Funeral Sermon for my dear friend, Dr. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
Msgr. Richard Lopez
January 5, 2007, Immaculate Heart of Mary Church
Dear and beloved Gene, Rebecca, Ed, family and friends of our Betsey, my name is Father Richard Lopez. I am a teacher at Saint Pius High School for 26 years, but for 9 years I also resided at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home. This special place for the poor and dying was founded and run by the Hawthorne Dominican Sisters. They were founded by Rose Hawthorne, the daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne and a convert to Catholicism. On one occasion I was making the rounds of the patients, and I entered the room of a 98-year-old man in the final stages of cancer. He was Catholic. I went to over to him, this 98-year-old man in a terminal state, and said: “Mr. Jones, would you like to go to confession?” He looked at me and said: “I think I will wait.” I would suggest to you all that there are certain things in life that have by their nature an urgency to themselves.
One of those things was something that Betsey dedicated her life to from her earliest days. It was nurtured in the intellectual richness of her parents’ home, enriched beyond measure in her loving marriage to Gene and constantly inspired and stimulated by her students and colleagues; it was the pursuit of truth. She understood and lived the promise of Our Lord, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Given the temper and difficulty of our times, she also understood what Flannery O’Connor is said to have added: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.” Betsey was not afraid to face the consequences or responsibilities of the truth.
I have told my students over the years that their task is the same. To fail to seek the truth is to live their lives like poor Pascual Perez, the Braves player who in the 1970’s failed to make his first game because he was doing laps around 285, going in circles; life goes no place unless you know where you are going.
If there is a necessary urgency to seek the truth, there is no urgency in our hearts to be here today. None of us, beginning with Gene, wanted this moment to happen. None of us wanted to lose this elegant woman, this brilliant scholar, this devoted friend. I tell you I do not enjoy preaching. I do not relish preaching at funerals, and preaching at the funeral of such a friend as Betsey is a heartbreak and a challenge beyond words. How in the world do I find in a few moments’ words the theme to match this woman’s goodness and life? How in the world do I find in a few moments’ words the words to match our hope in Christ? Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “But the Word is always greater than our words and never fully expressed in words.” I live in dread of the comment made by the late and venerable Monsignor P.J. O’Connor after he suffered the hearing of a very long, very bad funeral sermon: “Well the man had nothing to say and he said it!” However, I would be terrified to face Betsey in eternity if I did not preach today, because I know she would want me to preach.
I remember years ago seeing a movie called “The Titanic.” Oh, not the recent one with what’s his name’s arm spread out on the bow, but one from the 1950’s. I must have been in third grade, and the scene that sticks in my mind from that black and white movie was this. A father has safely placed his wife and children on a life boat, and then goes bravely to face death alone on the bridge of the sinking ship. Minutes later he turns around; there is his teen-age son! “What are you doing here!” he shouts at the boy. The boy calmly takes his father’s arm and says: “I could not let you die alone.”
Don’t you see that is precisely what God has said to us in the person of His son Jesus Christ. He was born in a stable, so we would not be born alone, he was agonized on the cross, so we would not have to suffer alone, and he died and was buried, so we would not have to die alone. Don’t you know that our Betsey knew that, believed that, lived that! Don’t you know that she did not seek out pain and suffering, but understood that in that pain was the company of her God. C.S. Lewis wrote: “Christianity does not take the hardships from life, it simply gives one a reason to endure.” The reason is found in Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “I rejoice in my sufferings, because in my sufferings I fill up what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings for the good of His Church.” Betsey understood with whom she kept company in pain. She understood that in this time we live both Good Friday and Easter, that we “continually bear in our bodies the sufferings of Christ.”
