It is ten years now since Fr. James H. Provost died, a priest of the diocese of Helena, long-time colleague at Catholic University. His death came very quickly, from lymphoma, and much too soon for all of us who still mourn and miss him. Here is the homily I preached at his funeral:
Funeral of Rev. James H. Provost
August 30, 2000 – Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, D. C.
But that glorious day has not yet dawned, that last trumpet has not yet sounded, and as we gather here, this death–the death of our brother and friend, James Provost–this death still stings. Foolish or not, we cannot but feel this death as an affliction: an affliction for his family, an affliction for his friends, an affliction for his Department and School, an affliction for our University, an affliction for our Church. It is our own incomprehension we hear expressed in Martha’s protest, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And if he who had just called himself resurrection and life could weep as he came to the grave of his friend Lazarus–“See how he loved him!” the bystanders exclaimed–, then we need not be ashamed that our tears still flow: “See how we loved him!” Death still stings.
The biblical texts not only speak to us, they speak us: once again in them we each find, as Coleridge put it, “words for my inmost thoughts, songs for my joy, utterances for my hidden griefs, and pleadings for my shame and my feebleness.” But if we find our grief uttered in Martha’s cry, then we must also admit that Christ’s reply to her is addressed to us. His words call us beyond simple faith in a resurrection on the last day to the challenge of the great claim that Jesus makes: “I am resurrection and life! Whoever believes in me, though he should die, will come to life. And whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Words that quite transform what we are to think of as real life and real death.
The eternal life of which the Fourth Gospel speaks so often is not simply life beyond the grave. It is life now, already, here on earth, resurrection already accomplished and experienced, the future victory already anticipated and enjoyed. Real death is not the simple dissolution of our bodies, it is the failure to live in Christ; and over real, genuine, life, which Jesus himself is, mere physical death has no power. “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”And as we hear again that triumphant claim, we hear also, now addressed to us, the question Jesus asked of Martha: “Do you believe this?”
There are, thank God, moments in which the truth of Christ’s words is experienced as the truth of our lives, moments in which the sad shame and feebleness of our lives is turned into strength and joyful peace, when doubt and despair yield to hope, when blind eyes open, when crippled limbs begin to stir, when we find ourselves, perhaps beyond expectation and certainly beyond merit, living before God, alive in Christ, living for him and for others. But it may be that we find it hard to trust such experiences of our own, and so, thank God again, he has provided us over the centuries with examples of people whose lives proved that resurrection and life are already possible on this earth. But it may be that the halo around the heads of canonized saints, or their distance from us in time or place or circumstance, makes it difficult to think that we may imitate them, and then we can thank God, yet a third time, that we occasionally encounter, in our own time and place and circumstance, people in whom we see with our own eyes the promises of the Gospel given flesh and blood, inspiring and directing a life, anchoring its quiet center, unfolding its Spirit’s fruits in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, self-discipline. Lives so lived make it easier for the rest of us to say in reply to Jesus’ question to Martha, “Yes, Lord, I believe.”
This homily is not supposed to be a eulogy, church law says, and perhaps particularly at the funeral of a canon lawyer, I must respect it (although I confess to having hoped that Jim’s expertise might find me an exemption, even though here his modesty would surely war with his expertise). But one does not often find a person in whom that Spirit-harvest is as abundant as it was in the life, in the words, in the deeds of Jim Provost. Listen again to the harvest of life, eternal life, that the Spirit can produce, even here on earth, and recall for yourselves–you members of his family, you fellow-priests, you parishioners of St. John the Baptist Church, you students, you colleagues, you friends–recall for yourselves how Jim verified them, showed them to be true; remember and be grateful for the little and the big acts in which he displayed them, the wise but always gentle words in which he articulated them. Listen to them again and remember and be grateful: self-discipline, gentleness, fidelity, goodness, kindness, patience, peace, joy, love.
“Chastised a little,” the Book of Wisdom says of the just, “they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself.” We might question whether the chastisements Jim suffered were little–although, once again, in his modesty, I don’t think Jim would. But I doubt that there is any question in anyone’s mind how he passed the test of his illnesses over the last several years. He bore them, as he had earlier borne other types of trial, with great patience; he never let them bear him down; he never allowed them to inhibit or to limit his instinctive generosity; he never permitted them to move his concerns and his energies away from where they were always principally directed: to others and their cares and troubles, to his family and friends, to countless people who turned to him for help, to his fellow-priests, to his students and colleagues, to his Church. He remained to the end what one colleague of ours wrote to me the other day: “a good man and a very holy person.” Wisdom says of such people that God finds them “worthy of himself,” and as we are stunned by so simple a statement of so supreme a praise, so we may be hopeful that so transcendent a reward may now bless so Spirit-filled a life.