Memorial Mass for Brian Bergkamp
Immaculate Conception Chapel
Wisdom 3: 1-9
1 Corinthians 15: 51-57
John 12: 23-26
“How are you?” This in inevitably one of the questions someone asks us when one of our close relatives or friends dies. It sometimes follows the statement, ‘I’m so sorry” or “My condolences.” Then they turn to us and ask, “How are you?”
It has been 52 days since Brian Bergkamp’s death. We gather this evening not to celebrate Mass for the repose of someone’s soul who we do not know. We knew Brian – you and I. He was a member of our seminary community. He was a diocesan brother, a classmate, an advisee, a student, a fellow Mounty, a friend. We celebrate this Mass for the repose of his soul and for an increase of faith for all those who mourn his loss. We miss him now and will continue to miss him. So the question seems very appropriate to ask, “How are you?”
To answer such a question, we have to ask, “Who are we?” We are Christians. We know all about the meaning of death because we know Christ. We know about death and we gage how we are based on the truths of our faith and the consolation we receive from it. We are men and women of faith who can, because of Christ, stare into the face of death and say, like St. Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
That’s how we are!
The Word of God provide the truth about death
The Bible was made for moments like this one. When we are faced with death, we can turn to the inspired word of God to find the true meaning of suffering and death. It is a word about death because it is a word about true life.
The Bible proclaims the “euaggelion”, the Gospel, the “good news” about Christ’s victory over death. It conveys to us the life, teaching and action of the One who conquered death. Our Lord Jesus Christ is life unconquerable by death. He is true life. He is eternal life.
The Book of Wisdom clearly states that the “souls of the just are in the hand of God.” “They seem to the foolish;” that is, those without faith, “to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction. But they are in peace.” Death does not have the final word.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul speaks of death as a “change.” The Preface of the Mass says, “Vita mutatur non tollitur.” “Life is changed not ended.” It is a change from corruptibility to incorruptibility, mortality to immortality. Thanks to the victory we have through Christ, death is swallowed up. Death loses its sting.
From the lips of our Savior Himself, we hear in the Gospel that death to self is a way of life and a way to life. Jesus exhorts us to be like a grain of wheat which falls and dies. We must turn away from our attachment to this worldly life and seek eternal life. Death is a way of life for a Christian. His life is a continual death to self – a falling to the ground – so as to produce the fruit of holiness and heaven.
The heroism of the gift of self
News stories were published around the globe about Brian’s selfless action. In places like Italy (Agenzia Fides), Spain, (ACI Prensa), Hungary (Magyar Kurír), Ireland, (Irish Catholic), people read about a seminarian who stopped to help a young woman out of a life-threatening situation in the Arkansas River. Her life was saved and his was lost.
Why such international interest in this story? I think the answer is found at the depth of the human heart. We long for heroes. A hero epitomizes was is best in man; what is most virtuous. It is the heroism of the gift of self.
When Brian was at Conception Seminary College the monks gave him the key to the woodshop. He was one of the few men who loved to go down there and make all sorts of things out of wood. One day a fellow seminarian, in a casual conversation which Brian overheard, said, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to have a wooden model plane to fly around this place.” About a week later this seminarian found a model plane made out of wood on his bed in his room. As Matt Davied said to me, “This just shows the kind of person Brian was.”
The millennial generation, to which Brian belonged, has a strong tendency to idealize the self. Often young people see the world only insofar as it impacts them. They are more interested in feeling good than in being good.
Brian, and I dare say like many young men whom it is a privilege to serve at the Mount, do not follow in the footsteps of some of their peers. Their lives as seminarians are a path in the footsteps of another. They follow the one who said that He had come “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many.”
Brian went out into the Arkansas River not to take life but to save it – to save her. Brian’s chosen vocation, the actions of his life, and his last act all give living witness against the idealism of the self and for the heroism of the self.
The gift of self is at the heart of the priesthood
When I listened to Bishop Kemme’s homily at Brian’s Memorial Mass in the Cathedral of Wichita, I was struck by what he observed. He said that Brian “may not have been a priest, but lived and died in the most priestly way.” You see, the gift of self is at the heart of the priesthood.
A great saint once wrote, “the priesthood requires more than a morally upright life. It demands sanctity.” Being a priest demands total, all-in, heroic gift of self. Look at our patron - St. John Vianney. He rarely left the little town of Ars but he was heroically holy in the little things - daily prayer, Mass, hours in the confessional, teaching catechism, preaching, etc. All the essential elements of any priest’s life. His heroism in the little things made him a great saint.
The gift of self is radiated by the Holy Eucharist.
This heroic gift of self is radiated by the Holy Eucharist.
This past Spring Brian received the Ministry of Acolyte from Bishop Kemme. It is a ministry needed in the advance toward ordination to the priesthood and it is especially dedicated toward the Holy Eucharist. At that ceremony Brian and his classmates heard the words of the ritual say, “Because you are specially called to this ministry, you should strive to live more fully by the Lord’s Sacrifice and to be molded more perfectly in its likeness.” Little did he know that he would soon live in a concrete way the words he heard addressed to him and his classmates on that occasion.
Is Brian exceptional in this regard? No. He did something exceptional but I believe that he is not exceptional for a seminarian from the Mount. That’s the kind of men we have here.
One of the last conversations I had with Brian was in St. Bernard’s Chapel. The graduating class of 2016 had purchased a beautiful crucifix and matching candle sticks for the chapel altar. I was in the process of taking the little wooden crucifix off the altar to replace it with the large, new one. Brian was watching. As I took the little one off, I asked him, “Brian, do you know where this came from?” With a rather sheepish and guilty look he admitted, “Monsignor, last year I thought the altar needed a crucifix so I put it on there not knowing how long it would last.” I said, “Well, it lasted the whole year. But where did it come from?” With a bit of cheerful pride, he said, “From the Manochio Mart.”
Brian had an innate sense of the connection between the Eucharist and the Cross; between the priesthood and the Cross. This sense became concrete action when that young woman needed help. He obviously did not think twice. Someone needed help and he was going to help. Yes, that decision led to his death. But it was a decision to fall to the ground and die. It was a decision to live as a Christian. It was a decision to live as a priest should live, with a Eucharistic gift of self.
When we look back on the events of this summer, when we return to the Mount years from now and see this beautiful plaque commemorating Brian’s heroic death and life, we might wonder, “How are we now?”
We will be as we are now. We are confident in faith that death does not have a victory or a sting. We are confident that we are all called to live a heroic life marked by selfless love for others. We are confident that a person who makes a gift of self for another – who lives a truly Eucharistic life – is someone who is capable of receiving is a life which will lives on in eternity with Christ.