Father Christopher Monturo
Funeral of Joseph Lemm
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral
December 30, 2015
Honorable Public Officials, Distinguished dignitaries, Members of the United States Air Force and Air National Guard, Members of the New York Police Department, dear friends in Christ.
Monsignor Ritchie, Your Eminence Cardinal Dolan, thank you for opening wide the doors of this cathedral for Joseph and his family and more, thank you for opening wider your own hearts in your care and love for all of us. We are deeply grateful.
Dear Christine, Brooke, Ryan, Charles, Shirley, Brian and all of Joseph’s family – today we seek to comfort you, we wish to try as best we can to lift the heavy burden you must bear and we want to help dry your tears.
Two years ago on this very day my own father died. That was a very difficult and painful time in my life. And in the weeks following several people asked me what it was like to preside over his funeral Mass and burial. At that time, I said to them for me it was two things. It was, first, the most difficult thing I ever had to do and, second, the greatest privilege of my life. I think that same answer applies today in this moment and not just for me but for all of us. We are deeply saddened by the sudden, tragic and seemingly senseless way Joe has passed from us and it is difficult to let him go for a time. Yes, we feel all of the normal human emotions that come to us when someone so close to us and whom we love so much dies. But we are privileged to be able to gather together as his family and friends to pray for him and for ourselves and to offer this Eucharist (a word which means “Thanksgiving”). Thanking God for the gift of the life of Joseph Lemm.
It is said that “the greatness of a man is not in how much wealth or material or fame he acquires in this life but in his integrity, faithfulness and his ability to give of himself completely and affect those around him positively.” Joseph Gerard Lemm was such a man.
And, the readings chosen for this Mass of Christian Burial for Joe are instructive to us because they took root in his own life and it is Jesus Christ who transformed him into the gentle, loving, attractive “super” man we can to know and love as a dear friend, relative, fellow airman, soldier, police officer and parishioner.
The first reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that to everything there is a purpose, a time and a place. There is a proper season for everything and everyone – a time to be born and even a time to die. This truth can be difficult for us to accept because often God’s plans do not coincide with our own and it can be hard for us, as in a moment like this, to trust. Yet, the author of Ecclesiastes tells us that none of us can escape the Lord’s gaze. We are never beyond His view, His grasp or His love. Joe certainly knew that truth and he put those words and their wisdom into practice in his own life.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul gives us a beautiful catechesis on love. This reading is one not often used at funerals but it seems a most appropriate reading for Joseph Lemm since his very being was so full of all of those virtues Saint Paul speaks of so eloquently. Love, as you know, is never about taking it is always about giving. Love is patient, love is kind Saint Paul says. Love never fails. And, for any Christian love is the indispensable ingredient which changes us into the person God has created us to be or not. Love must be embraced and accepted and lived and also given away. Joe did all of these things and completely and so another reason to be grateful and celebrate.
The Gospel reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount we know as the “Beatitudes” is such a perfect Gospel to reflect on as we remember Joe because those qualities Jesus mentions became a lived reality for him. He was keenly aware of all of the blessings God had gifted him with and he was proud to share them with everyone he knew. This knowledge and way of living made him, in turn, a blessing to everyone he encountered. Joe was certainly poor in spirit, kind, merciful, clean of heart and, as his final heroic act would confirm, a peacemaker. Saint Matthew tells us that if we live in this way we should rejoice and be glad because we will have a great reward in heaven. What a consolation this is to us today.
Over the last several days we have all had time to reflect on Joe’s life, we have shared many memories, we have laughed and we have cried. And December 21st will always remain for us our darkest day. But there is also something quite ironic or maybe providential about the day of Joe’s passing since that day truly is the darkest day of the year. December 21st has the least amount of sunlight but even God’s creation helps to console us since each passing day adds one more minute of sunlight until the days become longer and the warmth of spring and summer returns. It is a subtle reminder of the truth we celebrate in this Christmas season that truly the Light of Christ has conquered the darkness of the world. And, we can gather here today not in sorrow or despair but in hope and even joy – a joy which no one can take from us.
I think Joe was properly named because like his patron, Saint Joseph, he became a loving and devoted husband to you Christine and a proud father to you Brooke and Ryan. And even the letters of his name tell us about him. J for “Jokester”. How Joe loved to give and receive a good practical joke. When Joe was assigned to the Warrant Squad he was perfectly placed and found plenty of opportunity for such joking at appropriate times of course. O for “overall loving person”. Over the last several days when we have been together I have taken notice of how many conversations began. So many of you his family have said of him – “he loved fishing, he loved basketball, he loved the Nebraska cornhuskers, he loved his wife, his children, his family and friends. You may not have even noticed what you were saying but every sentence began with “he loved”. And, in the end isn’t that all that matters. Saint John of the Cross tells us that “in the evening of life we will be judged on love.” If this is true, and it is, then Joe’s judgement must have been brief for his love was full and in the evening of his life, we could say, unconditional. And finally the E – Joe was Extraordinary in every way. At an early age everyone knew he would one day become something great because he excelled in everything he ever did and like few we have ever known he was given every gift but length of years.
The first time I met Joe Lemm I shook his hand and his completely enveloped mine, I looked up at him and at his enormous stature and his impressive physical build and I said to him, “Joe if I ever find myself in any trouble I would like you on my side”. He looked back at me with that funny smile and said, “I’m always on your side Father Chris.” His co-workers in the NYPD called Joe “Superman” and rightly so. Now we see how appropriate that name was and is. They said he looked a little like Christopher Reeve but more importantly he possessed supernatural abilities which allowed him to do things few could. I’d like to believe those abilities have only been strengthened now as this “super man” we knew and loved continues to be on all of our sides forever.
Joe’s life journey brought him from Dubuque, Iowa to the small town of Beemer, Nebraska to the big city of New York. In each of those places until now some knew who Joe was and what he was all about, now all know of Joe’s spirit which cannot be contained by time or space or by any one place. Now, God has made Joe’s life and love and his unselfish witness a gift to our entire nation and to the whole world. We will never forget him or those who were with him – Major Adrianna Vorderbruggen, Staff Sergeant Louis Bonacasa, Staff Sgt. Chester McBride, Staff Sgt. Peter Taub and Staff Sgt. Michael Cinco. And we could say today that their lives like everything they ever did are complete.
Many of you may not know that Joe attended EVERY Police Department funeral no matter where it was. He never missed one. How fitting and appropriate it is then that so many thousands are here from across the country to attend his funeral here in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Your presence and this Mass are a perfect punctuation to his beautiful life on this earth.
I would like to conclude my homily this morning with a prayer which is close to my heart which I would like to give to you today. It was composed by Cardinal Terence Cooke whose earthly remains are entombed in the crypt beneath the Altar of this Cathedral. It is a prayer I love and often pray on the occasion of the death of one who is close to me in thanksgiving to God for the gift of their life here and hereafter. May these words of hope serve as a fond and collective farewell from all of us to Joe, our Superman, until we see him again:
We seem to give Joe back to you O God who first gave him to us, yet as you did not lose him in giving him to us so do we not lose him by his return to you. For, not as the world gives do you give. And, what you give you do not take away, for what is yours is ours also if we are yours. And, life is eternal and love is immortal and death is only a horizon and a horizon is nothing except the limit of our sight. So, lift us up strong Son of God that we may see further. Remove the scales from our eyes that we may see more clearly, draw us ever closer to you that we may know ourselves to be nearer to Joe and all of our loved ones who are now with you. And, while you prepare a place for us, prepare us also for that happy place that where you are we may also be forever. Amen.