Shelly Lynn Nowak
24 December 1965 – 25 November 2020
Today is perhaps the most difficult day of my life and the most difficult day of my priestly ministry. I was able to see my mother in the hospital on Sunday of last week (the security guard actually let me in this time). When I began to anoint her, I could hardly finish the Sign of the Cross before I started crying. So here’s to hoping that I can get through a little bit more today. We trust that in all of this, even if we don’t understand, God’s got a plan, somehow, someway, He’s got a plan, and it’s better than ours.
I knew this day would come eventually, I just didn’t think it would be so soon. I didn’t think that the cloth, the maniturgium that I wiped my hands with after they were anointed with oil at my ordination would areadly be in use.
That cloth is placed in the hands of the mother of the priest when she dies. When she arrives at the gates of heaven she is escorted directly to our Lord. Our Lord says to the woman – “I have given you life, what have you given to me?’” She hands him the maniturgium and responds, “I have given you my son as a priest.” At this Jesus grants her entry into paradise.
I just didn’t think it would be now. I didn’t think that I’d be wearing the vestment that my parents got me as a gift for my ordination for this Mass. I didn’t think…. But it’s not about me…
Frankly, it’s not even about my mother. It’s about Him! The reason we mourn today is because my mother was a gift from God. Everything that she did and everything she was, was a gift from the Lord. Our first reading from the Book of Proverbs speaks about a worthy wife. Indeed my mother was. She was many things… loving and kind and generous, like God. And when Jesus said, be the salt of the earth, she took that pretty seriously too…
She was so convicted of the reality of God and the necessity of the Catholic Church that she converted as an adult. Although the expressions and the practice of her faith waxed and waned at times, she was a firm believer. I’ll never forget the times I taught Catechism with her when I was in high school and college. And in the last several years, I think she grew deeper in her faith. In the last several months, although she may not have understood what God was doing, she still prayed. She was saddened she couldn’t go to Mass regularly but enjoyed watching Mass for shut-ins and she’d get upset when I didn’t tell her I was the one celebrating the Mass that Sunday. Again that First Reading says, “give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates.” Those “city gates” are the gates of heaven and I truly believe that my mother is now enjoying the reward of her labors. Now I don’t want to canonize her, but my friend, Sr. Jonathan, a Missionary of Charity, did say that she was a Saint now… so…. we all know that the Sisters can never be wrong.
For those who knew my mom, you know that she did not have the easiest life. She had muscular dystrophy and a whole host of other health issues and since November/December of 2019 had been fighting cancer. In the end, her body just couldn’t take it anymore. My dad remarked the other day, “The body is just a vessel for a short journey.”
Our second reading from St. Paul to the Corinthians reminds us that, “although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” This was my mother, but this is also what God was doing. Renewing her day by day. Although she suffered much, she very rarely complained. Instead I remember her just simply saying, “I’m struggling today, pray for me” or “say some extra prayers for me.” Truly, as St. Paul said, “what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal.” She recognized the power of prayer and the effects that prayer have.
And that is why we are gathered in this Church today. To pray. To pray for the repose of the soul of my mother, to pray that she is a saint, like the sisters said, and to pray for ourselves, that we might receive comfort and consolation from the Lord.
We gather today in the hope of the resurrection, in hope of eternal life with Christ, focusing on the eternal, as St. Paul said. That is the spiritual truth of today, but the physical reality of things feels quite differently for us. We may be tempted in these times to run far away from Jesus. We ask “why, God?” Why did my mom have to be sick and suffer so much? Why did she have to leave us so young? Why this pain, this grief? Why did God let this happen? I want you to know that it’s not wrong to ask why. (And I’m saying this to myself as well.) Look at the Gospels, even Jesus Himself, on the cross, suffering and in pain and about to die, asked, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
Jesus asked why, and He is perfect, so it’s okay for us ask why as well. But the problem is that many times we can’t find the answer to that question. Perhaps a better question is: “What now?” What should we do now? Let me urge all of us to stand on two eternal truths.
1) Stand on the truth that God is good. Scripture tells us, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father” (James 1:17). So, when you think of the good times and the good things about Shelly, know that these came from God. Every bit of the good in our lives is ultimately a gift from God.
God is good and yet my mom spent part of her life sick, illnesses that caused her to miss out on many things, that limited her in even the basic tasks of life. She hated only being able to shop from the couch and not in person. But be assured that God did not cause this. Illness, sickness, and disease are a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve, the sin of our first parents. Even death is a result of the Fall, for God has always desired us to live with Him forever.
Jesus Christ became man, took on flesh and came to heal the brokenhearted and set the captives free. One day God will wipe away all sickness, evil and pain. Then all who have trusted in the Lord Jesus will live together in total perfection, with no more sickness, no more pain, no sorrow, no sin, no shame, living forever in Heaven with Jesus Christ. Until that day, life can be extremely hard, but we must stand on the truth that God is good.
2) And stand on the truth that God loves you. Blessed Solanus Casey said, “have confidence in our dear Lord’s infinite love.” Perhaps the most popular verse in the Bible, John 3:16, reminds us, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
When something terrible happens, when our loved ones die, it’s easy to think that God doesn’t love us. But He does love us. God the Father has shown it in many ways. But the greatest way was when He sent His Son Jesus to die in the cross for our sins. Jesus became part of our human family, we recall this now especially that we are in Advent. And He created us to be in relationship with Him. As close as my Mom was with her family, her sweet little grandchildren, so happy to be surrounded by them, God wants us to be even closer with Him.
Nothing is more important than that, because we must get ready to leave this world. My mother went so much sooner than anyone would have desired. This reminds us how fragile life really is. We sometimes take it for granted, but every day is a gift from God.
That is why, despite the sadness and the sorrow, we can say like Fr. Solanus Casey, “Blessed be God in all His designs” – even if we don’t understand those designs. Whenever I asked someone to pray for my mom, I asked them to pray for healing through the intercession of Bl. Solanus. After I anointed her and gave her the Apostolic Pardon on last Sunday I went directly to Bl. Solanus’ tomb and prayed for healing. My mother passed away on the birthday of Blessed Solanus. That’s no coincidence. The healing I, that we, prayed for was granted, just not in the way we thought, she was provided eternal healing.
My mom wanted so badly to see the birth of her fourth grandchild. Harper was born just 24 hours after my mother passed away. I have no doubt that she saw her, just not as we imagine.
Our vision is so limited; we struggle to look with the eyes of eternity. Today, let us focus on eternity. In sorrow and sadness, in pain and anger, let us not forget that there is more than this life. Let us remember that this earthly life is temporary and that all of us have been created to live in eternity with God. Let us remember that, even if we don’t understand, God’s got a plan – a great plan, because He is worthy of our trust, He is faithful, He is good, He is loving.
Eternal rest grant unto her O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon her. May her soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.