Funeral Homily for Fr Russell James Gavin O. Carm.
Anytime I gather with a family or a community on those sacred times we gather together, I think of what St Peter said to his good friend Jesus on the day of the Transfiguration. “It is good for us to be here.” In the black community, a funeral is called a ‘home-going’. Today we rejoice with Fr Russ who has gone home to the God who gave him to us, to his parents and siblings, Carmelites and friends, and especially the 100’s of people he helped out of the dark into the light.
It is good to come together to celebrate the life of Fr Russ Gavin, a gift to his family and to our community. Fr Russ certainly has been an ‘Amazing Grace’ to everyone who had the privilege meeting him on the journey. At the great sporting events of our country, sometimes you see a wild eyed looking man with a sign that simply says John 3:16. He has the best ticket broker in the country. John 3:16 simply says “God so loved the world that he gave us His son.” Today, I would like to change that sign – Russ 3:16 – ‘God so loved us that he gave us Fr Russ – as our brother and uncle, our priest and our pastor, our teacher and companion and friend.
We each have many thoughts and emotions today. I think the main feeling is one of deep gratitude to God for letting us love and be loved by this wonderful good man. He touched all of our lives. He brought us all closer to God. For 2000 years we have gathered around our family table to celebrate Eucharist, a term meaning Thanksgiving, thanking God for the gift of Jesus and today, thanking God for the gift of Fr Russ.
Fr Russ lived and shared the kingdom of God. He did what God wanted him to do, as best as he could. What gives meaning to life? Give to others what you have to give – your imperfect best. He fulfilled my favorite definitions of what saints are. Saints are sinners who kept on trying and flawed individuals with great courage and generous hearts.
If you had to describe Fr Russ to someone who didn’t know him, what words would you use?
Before he became a recovering alcoholic, he was in an institution for those addicted to alcohol some where near St Louis. It was Christmas day. He was not able to say Mass, receive Communion or talk to any of his family or friends. He was completely alone. A rather badly dressed Santa Claus showed up in the community room and gave everyone a cellophane covered popcorn ball. Holding the only gift he received on that Christmas day, he cried, knowing this was the lowest point of his life.
A few months later, he went to Guest House in Orion, Michigan. A wonderful, loving place, started by a layman, for troubled priest. Fr Russ was angry – at the staff at Guest house, the Carmelites who sent him there, God and himself.
After Guest House, Fr Russ was assigned to Joliet Catholic High School. He found the support and love he needed to stay sober and do the work of God. The Carmelite Community and the families of Joliet loved him into life and enabled him to love others into life. Jesus, in last Sunday’s gospel from St Luke, told his friends they had to help him bring the Kingdom to others. Jesus couldn’t do it by himself, and neither can we. Fr Russ found out that it was in giving that we receive – it is always a two way street.
In 1966, he was appointed to one of the most difficult jobs in the province. He was sent to the St Cyril Community at Mt Carmel High School as prior. There were 38 Carmelites, priests and brothers and 18 of us were new to the community, including Fr Russ. The late 60’s and early 70’s were hard times in our world and in religious life. He did a wonderful job of helping all of us do the work of God. He took special care of the old and the sick and the dieing. He taught us all about compassion and being there for each other.
In 1979, he became pastor of this parish, Our Lady of Mt Carmel. For the next 9 years, he built on the wonderful foundation Fr Pat Gleeson had created. OLMC was a post Vatican II community with small Christian Communities and the lay members doing the ministry it takes to do God’s work. When I took over in 1990 and tried to make a few changes, many people would tell me what Fr Pat had said and wanted. No one ever said what Fr Russ said. After some of these frustrating encounters, I would ask Russ what he did for nine years because no one ever told me what he said. He would smile and say ‘I just loved them. That is all I had to do” and that is exactly what he did. People often came to him and told him ‘You should do this or that.’ He would end the conversation quickly with the words – ‘Don’t say “I should”. Say “I think you should” That made all the difference in the world.
In 1988, after nine years as pastor, Fr Russ went to the provincial and asked if he could retire. He was 65, had a little emphysema and a heart problem. He felt he didn’t have much time left. This was when I realized he was the smartest priest in North America. For the next fifteen years, he wintered in Las Vegas, calling it the ‘western mission.’
When I came here in 1990, I invited Russ to come and live upstairs with us. He was helping each weekend with our Masses. He told me he was very happy in Joliet at St Mary’s Carmelite. A few years later, on the day it was announced that St Mary’s was closing, he came to me and asked if the offer of the room was still open. When I said “of course’, he said “Good. I have my things in the car. Help me move in.” He was with us for the next 12 years. He was a great companion to me and so many others. He was always there for everyone and never turned his back on anyone. This is when I realized Fr Russ lived the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Sometimes we confuse it with a lot of rules and regulations.
One special gift that Russ had was the ability to entertain, the young and the old. He was an Irish Seanachai, a great story teller and joke teller. Where ever he was – at a card table or on the gold course, at a meeting of his Club or celebrating Mass, he would have at least one humorous story that he shared with the people he was with. He always knew that laughter gives the world back to God. It is the sound of heaven and could be the eighth sacrament for all of us to share. Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God in a person. Fr Russ was truly a window into the mystery of God.
The motto of the Carmelite Order is taken from the prophet Elijah who lived on Mt Carmel in Northern Israel 3000 years ago. “With zeal I will be zealous for the Lord God of hosts.” ‘Enthusiasm’ is another word for ‘zeal’ and that comes from the Greek word for God, ‘Theos’. If you were in God and God was in you, you would be ‘enthusiastic.”
St Edith Stein, a Carmelite nun who was born a Jew, died in Dachau in 1943. She said that we should do everything we can to bring joy to others. Another Carmelite, St John of the Cross, said at the ‘end of our lives we will be judged on love.” These are good thoughts as we say goodbye to Fr Russ.
Compassion – Serenity – Courage – Wisdom – Peace – Enthusiasm – Joy – Love. These are some words we use that tell us about the heart and soul of Fr Russ Gavin.
St Therese, The Little Flower, said in her autobiography, “My whole life, I have been surrounded by love.” Because of people like Fr Russ, so have we been surrounded by the love of God. At the end, he knew the love of God from our parishioners here, Carmelite Carefree Village, St Patrick’s Residence in Naperville and finally, with his family at Edwards hospital.
Fr Mycail Judge, the chaplain of the New York Fire Department who died in the tragedy of 9/11 wrote this before he died. Fr Russ would agree with this short prayer. LORD, TAKE ME WHERE YOU WANT ME TO GO, LET ME MEET WHO YOU WANT ME TO MEET, TELL ME WHT YOU WANT ME TO SAY, AND KEEP ME OUT OF YOUR WAY. What was said about Fr Mycail on his day of burial we say today for Fr Russ. “Today we bury his hands but not his good works, we bury his heart but not his love.
Thank you, Russ, for the gift of God and His kingdom, and thank you God, for the gift of Fr Russ.
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