Homily of Fr. Dan Joyce, SJ at Sr. Francis Joseph's Funeral Mass

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

We are privileged to be able to share with you the homily that Fr. Dan Joyce, SJ gave at the funeral Mass of Sr. Francis Joseph at St. Francis de Sales Church, Philadelphia, March 5, 2013.

Homily for the funeral of Sister Francis Joseph Scarpello, R.A.

I want to thank Charles Scarpello, Sr. Francis Joseph's nephew, and the Sisters of Assumption for giving me the honor of offering this homily today.

"Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled." (Luke 1:45)

Che bella cosa na giornata e sole, naria serena doppo na tempesta!
Pe llaria fresca - para gi na festa... Che bella cosa na jurnata e sole.
(What a beautiful thing is a sunny day! The air is serene after a storm,
The air is so fresh that it already feels like a celebration. What a beautiful thing is a sunny day!)

"O sole mio."  This song has been sung by Enrico Caruso, Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli and Philadelphias own - Mario Lanza, among others. But only Mario Lanza can sing this simple Italian folk song O sole mio - like an operatic aria that requires everything. This song is about the most ordinary of days and the simple radiance of the sun.

I think this is what we celebrate today: a Gospel that offers us the simplest of messages and yet does due diligence to state the brilliance of a liberating and powerful truth about the incredible work of God's kingdom in our world, in our lives. It must have been a sunny day when this young girl Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country - an ordinary and brilliant day. It certainly was a journey of the ordinary as this young woman went to visit her cousin to help her in the last days of her pregnancy. However ordinary, it was still perilous business to bring a child into the world at this time. The risks were great, especially for a woman beyond a child bearing age. Yet these two women met each other not in an ordinary way, but the life within them moved to give sign to the great power of God in the world  --  in the kick of a baby yet unborn the whole of the world had a sign of the impending salvation that was at hand. This is life changing and world altering, but all in the simple encounter of two women on a sunny ordinary day.

The English Poet Sally Read recently wrote in the Christmas issue of "The Tablet":  "Mary may have gone to Elizabeth to help her in the last part of her own pregnancy. But she may also have gone to her for support, and to pray together through those quietest and most obscure first weeks. This may have been the truest dark night: apparent silence from God when he was closest. The unique pitch of Mary's uncertainty had to be matched by the deepest communion. Only faith could hush the terrifying array of possibilities, as an imperceptible Christ swam in her."

Sr. Francis Joseph of the Visitation lived her life accomplishing as many "ordinary encounters" as she could. And like Mary of the Visitation she accomplished person-by-person the deepest communion that only faith could give, a communion that opens up a wonderful array of possibilities. Her ordinary encounters quickly gave way to a brilliant radiance regarding the full range of possibilities that life may hold.

We can all recall her saying more than a few times: "Honey, do you think..."; "Honey, what do you think.... or the less subtle "Have you ever thought about..." As if any of these were really questions. The imperative disguised as the interrogative. We all know it - the call in the middle of the day. "Dan  --  this is Francis  --  well..." and then I would sit tight and put on my imaginative seatbelt so as to listen to the most ordinary story of someone's life leading up to the moment when Francis would let me know that I was going to play a part in the life of that person I had yet to meet.

This reign of God Jesus proclaimed was first carried within the very person of that young girl Mary as she visited her cousin Elizabeth. Francis Joseph carried it within her all the time. She knew that we were part of the great project of God here and now and that it was her task not to just proclaim it, but to invite you and me to join in it. With that folksy lead in of "Honey, do the think..?" the story soon transformed into a chapter of God's plan with Francis.

There is an old proverb in that language Francis loved so much: cur vaillant rien d'impossible. Nothing is impossible for a valiant heart. Our Lady may have heard an angel tell her something like that. However, Sr. Francis Joseph not only heard it, but also believed it and invited you and me to let our ordinary lives attempt the impossible with God.

This may be why when she pressed her community into creating a social outreach in Manila to those families who combed the trash heaps looking for some daily "bread" - - the housing subsequently built by the Assumption Sisters became simply "Maryville," a home named for the one who made home for the Christ in her very being. The Religious of the Assumption have written on the cross they wear around their neck the intersection of two words: Jesus Christus. The words proclaim Christ over and on our very hearts. The home for God is within us all.