I remember clear as a bell the first time I met Dr. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. It was May 31, 1995 at 2:30 in the afternoon. I had gotten a call that day. The voice spoke in the most perfect, measured English I had ever heard in my life. It was more a lengthy than usual conversation, but charming, requesting an interview about instructions in the Catholic faith. “Sure,” I said, “come by after school.” The resulting scene was never to be forgotten. From the chaos of screams, smells, shouts, and riot of sophomore hall entered a tall, slender lady, who without speaking spoke “elegance” and “poise” by her very presence. After 20 minutes of conversation, I began to remember that the day was the feast of the Visitation, and I felt myself understanding the humility of Saint Elizabeth who seeing her cousin’s arrival said: “how is it that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” I was thinking the same of this encounter. After 20 minutes of conversation I wanted to shout, “doesn’t she understand that I am simply a Diocesan priest, nothing more than a high school teacher, this lady deserves a Jesuit at least!” However, after 20 minutes of conversation and 12 years of friendship what is so clear is that no one, be they a cleaning lady, or a president, a priest or a laborer, was ever made to feel anything but totally adequate, respected and loved by Dr. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Two of her Catholic favorites were Saint Edith Stein and Saint Teresa of Avila. What was clear to me that first day was that the encounter of those two in history was like Betsey’s encounter in thought and spirit. Edith Stein struggling to find meaning and purpose in thought and spirit, spent one entire night reading Teresa’s autobiography. Finishing it at dawn, she closed the book and said, “THIS IS TRUTH.” Betsey’s search for truth had brought her to Christ and Catholicism.
In retrospect it was probably a good thing that Betsey “entered” the outer courts of Catholicism in the smells and shouts of a sophomore hall. Catholicism is not a neat thing. One has to see Christ and truth sometimes hidden behind the weaknesses of the institution. Bishop Dolan tells the story of his grandparents who years ago on a Sunday morning had a confrontation. The grandma was dressed for Mass, the grandpa was not. She looked at him and said: “Aren’t you going to Mass?” “No, I cannot stand the new pastor at Saint Mary’s!” “That’s odd,” she said. “You don’t like the new bartender at O’Malley’s, but you are there every night!” He got dressed and went to Mass. Flannery O’Connor once remarked that Jesus never promised that the Catholic Church would be run in an intelligent and efficient manner, only that it would teach the truth. The great historian Toynbee once put it more bluntly: “I believe that the Catholic Church is divine, and the proof of its divinity I take to be this: that no merely human institution, conducted with such knavish imbecility, would have last a fortnight!” Christ does hide in the Church, in the host, in the sacraments, even in the teaching of truth, taught often by persons not equal to the weight of glory the truth conveys. Betsey, with characteristic humility and insight, commented on the recent scandals of the Bride of Christ: “Should we rise to the challenge, we may yet look back upon this dark night as salutary rather than disastrous, not least because we may learn that any meaningful evangelization must necessarily begin with ourselves.” Betsey loved the Church perhaps in the words of Dorothy Day, who was no stranger to the Church’s weaknesses: “I loved the Church, for Christ made visible.”
What followed next for me was to meet Gene. Gene a fellow New Yorker, a fellow son of the Mediterranean, and, of course, as we all know, the love of Betsey’s life. In 1997 Betsey said the following: “Well, personally, there is no question that my faith takes priority, but family has always been a priority for me…my husband has always been the most important thing in my life, and I am close to my family of origin & I believe in that kind of stability.” Robert George speaks perfectly about the union of Betsey and Gene when he writes: “Betsey’s marriage to Gene was one of the great love stories of our time. There were two very different personalities, perfectly united. He was the head of the family; she was in charge of everything. Their affection for each other created a kind of force field into which friends were drawn in love for both of them.” Gene, there was never a time after our monthly visits, that I did not pray the same prayer: “Dear Lord Jesus, please give me some portion of the unselfish, sensitive, dedicated love I see in Gene and Betsey for one another, give some portion of that kind of love to me for my students, for the Church, for you! Amen.”
