Homily for Monsignor Art
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Good evening everyone. Thank you so much for coming to this Basilica pastored for five years by our beloved Msgr. Art Valenzano whom we lovingly remember and pray for this evening.
John and Linda, Francis, Mark and Tammy, Tony, Luca, and Sophia your brother and uncle was one of the most beloved priests of our Archdiocese please accept our humble condolences at this loss that we share with you. And thank you for giving such a gem of a priest to this local Church.
I have to admit from the start that I am always a little gun shy when preaching at a Vigil or Funeral Mass for a priest or religious because I can see before my mind’s eye my dear friend Sister Reginald. She once said to me following the funeral of one of her religious sisters: “You always in your funeral homilies of sisters paint them to be these good and holy women, you almost canonize them. Well, we had to live with them - and you have to know they were not always the way you describe them!”
Well, with Msgr. Art anyone who knew him and traveled with him, or who was fortunate enough to live with him would know that our vocabulary and time itself do not give ample support to adequately describe this good and holy priest.
Two of Msgr. Art’s favorite phrases that could easily be used as his epitaph are: “Praise Jesus” and “It’s all good.”
We all delighted in hearing these words come out of his mouth. In fact when he entered the room it was not uncommon for someone to gratefully say: “Here comes ‘Praise Jesus.’”
Art always flashed that beautiful smile of his when he would say this. Actually there was a profound teaching and blessing that he was imparting each time that he uttered these words.
His life was one of giving praise to Jesus. He said so often that he considered himself more blessed than he ever deserved. He thought that he would never be able to thank God enough for the gifts that had come his way from a most benevolent God and all he could do was try as best he could to thank God – so “Praise Jesus” it was. And this held true through two bone marrow transplants and years of chemo therapy with all of its side effects.
This is also supported by the first reading he chose for this vigil Mass taken from the 1st Letter of John where the Apostle says: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we are called the children of God. Yet so we are.”
For Msgr. Art, that was more than enough to spend your whole life giving thanks, that God has called us His Children. Perhaps this is why he always had such a fondness for children especially children borne into challenging life situations.
Just a few days ago when he was very uncomfortable he said that other favorite phrase: “It’s all good.” That is the way he lived his life giving authentic witness to these words of his, even when to the untrained and untried eye it certainly did not seem like ‘all is good.’
Our Holy Father Pope Francis said that the world doesn’t need teachers of the gospel as much as witnesses or teachers who are witnesses with the lives they lead. Msgr. Art was for all of us the best of teachers and the most inspiring of witnesses. He taught us what Paul alluded to in his Letter to the Romans when the Apostle said: “If God is for us, who can be against us? What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish or distress? No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through Him who loved us. [Nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus Our Lord.” Msgr. Art was convinced that Paul had it right, because Msgr. Art knew that what Paul said was so true for him. Nothing could overwhelm the love he had for Jesus and Mother Mary and so for him whatever came his way, well, “it’s all good.”.
Back in July when speaking with Msgr. Art he turned to the conversation to his passing on, his returning to the Lord. Art became reflective and said: “You know I think I’ll probably go in September.”
Even though it was with a certain quiet peace, it startled me for we had not been speaking about when he might die, so I asked him: “Arti, why do you say that? And why September?” And with a big smile – remember now it was in the beginning of July we had this conversation - he said: “Well it’s better than August isn’t it?”
In addition to “Praise Jesus” and “it’s all good” there was another phrase made up of three words that Msgr. Art expressed in his daily living. He like Jesus did not say this phrase very often but you could hear it when in his presence and when he looked into your eyes, that phrase was “I love you.”
Nowhere does Jesus say these words explicitly until the night before he died as he spoke to his closest friends, the Apostles, at the Last Supper.” And then he put it this way: “As the Father loves me, so I love you.”
Msgr. Art knew in his mind and heart that God loved him and this guided and inspired all that he did and this is what he shared with us and this is what he, without saying a word, encouraged us to do.
His love, like the Lord’s, knew no bounds. He knew everyone in the neighborhood, young and old, CEO and the one asking for money – and all treated with the same hospitality. How often when he was having a rough go of it he would ask me about my nephew who now battles a very aggressive form of cancer. Art would ask: “How’s Daniel? Tell him I think of him often and pray for him every day. And how’s his baby daughter doing?”
So now as we bid him farewell what is our consolation, what is his final homily that he leaves with us? when this priest, this pastor, has returned to the Lord? Surely had we had anything to say about it we would have kept him right here, we have so much more to learn from him, we have so much more to share with him. He left us with more than one homily, more than only a few words of comfort and encouragement; he inspired us and taught us how to live.
Art being the disciple of Jesus that he was, does not stray far from the mannerisms of His Master. And so he chose the passage from John’s 14th chapter for this evening’s vigil.
