Wednesday, November 5, 2008

RIP Rev. James Riehle, C.S.C.


Fr. James Reihle, C.S.C., former Assistant Dean of Students, executive director of the Monogram Club, and, perhaps most famously, Chaplain of the Notre Dame Football team (you may remember him leading players in the Hail Mary before the Notre Dame football game in Rudy) passed away last Wednesday. An obituary may be found here.

On Monday, administrators, coaches, alumni, and former Notre Dame Football players and their families gathered at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart for Fr. Jim's funeral.

I happened to be walking by the Basilica during the Funeral Service and, having not yet attended Mass, decided that this just might be something worth witnessing.

Wow. Aside from being dwarfed in both height and stature for one of the first times in recent memory, I could not help being taken aback by the solemnity of it all. The incense billowing upwards as dozens of Holy Cross priests stood behind the altar singing the Doxology was stirring, as was standing beside the simple covering of the casket- emblazoned with the Spes Unica seal of the Congregation and topped by a small wooden crucifix- to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion.

But by far the most awesome moment of the entire Mass came right after the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Out of silence, the chorus and the congregation began to sing in harmonic accord our alma mater:

Notre Dame, our Mother
Tender, strong and true
Proudly in the heavens,
Gleams thy gold and blue.
Glory's mantle cloaks thee
Golden is thy fame,
And our hearts forever,
Praise thee, Notre Dame.
And our hearts forever,
Love thee, Notre Dame.



In the singing of the Alma Mater, I discovered something about Notre Dame for the first time. Hearing those beautiful words at a funeral for one of Our Lady’s Own, I am now convinced that the aspiration of Notre Dame is not athletic, or academic, or social growth, or even the liturgical life, though it is certainly serves all of these needs.

The University of Notre Dame exists for Our Lady. She exists because of Our Lady. And all of our aspirations, endeavors, and pursuits are only truly meritorious in so much as they seek to give glory, praise, and honor to Our Lady.

"Praise thee, Notre Dame...Love thee, Notre Dame." That is what Notre Dame is all about. That is what She should stand for; that is what She must stand for; that is all She can stand for.

She is truly Our Life, Our Sweetness, and Our Hope.

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After the funeral, the congregants were lead in processing from the Basilica to the Holy Cross Cemetery at the Northwest corner of campus. The walk in the autumn late afternoon was breathtaking, and the Final Commendation was truly beautiful (watching Fr. Hesburgh mouth a silent blessing after many had left being one of the many wonderful occurrences).

The most amazing event witnessed, however, was from none other than a Notre Dame fan:

Skip Plunkett, in his mid-sixties, is a life-long fan of Our Lady's University and, in particular, the Fighting Irish. He has rooted for the team through thick and thin and, of course, would not dare to miss the funeral of one of Her most beloved.

You would not necessarily know that Skip is a fan, though, because Skip can barely talk. Suffering from a severe case of Cerebral Palsy (among other ailments), Skip is confined to a motorized wheelchair, and has difficulty controlling the movements of his body. He weighs about 80 pounds, barring him from any real shot at making the team, though I don’t doubt he’d give it a try.

As individuals were leaving the burial, Skip drove his wheelchair about three feet short of the side of Fr. Jim’s casket to say good-bye. But Skip, being Skip, would never dare to give anything less than an extraordinary farewell.

Somehow (I still can’t figure this out), Skip managed to stand himself up at the edge of his wheelchair and, in a rather graceless arc, catapult himself against the side of Fr. Jim’s casket. There, he folded his hands together and offered a silent, shaky prayer for the repose of the soul of Fr. Jim. (By this point, a former football player had rushed to his side and was helping him stand.)

But before being helped back into his wheelchair, Skip leaned his head against the side of the sealed casket, and offered one last kiss good-bye.

If you have ever seen grown- really big- men cry….

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This funeral Mass was truly a beautiful event for all who attended.

And, for Fr. Jim, a true Notre Dame fan, the words of Antiphon from his Mass:

In paradisium, deducant te Angeli…