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Funeral of Father John F. Hotchkin

Holy Name Cathedral, Chicago

The readings from the word of God illumine our reflections this morning. They bring the balm of the Lord’s healing power to the pain of loss felt by Father Hotchkin’s family and friends. The latter include his close collaborators in Washington and also bishops and ecumenical officers in dioceses across the country. For nearly three and a half decades these have looked to Father Hotchkin for guidance as he served us all at the national office of our episcopal conference.

There are also pilgrims of other church families and organizations who have been walking with him in the search for the visible unity of the Christian oikumene, that the “world may believe.” And there are those of other religions, partners now in dialogue in the search for greater mutual understanding, who mourn his passing with us.

As a member of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, I express a profound sense of the loss the Council feels in Rome. Cardinals Walter Kasper and Edward Cassidy, as well as Cardinal Jorge Mejia, asked me personally to convey this sentiment of loss along with their own deep sympathy today.

The prophet Isaiah unfolds a vision of divine power, a power that removes from human mortality its final sting. “He will destroy the veil that veils all peoples…he will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces….” And in the Preface we shall hear the words, “Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”

In the second reading the apostle Peter preaches, and I quote from the words of Monsignor George Higgins in Washington last Thursday evening: “It is really Peter who preaches to you. . . . Peter who reminds us that God shows no partiality, Peter who proclaims that in every nation whoever fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to him. Peter who rejoices that the same God who raised his only Son on the third day will raise up all Jesus’ brothers and sisters on the last day that everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.” With Monsignor Higgins I say also, “It is good for us to be here, for we trust in the mercy of God whom Jack served so well as our priest, our brother and our friend.”

Father Hotchkin first came to share the life of Christ poured forth into his heart with the waters of Baptism. His family circle, the training and example of his parents, helped him see that life grow. His vocation as a Christian found its place and peace in accepting the call of Jesus to service in the priesthood. The Lord’s providence put him in Rome for studies of theology at the time of wonder and surprise that came with the election of Angelo Roncalli as Pope John XXIII. Still vivid in my memory is a visit of this Pope, now a blessed of the Church, to the North American College within a year of his election. He came to help the College, founded a century earlier by Blessed Pius IX, celebrate its centenary. John Hotchkin of Chicago, first Prefect of the College, was chosen to address the Holy Father and present to him a gift, a chalice, on behalf of the seminary community.

The other day, on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, I visited Pope John’s new tomb in St. Peter’s and then assisted at the Mass at which Pope John Paul II presided and preached. Here I saw Father Hotchkin’s life work dramatized at the highest public level of the Church’s life. Pope John Paul was recalling his ecumenical mission earlier in the week, with his visit to Ukraine. He then welcomed the presence of the delegation from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. The delegation included Bishop Dimitrios, the Ecumenical Officer of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in this country. The Pope recognized this as another step along the way to full communion. When he embraced Metropolitan Jeremie of France, the congregation exploded with applause. All these were signs of a hope more alive in this year of pilgrimages to Greece, Syria and Ukraine. And these come in the aftermath of the Great Jubilee events of the day of Prayer for Pardon in Rome and the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, so rich in its symbols of remembrance, repentance and reconciliation.

We say our farewell to Father Jack here in Chicago, his home Diocese, the Diocese also of Monsignor George Higgins, who for many years was his close friend on the staff of the USCCB and who last Thursday recalled their shared pride in belonging to the great presbyterate of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Monsignor Higgins spoke movingly of Father Hotchkin’s private side. However, he had a public side and at no time was it more evident than in September 1987, when Pope John Paul II met at Columbia, South Carolina, with two dozen Christian leaders of our land. It was an extraordinary meeting, facilitated by the patient staff work of Father Hotchkin and of others. Father Hotchkin was one of two who stood by silently and listened and then afterwards briefed the press about what had happened, they bore witness to more than an hour of the discussion which led Pope John Paul to say, “In this upper room [of the house of the President of the University of South Carolina] there is much more that unites us than divides us. The Holy Spirit truly is with us today.”

From there the Pope went to the stadium, where some 60,000 people, more than 80% of them Baptists or Methodists, participated in an ecumenical service with enormous enthusiasm. A dozen times they interrupted his reflections on the scriptural readings of the occasion, applying them to marriage and family life in the United States.

And I remember that here in Chicago, in 1979, speaking to the bishops of the United States, Pope John Paul reminded us that the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, the very heart of the preaching of Jesus should be at the heart of our own prayer and preaching. Here in Chicago Father Hotchkin staffed a multitude of meetings, of the Bishops’ Committee and of dialogues. Repeatedly, he showed himself worthy of the promised blessings and happiness of the Beatitudes: he was mild of temper, forgiving of heart, and a true peacemaker, even as his theological insights were clear, analytical, and firmly held. In all of this he reflected a hunger and a thirst for a world ordered by God’s justice and design.

The Beatitudes imply that one can find peace in the acceptance also of the crosses of life, crosses like severe illness, crosses like the loss of those who are close through blood and friendship, crosses of disappointment—for Father Hotchkin this meant disappointment sometimes in ecumenical and interreligious endeavors. It is the very cross that is at the heart of the paradox of faith in Jesus, as we face the realities of sin and of death in our lives.