Jesus, as part of His farewell discourse, consoles his disciples with the reminder that He will not forget them when he departs, but depart He must. Jesus tells these intimate friends of His, these brothers, that He is going so that He might prepare dwelling places for them in His Father’s House. And when Jesus tells the disciples that they know how to reach this place, Thomas objects, and speaking for the others says that they know neither where He is going or how to get there.
Art understood Jesus’ answer to Thomas when He said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Jesus was going to the Father, that is the place, that is the home, that is what is being prepared for us. It is that place described long ago by Isaiah the Prophet, that is reached by a Sacred Way. Jesus is the Way to this place and He teaches the truth and the proof of this is, as Raymond Brown put it, that He leads His followers to live the only life that truly deserves the name life.
I think that is why Art could in July look toward September as he did. I think that he would have us join in that vision of his in our own lives, free of dread and fear. “It’s all good.”
So Msgr. Art did return to the Lord in September, on Saturday the 5th of September at 9:30 in the evening.
That afternoon while passing through this Basilica to see Msgr. Art a wedding was going on. And walking through the doors of the basilica a young man with a beautiful voice was singing from that spot “make me an instrument of thy peace.” I felt for sure that he was singing on behalf of a loving pastor who could not be there physically but whose spirit will always permeate this sacred abode.
While sitting next to his bed that afternoon I could not help thinking that the Rector of the Basilica, as he had done so many times before, was imparting a blessing on that fortunate couple.
Just a few days before returning to the Lord Msgr. Art insisted on and did indeed take a walk around the block of the Basilica and just days before that he went around the block of the Basilica twice. Art’s desire to walk around the block in such a weakened state may not have seemed like the prudent thing to do.
Perhaps it was because he knew his time was shortening for giving priestly blessings and it was more than wanting to get out and get some fresh air and a little exercise even in this weakened state of his. Perhaps he wanted once again, by his physical presence, to impart one more of his blessings on the area.
And what a powerful reminder to us coming from this pastor, by his example, that we too, now, while we can, should walk around and bring a blessing by our lives to all whom we might meet along the way and to every place that we pass by.
Rather than making dogmatic statements of how we should live, Msgr. Art following the example of Jesus, His Lord and Master, and taught us all in a most loving way how we are to live on earth by example.
Msgr. Art did this for over 40 years as a priest. How good God is to have let us have that wonderful celebration of his priestly ministry here in this Basilica to be followed by another full celebration at the Tremont on Charles Street.
It was about 41 years ago that I first met this wonderful, joyful, just all around good seminarian who was at that time working at St. Gregory the Great on Baker and Gilmour. I can actually remember that very day as I pulled up to the church and saw Art greeting the people as they were going into the church.
His smile then was the same as we saw, his goodness then was the same as we felt, although what we felt came from one much more seasoned by life’s experiences.
Msgr. Art spread his priestly goodness throughout the Archdiocese serving the people of St. Ambrose, St. Mary Govans, as the Administrator at the Msgr. O’Dwyer retreat house, then on to St. William of York, St. John Westminster, and of course on September 1st, 2010 he was appointed Rector of this blessed Basilica.
There is one more memory of our beloved Rector whom we pray for and remember this evening.
When he was the pastor of St. John’s Westminster Art and a wonderful group of two dozen priests from our Archdiocese and I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Art blended into that Holy Land. He was at ease there and although he learned many particulars about the place as a pilgrim for the first time, it was as though he had been there before. This was because he knew and loved Jesus so much, the one whose sacred feet had blessed that sacred Land.
For Art it was the time we spent in the Galilee that he treasured most. For him traveling to the home town of Jesus and those places where He taught and lived and cured and prayed – it was in such a profound way like going to the place where a dear friend once lived – what a pure delight to be there, look around, let the wind blow across your brow, and breathe in the air of that place where The Friend had lived in a time past.
As with those other disciples one cannot but wonder was not that time in the Galilee when God also prepared Art for his priestly mission and all that he would endure. Art’s great ease in that place betrayed his willingness to do whatever the Lord would have, for Art knew even then “it’s all good.”
And now we conclude our remembrances of this beloved priest, our brother, and leave our Galilee with those beautiful words of that Lebanese mystic Kahlil Gibran who lived very closed to the Galilee and describes so well our friend.
“There are those who give little of the much which they have – and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome.
And there are those who have little and give it all. These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty.
There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.
And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism.
And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue. They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its (sweet) fragrance into space.
Through the hands of such as these God speaks, and from behind their eyes, God smiles upon the earth. Lord God we thank you and offer you our “Praise Jesus” for sending such a one into our midst.
Eternal rest grant unto Art O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.