She was known as Sr. Francis Joseph to many of us or just Francis to others or the more formal Mother to some of her former students. She was named by her parents Rachel. To her childhood friends she was Ray or Rochelle for those who studied French with her. Many names to capture the many facets of a woman who knew no bounds in friendship, with love and in the trust of God's providence. The many names of God live among us. No one can contain the full sense of this awesome Divine who is not only willing to live among us, but as we Christians hold --  a God who is willing to live as one of us and within us. Francis knew this better than any of us. We needed and still need to learn this from her. The movement of life within us Francis knew and she had life abundant. "Dan, I cannot die with unspent energy" she once told me.

In her last days at St Joe's she asked to do some version of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Well what a proposition! ..and fools rush in where angels fear to tread. So I was not going to do it with Francis  --  as God only knew where such a journey would take me. Can you imagine being Francis' director? Who was more likely to be directed by whom?  So, like a good Jesuit, I shuffled off this proposal to my colleague Helen Stewart. In that last experience of The Exercises Sr. Francis Joseph meditated on the call of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. The question at the end of the meditation was "do you have any non-negotiables?" Francis had one:  "To never stop doing." No drop of energy was to be left unspent.

A coeur vaillant rien d'impossible.

Francis Joseph Scarpello was a pioneer. She is no less a pioneer of the implementation of the great Second Vatican Council than Paul VI or any hosts of cardinals and theologians. Especially in that call for the Church to be front and center in creating a more just world that reflects, in some way, the values of God's Kingdom.

Her commitment to God's justice was pervasive. Even when she wrecked into Cardinal Dougherty's car in the drive way of Ravenhill Academy as a young woman --- an encounter that turned into a conversation about vocation to the Religious of the Assumption. Only such a random encounter could become a story of life's path for Francis. But just as they were about to part after the accident this 20-something Rachel Scarpello reminded his eminence that the event was in fact due to the careless driving on the part of his car. She had a sense of justice in all things.

Her work in the 1970s among the Church's religious communities as executive secretary for the International Union of Superiors General will have to go into the writing of Francis' biography as we do not have time here. But she became and still is an icon of the best sort of true leadership that the church needs. I contend that Francis may have passed away on that very day that the Holy Father resigned because she did not want to put the Fathers of the Conclave in the awkward position of having to select the most qualified among us: one Francis Joseph Scarpello.

I am certain that she would have chosen the papal name: Marie Eugenie I, Holy Mother, Supreme Bridge Builder of Global Church.

But as one of her sisters speculated, Francis may have passed on that day because she did not want to miss this next conclave and this is certainly a way she can spend some more of her unspent energy advocating behind those closed doors for what the Spirit wants and the Church needs.

I believe that it was Saint Therese who said that she ..."would be able to do more good on earth from her place in heaven than she ever could while still here." This is what I have feared for a long time  --  that the call from Francis will have no voice mail or call waiting, but will be a direct request all the time. You are all on warning. She won't leave you out. Believe me.

Francis gave us at Saint Joseph's University a lifetime and more of her constant energy. With her, new ideas and projects abounded. Sr. Francis was a tour de force for us for over 30 years.

And now we hear her say "Do not die with any unspent energy."

Quanno fa notte e o sole se ne scenne,
When night comes and the sun has gone down,
me vane quasi na malincunia;

I start feeling blue;

Ma - but

natu sole cchi bello, oi ne, o sole mio sta nfronte a te!

Another sun, that's brighter still. It's my own sun that shines from your face!

Oh sole mio sole mio

If Mario Lanza may take a simple Italian folk song and make it bigger than life, then all the more can a gracious and abundant God take an Italian girl from Germantown and make her a force that enables God's life among us larger and brighter.

Jesus offers us a light in his proclamation of God's Kingdom and we may hold that Christ light with and for each other. Sr. Francis Joseph Scarpello, this Religious of the Assumption, is "Sole mio"  -- a brilliant shining force of light for you and for me today and into our future - a light that lets Christ shine in our world.

"Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled."

Blessed are we to know that Christ light more because we knew Francis.

-- Daniel R. J. Joyce, S.J.


Get to know more about Sr. Francis Joseph:

Sr. Francis Joseph, R.A., An Extraordinary Life, March 3, 2013

Sr. Francis Joseph, RA Honored by St. Joseph's University, March 20, 2011

Ravenhill Alums Gather for 90th Reunion, November 3, 2009

A 90th Birthday for Sr. Francis Joseph, June 19, 2009

Sr. Francis Joseph in the News, February 7, 2009