the passage of time. No matter when he called, I could hear that phrase and know who it was.
Over the course of two years, I came to know him better. A former religious order priest, he'd share his experiences of Philadelphia and wisdom from life. He never kept me long (and to be honest, I think he didn't know why I insisted on coming inside each week) but I cherished being able to see his smile and check in on him week in and week out. It was never guaranteed he'd be there. "Jefferson Hospital is my second home," he would joke, a sentiment too close to the truth to ring fully of humor. The fact was, I never really knew if he'd be there the next week.
When I finally broke the news to him that I wouldn't be able to come visit anymore because I was entering the Sisters of Saint Joseph, he listened attentively. A few days later, I got call. "Colleen, it's your good friend." I knew exactly who it was. "I need you to come over," he said. "I have some things I want to give you."
A few days later, I found myself in his living room once again. He handed me a brown paper bag and told me to open it. Inside were books he thought I should read. Taking them out, I discovered at the very bottom, two more wrapped packages. The first was a cross.
"To remember me by," he smiled.
The second package was heftier. Pulling back the paper I found four different colored books. "I don't know if you'll need these, but I want you to have them." He said. They were his Office books, the prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours. I could hardly believe it; I had never prayed the Office, but I told him I'd learn and thanked him for the heartfelt gift.
Before I left, he gave me one last piece of advice: Do it because you love it. If your vocation loses its life, then you shouldn't be there. You're meant to be happy . . . be happy, whatever you do.
Leaving the house, I wasn't sure if I'd ever see Joe again. I knew his address by heart and promised to write from novitiate. "Pray for me," he said as I got in my car to leave.
For the next two years, I found myself all over the place. From different neighborhoods and cities, I wrote and on breaks, I would try to visit. No matter where I went, Joe stayed in my heart and in my prayers. Even in my vow liturgy last year (though not physically), Joe was there.
I've remembered his words often – Be happy. That can be a struggle in the everyday, when struggles and stresses bombard you, when things seem not to be turning out alright, when graces are disguised as burdens, and change comes more suddenly than you would like. "Be happy and know where your heart is" echoes.
I have to imagine that that other Joseph (you know the saint) must have said those words to himself at some point. Know where your heart is . . . where your love dwells . . . and in that will be happiness and glory and grace. In the face of the unknown he kept at it; not knowing what might come next, he stuck to what faith called forth. Vocation does that. Call goes deep to the place God calls us most deeply.
This past August, while I was in the process of moving things into my newest community the house phone rang. I kept going about my business (since I didn't even technically live there yet) until a sister called my name. The call was for me. "That's weird," I told her wondering who was on the line. I picked up the receiver.
"Sister Colleen! It's your good friend, J—" before he could even finish his sentence, I knew who it was.
Through mutual connections, he'd found me. He wanted to welcome me to my new house and check in after my vows. "Remember," he said, "be happy, that's what this life is all about . . . love is where your heart is."
Those were the last words I would hear from Joe’s mouth.
Sitting in the midst of seven other people last week, I knew where my heart was. With my eyes closed, the massive church felt full, like the pews that surrounded us were packed. My heart was filled with love and a presence hung in the air as if the communion of saints was right there.
Opening my eyes after the Gospel, I glimpsed a figure in my peripheral vision. It was Joe, no doubt, sitting, smiling, and taking in the simple remembrance.
As the presider delivered his homily, he spoke directly to each person’s connection to Joe. Reaching me, he remarked how much Joe loved the Sisters of Saint Joseph. Everyone’s nodded in unison. These were the people who’d known Joe all his life; mine was simply the pleasure and grace to meet him in his last few years.
To be in their company, just as to be in his, was a blessing. In a way, that’s the invitation of this life. As sisters, we come into other’s lives and we allow them to come into ours. I wouldn’t be the Sister of Saint Joseph that I am without Joe. His life, his spirit, his love, dwell in me. His heart, which eventually gave out, never tired of loving. That life, spirit, and love were and are ultimately God’s.
Leaving the memorial Mass, the gentleman who’d called me the night before came over to say goodbye. Embracing me, he whispered in my ear, “Joe really loved you.”
Suddenly, I began to cry.
My heart was filled with gratitude for the gift of guides along the journey and saddened by the loss of a dear friend. We don’t get to choose who those people are or where our hearts will lead us. All we can do is be open to all that comes. True openness exposes our hearts, it teaches us to love, and in it God reminds us, in varied ways and voices: Be happy and know where your heart is.
I imagine now that Joe’s with Saint Joseph celebrating and doing just what he said you should- being happy in a life that will last forever . . . just two regular Joes, two holy men, guiding the way and reminding me about what really matters.
[Colleen Gibson, SSJ, is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.]