I once had a Nun professor in graduate school who was also an OB/Gyn doctor. She taught a perfectly clear class on the church’s teaching on natural family methods. When the class was over, I asked her why did people not understand and accept this way of family planning and living. She looked at me directly and asked if she could be blunt, and I said that I wish she would be…she then said rather loudly: Because men are stupid! There is one way in particular in which we men are stupid. We tend to confuse being tough with being strong. Women can be strong in ways that men can only dream about. To have watched Betsey, especially in the past 5 years, to see the constantly growing restrictions, the cutting back on talks and events she would have loved to have been a part of, the forced resignation from all sorts of activities, the pain, the pain, the constant, relentless pain, and yet to watch her strength and her serenity boggles the mind. Leon Bloy once said, “The holier a woman is, the more feminine she is.” Our holy religion teaches us the measure of holiness is the capacity to love and to suffer. Have we not seen the holiest and more feminine of women in Betsey?
On Cardinal Newman’s grave stone are carved the words: “Out of the shadows and imaginings into the truth” (in Latin). I do not think it is out of place to consider Betsey now moving out of the shadows into the truth. Nor do I think it out of place to imagine her encountering now those who inspired her life and fed her mind and heart with truth. Can you not see her sitting down with that daughter of Israel, whose life lead her to Auschwitz, that woman called 20th century Europe’s greatest mind, Edith Stein? That remarkable woman who said, “early on I discovered it was far more important to be good than brilliant.” How much they have in common, beginning with having lived that discovery. I’d love to see her discussing with Therese of Lisieux, so touched by Betsey’s beautiful French, that “everything truly is and was a grace.” I imagine her spending time with that other remarkable Georgia Catholic genius, Flannery O’Connor, who said, “sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it, miss one of God’s blessings.” Can you imagine them comparing notes on the graces of Lupus and MS for great women of faith! Then that giant of a woman, that hero of Spanish culture and faith, Teresa of Avila, reminding Betsey what she once said about the onslaught of sickness and difficulties: “Thank you, Lord Jesus, for the gift of suffering, but frankly your timing stunk!” Her words reminding us that the Church will consider no one for canonization unless she has a sense of humor. As Chesterton said: “Joy is the one infallible sign of the presence of God.” Finally, can you not imagine her sitting down with that great scholar, her father, as they face truth in the Vision of God, and see things clearly in that light that no darkness can ever approach?
Rebecca mentioned recently that she had seen her father cry only twice, once at the death of a close friend, and then at the funeral of his mother. He said to her that she must understand that he was not crying for them, but for himself. I recall when as a seminarian working in a hospital, a 20-year-old boy died unexpectedly on the operating table. A kindly priest came in to comfort the mother with the hope of the Resurrection. I will never forget her words: “With the Resurrection, I have my faith, but what, Father, do I do with this pain in my heart?” What do we do with the emptiness, the pain, the unspeakable pain we feel, starting with Gene, over this incredible loss? Perhaps Edith Stein, facing the disaster of the Holocaust, gives us a beginning bit of advice: “Do everything you can do to give joy to others, fill up the emptiness of your heart with the love of God and neighbor.” Shall we fail the example of Betsey’s facing her pain with such courage, faith, and hope, by not struggling to do the same ourselves with the help of divine grace? I have always loved the final words of Wilder’s story, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The writer reflects on the tragic death of the five who perished with the collapse of the bridge. He says: “But soon we shall all die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for awhile and forgotten. But that love will have been enough; all those impulses of love will return to the love that made them.”
Dare we not all hope…that through the communion of saints, through the “web of grace,” that the love, the wisdom, and the presence of this woman will not be even more powerful in our lives than before, dare we not hope because of the one she, herself, called: “the way, THE TRUTH, and the life,” that the best is yet to come!
And finally for our beloved Betsey:
May Christ, who was crucified for your sake, free you from excruciating pain. May Christ, who died for you, free you from the death that never ends. May Christ, the Son of the Living God, set you in the ever green loveliness of his paradise, and may he, the true Shepherd, recognize you as one of his own. May he free you from all your sins and assign you a place at his right hand in the company of his elect. May you see your Redeemer face to face and, standing in his presence forever, may you see with joyful eyes TRUTH revealed in all its fullness, and so, having taken your place in the ranks of the Blessed may you enjoy the happiness of divine contemplation forever and ever. Amen.