The Catholic University Of America
Office of the President
Washington, D.C. 20064
Homily by the Very Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M.
Funeral Mass for Monsignor Stephen Happel,
Dean, School of Theology and Religious Studies
Oct. 7, 2003
Our words, today, could not begin to express our heartbreak and our sadness at the sudden death of Stephen Happel. Mrs. Happel, Maryliese, Chris, David, Kevin, members of the Happel family and dearest friends of Stephen, I hope that our joining here together with the university community of which Stephen was such an important part brings you some comfort in this time of your great loss, our great loss. I hope that we can all find some comfort and strength in the faith that we share.
In the Rite of Ordination to Priesthood, the bishop instructs the newly ordained priest by telling him, “share with all people the word of God you have received … believe what you read, teach what you believe, and put into practice what you teach.” There is a certain sense in which those words can be spoken to all of the baptized, that is true. In the case of a priest, however, those words become a significant part of the sacrament he receives at ordination and through that sacrament they become part of his personal and professional identity as both priest and Christian.
Those words of instruction were spoken to Monsignor Stephen Happel and his classmates 33 years ago at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Indianapolis. “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, put into practice what you teach. Share the word of God you have received.”
I offer those words to you today, not so much to commemorate the beginning of Stephen’s priestly ministry but, rather, to mark its end here on earth. As he was instructed on his ordination day, so too today, in death, Stephen instructs us: “share the word of God you have received.”
What is this “word” that we receive this morning? The readings used for this Mass were, in fact, the very readings Stephen selected for his own first Mass in Indianapolis. He asked that they be repeated on the day of his funeral, perhaps to measure the meaning of what transpired between the beginning and end of his priestly life.
By strange coincidence, the second reading from St. Paul to the Corinthians addresses the grief and affliction we feel so deeply today. St. Paul praises the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for his compassion and encouragement to us in our affliction. Scholars tell us that the encouragement of which he speaks — 25 times in the first half of this letter — is not mere sympathy or emotional consolation but, rather, an active grace, strengthening us to endure the suffering that comes our way. No one can doubt that Stephen’s family and our community have been suffering these past few days but Paul writes that as Christ’s own sufferings overflow to us so, too, does his encouragement. No one could have imagined that we would be here today at his funeral. Stephen was too young. He was too engaged. He had so much yet to offer. He was too full of life to leave us so suddenly and without warning. But none of those things mattered. It was his time. Stephen, however, did not live his wonderful life focused on suffering. Nor would he want us too, even for a moment. His was the “firm hope” of which St. Paul writes, a hope that saw him through whatever difficult challenges crossed his path. “Share the word of God you have received: believe what you read. Teach what you believe. Practice what you teach.” He did that.
Stephen was a priest who lived his life as a teacher, an educator, most of his years here at The Catholic University of America. The first reading from the Book of Wisdom addresses that life so well. We can almost hear him praying with its author, “I am a mortal man, the same as all the rest … I inhaled the common air, fell upon the kindred earth, with constant care I was nurtured … I prayed, I pleaded and the spirit of Wisdom came to me … all good things came to me in her company and countless riches at her hands.” Stephen devoted his life to wisdom and all that he experienced, all that he believed and read and taught and lived — “all good things” came to him “in her company.” Who can ever know or count how many students that he taught, congregations to whom he preached, penitents who confessed to him, broken hearts that he mended, yes, even faculty with whom he labored who found wisdom, found all good things in her company and his as well. “Share the word of God: believe what you read, teach what you believe, practice what you teach.” He did that. Stephen followed that priestly instruction with his life and to the end.
Our Gospel today, the reading from St. Luke that Stephen chose as his point of departure as a priest and, ironically, the last words to be read over his body, reveals the most telling and the most compelling testimony to his ministry. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And the answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and being and mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” Who really does these things, Jesus asks in the Gospel? “The one who treats the neighbor with mercy. Go and do the same.” He did that.
In the past few days, words of condolence flowed throughout our community from all over the world as news of Stephen’s death spread far and wide. From Africa and Australia, from Rome and Paris and Belgium, from Cardinals and bishops and priests and religious and students and colleagues and people of every faith imaginable. And this Church today is filled with similar folks who gather not simply because Stephen believed and taught, not simply because he was a faculty member or a dean but, rather, because he put into practice what he believed within this community and beyond. Our world, our lives were truly changed because Stephen Happel was a part of them and they now change, again, because he has left us.
Ordination was but a moment in his life, a transforming moment that took all the love he received from his mother and father, his sister and brothers, his teachers up to that point and his friends; all the grace that he received in the sacraments; all the talents and refinement that he developed — ordination took all these things and made Stephen Happel, the son and the brother, the friend and the colleague, the priest and the teacher, a gift of God to others. We are saddened by his going forth but so grateful for that gift.
There are so many things I want to say today. I want to say something about the dinners and the conversations; the meetings and planning; the movies and the operas; the walks and the laughter. I have the blessing to stand before you, to stand on behalf of you and be the voice that speaks some words of comfort. But my words mean little. The word of God, however, means everything to us who believe. “Share the word you have received: believe what you read; teach what you believe; and put into practice what you teach.” Stephen did. And we thank God for that and for him.
Very Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M.