Funeral Mass for Fr. Frank Stempfle
[Acts 10: 34-43; Psalm 23; 1Corinthians 15: 51-57; Luke 24: 13-35]
Not long after I arrived in Edmonton as Archbishop, Fr. Frank invited me out for lunch. Not surprisingly, we ate at the golf course. In the course of our conversation, he chose to tell me of a deal he had made with God. The arrangement, apparently, was that as long as God gave Frank good health so that he could play golf three times a week, he would remain as pastor at St. Patrick’s. It occurred to me to wonder at what point the Bishop would enter into this deal-making, but clearly that had not occurred to Frank. The deal was of long-standing, and our friend was, in effect, inviting me to get with the plan.
In point of fact, I was happy to do so, because I realized in that first meeting I was speaking with a priest, who was not only an avid golfer but also a loving pastor. What most motivated Fr. Frank was his desire to remain with his people. Most of his priestly ministry was spent with the people of St. Patrick parish, and that was just fine with him. Fr. Frank wanted to stay in the midst of his people as their parish priest for as long as he reasonably could. It was soon afterward that I came to realize the people wanted the same thing. Fr. Frank was greatly loved, and his people were not shy in asking that I allow him to remain as their pastor.
St. Luke recounts for us what happened along the Emmaus Road after Jesus rose from the dead. Having heard Jesus open for them the meaning of the Scriptures, the two disciples said to Jesus, “Stay with us.” Their hearts had burned at his words, and so they knew they needed him to remain with them. As he broke bread in their midst, their eyes were opened to recognize Jesus, who had expressed, prior to his death, his own desire and promise to remain with his people. Furthermore, at that moment, they were also led to see the wondrous manner by which he would do so: in the breaking of bread, i.e. the sacrament of the Eucharist.
By means of this Gospel passage, our own eyes are opened to recognize the mystery that lay beneath the desire of both Fr. Frank and his parishioners that he remain with them. More was at play than mutual affection. Frank’s love for his people was that of a pastor, reflective of that of Christ for his sheep. The people saw mirrored in his stable presence among them the Lord’s steadfast fidelity to his promise to be with his people. In Fr. Frank’s celebration of the Eucharist, all recognized the sacramental reality of Christ himself, whose presence renders aflame with hope the hearts of those who receive it in faith.
The reason for that hope is articulated by St. Paul as he speaks of the victory of Christ over death. Since Christ has been victorious over the grave, death has no sting, and his followers need have no fear. As a priest, Fr. Frank was charged with the responsibility to proclaim the Gospel, to announce the victory that is ours in Christ. This he did, certainly, but often in conjunction with the proclamation of his own victory in the latest round of golf. More than a few times his opening words were, “I beat McCaffrey!” He would say this with such obvious delight that someone who did not know Frank might have wondered which of the two victories gave him the greatest joy! But we knew Frank, and for us this was never a question. As a priest and disciple, he lived from the hope that arises from Christ’s victory over death, and gave himself fully to sharing that hope with his people.
Eventually, though, Fr. Frank grew tired. He decided it was time to invite the Bishop into his deal with God, and suggested to me that the moment had arrived to bring things to a close. I agreed – reluctantly. Not long after I had granted him early retirement at the age of 91, I joined him for his final mass at St. Patrick’s. I was struck that day by the number of parishioners who did not live within the bounds of the parish. From this I could see clearly that, while Fr. Frank had been determined to remain as long as he could with his people, they, in turn, were equally resolved to stay with him. In many cases he had witnessed the marriages of people he had baptized, and in countless other ways entered deeply into the joys and sorrows of his parishioners. This fashioned between them a deep and lasting bond, reflected in the mix of sorrow and gratitude that marked the faces of those who gathered for that final mass.
I remember it marked Fr. Frank’s, too. On June 8th of this year, he would have celebrated his 70th anniversary of ordination as a priest of Jesus Christ. That long span of time allowed the love of Fr. Frank for his people to deepen, and he was sad to let go. By the grace of Holy Orders, he had faithfully fulfilled the priestly duty announced by St. Peter, namely, to preach with one’s lips and testify by one’s life that Jesus Christ is judge of the living and the dead. The time had come for him, who had prepared many people to meet the Lord, to leave active ministry and prepare for his own encounter.
By his gentleness of manner, Fr. Frank reminded us all that Jesus is a merciful judge, who wants nothing more than to heal us of our sins that we might live with him forever in heaven. Now, as our beloved priest, relative, and friend comes before the judgement seat of Christ, we pray that he will be infused and transformed by the same divine mercy he announced to others.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.
And let perpetual light shine upon him.
May he rest in peace.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
St. Joseph’s Basilica
May 21st, 2022