[Isaiah 61: 1-3d; Psalm 27; Romans 8: 31b-35, 37-39; John 15: 9-17]
As I begin this homily, allow me before all else to express, on behalf of everyone present here or joining via livestream, heartfelt sympathy to Benny and Annette, to Alice, and to the nieces and nephews and other family members of Fr. Don. You have long loved him, so we know his death is not easy to bear and want to assure you of our prayerful support. I express sympathy, also, to his brother priests. He was a true friend and enthusiastic encourager to many of his brothers as he served the Archdiocese as a priest for more than sixty years. Finally, condolences to the numerous parishioners who loved him as their gentle and caring shepherd, and whom he counted among his friends. Don was a priest who loved his people, and that love has left its mark on the hearts of us all.
Fr. Don, as we know well, was a man of correspondence. He was always writing letters! In fact, I received one before I had ever met the man. Only a few days after I was named Archbishop of Edmonton, a note arrived in the mail from one Father Don Stein, writing from Red Deer. Well, actually it was not a note; lengthy epistle would be a more accurate description. In it he enthusiastically extolled at great length and thorough detail the many wonderful things that awaited me in the Archdiocese – the terrific priests, wonderful people, and proud tradition. I was delighted to read it all, of course, but confess that I was left wondering: who is this Don Stein?
Well, as I was soon to find out, the real measure of this priest lay not in his ample correspondence with people but in his faithful correspondence to the will of God. His life and ministry as a priest corresponded very well to what God had made him through ordination and to what the Church expects of her priests in the exercise of their ministry. I shall trace this briefly now by reference to that divine correspondence we call the Word of God.
Foundational to Don’s life as a priest are certain words of Jesus we find in the passage from St. John’s Gospel. First, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” I think it accurate to say that Fr. Don remained always in awe of the fact that Jesus had chosen and called him to be a priest. From this arose a steadfast determination to have his ministry correspond fully to the purpose for which the Lord had chosen him. That correspondence unfolded in ways that endeared him to everyone, not least of all due to the following words of our Lord. “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” The wondrous fact that Jesus welcomed him into the intimacy of friendship inspired Fr. Don to become and remain a friend to the people entrusted to his priestly care. These were not few in number. I’ve lost count of the participants in the email network established to keep his many friends up to date on their beloved priest, especially in the final weeks of his life.
The large number of people who knew Fr. Don, loved him, and counted him as a friend came as the result of his correspondence to these next words of Jesus: “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” Knowing that he was appointed to go, Fr. Don accepted as the core of his priestly identity the constant readiness to be sent. And sent he was, though not always by the Archbishop! Once he retired, one never knew where Don would end up, always to the delight of the people and often to the surprise of his Ordinary. Whether in the parishes of the Archdiocese, among friends in Australia, or with the good people of Tuktoyaktuk, he so exercised his priestly ministry in correspondence to the Lord’s commission that it did bear the intended fruit in communities of disciples, united in faith and love.
Especially close to Fr. Don’s heart were people struggling with the burdens of life and in need of hope. Here especially did we see his correspondence to the Lord’s purpose in choosing him to be a priest.
At Nazareth, Jesus famously took Isaiah’s ancient prophecy recalled in the first reading and announced its fulfillment in himself. By the grace of priestly ordination, a priest is so configured to Christ that this very same mission of the Lord becomes his own. As one who serves the people in persona Christi, the priest knows himself to be sent with the liberating message of the Gospel to anyone who is oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, or in mourning. When the priest happened to be Don Stein, people in difficulty found themselves comforted with the hope announced by the Gospel and the mercy bestowed in the sacraments, certainly, but there was more. When we hear the excerpt from the correspondence between St. Paul and the Church at Rome, we realize that Fr. Don in his very person translated for people the meaning of the Apostle’s teaching on hope. By his gentle words and ready availability to anyone in need, Fr. Don assured them that God is always on the side of His children, and that there is no reason at all to doubt the love of God or His commitment to us, especially in our moments of greatest trial.
In many ways, Fr. Don Stein was, indeed, a man of correspondence. More than anything else, he wanted his people to know that hope is real and sure because it corresponds to the truth of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Even though we are sinners, Jesus chooses to call us his friends and has laid down his life for us on the Cross. Although we are entirely undeserving, nevertheless God did not withhold from us his own Son, and raised him from the dead that we might live. Of the many thoughts Don shared with us in his manifold correspondence, nothing surpassed in importance his encouragement to draw hope from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, above all hope in eternal life. He both shared this hope and lived from it. Now, as we offer this mass for the repose of his soul, we pray that God embrace Fr. Don in His mercy and bring that hope to fulfillment.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
St. Joseph’s Basilica
March 1st, 2021