A couple of weeks ago, I celebrated the funeral liturgy of a parishioner who happened to be a minor league baseball player back in the early 1950’s for a couple of years. His name was Rich Ritzheimer. He was well-respected in the community and known for beginning the local Legion baseball league. He was also principal and coach at the local high school (Wesclin Community High School) for a number of years.
It so happened that the same day Mr. Stan “The Man” Musial’s funeral was taking place in St. Louis at the Cathedral Basilica. The coincidence led Rich’s grandson to suggest that God was fielding a great ball team in heaven, that day. It also led me to remark at the end of the liturgy that both Stan “The Man” and Rich were devout Catholics who took their faith seriously. (See an interview with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, St. Louis native and archbishop of New York City) There was a slight difference though in the celebration of the rites in their respective locations. Mr. Musial was a major league player who had three Bishops to do his funeral. I guess it was poetic symmetry that Rich, the minor leaguer had just three priests at his funeral. The assembly greeted my little attempt at humor with a nice laugh.
I’ve asked the family of Rich for permission to reprint the homily from his homily on the blog which they have graciously granted. Many of those in the assembly that day commented on it and said they’d like to read the homily again, so here it is. By the way, those of you familiar with St. Louis Cardinal baseball and their famous announcer Jack Buck, also deceased, should be able to catch the reference in the last line of the homily.
Book of Wisdom 3:1-9
The comedian George Carlin had a popular routine about the difference between baseball and football. The comparison was quite clever.
Baseball is a pastoral game. Football is violent and full of the imagery of warfare. Football goes into sudden death while baseball has no time limit and theoretically could go on eternally in a tie game. As Mr. Carlin put it, football is about getting to a goal. The whole point of baseball is to go home.
I don’t want to reduce Rich’s life to baseball, for he was so much more than a baseball player and fan. Yet, there’s a similarity between the language of baseball and faith.
We’re here this morning at Rich’s funeral to remember that we humans may strive to achieve personal goals in life, but ultimately we need someone to help us and lead us to our true home where life is no longer a battle with the enemy sickness and death but a limitless time of restful play in the pastoral fields of the Lord so beautifully described in Psalm 23 (which we sung as a response between readings), he leads me to green pastures. (Sounds like a ball field to me)
Every young ballplayer that makes it to the minors probably was a star back home. He’s got pure talent, great potential the locals say. Then reality hits. This game is more difficult than the player thought because the ball is coming faster, the competition is stronger. It’s tempting to give up. The young player thinks why did I even think I could make it to “the show?” Humbled, the young player begins to work on the fundamentals, again, practicing over and over how to field the infield hopper, to turn and get the ball to first in one fluid motion. He practices how to bat in the cage for hours. There has to be a gritty devotion to fundamentals, getting down the basics.
The great St. Peter, first leader of the young church was like that minor leaguer in the Gospel we heard when he and his buddies go fishing after the crucifixion of Christ. The apostles thought they were big stuff, hanging around with this new phenomenal preacher called Jesus. This is going to be easy! This Jesus is getting to be quite the leader. He might even get the Romans out of town!
Then, reality smacks the little band of friends in the face. Jesus is crucified. The disciples run away in fear. Life is difficult and unfair, so we might as well go back home, go back to our jobs and just accept that things won’t be different. Let’s go fishing, at least we can do that well.
The minor league disciples hadn’t learned the fundamentals. They hadn’t gotten what the coach was telling them. To defeat the enemy death, you gotta die. To gain the fullness of life you’ve got to lose your life! Fundamental. Before all else there is the fundamental truth, “he who loves his life in this world, loses it. But he who loses his life gains life eternal!” The cross is Jesus’ fundamental lesson.
Instead of trusting what Jesus said was true, the disciples go back to relying on their own resources. But that only gets a ballplayer and a disciple so far. The player, the disciple has got to trust that there is someone who has a better way that what you’ve been doing all along. Maybe a new hitting stance. Jesus is that way for the disciple.
Having knowledge of the Fundamentals is fine, but then there’s execution. Theory is great but execution is the next step. You’ve got to put into practice, to rehearse the theory over and over again until it becomes second nature, so that when the moment comes you’ll shine, ready for “the show.” Like it says in our first reading from Wisdom,
“ In the time of their visitation they shall shine”
For Jesus, the “execution” was literally execution on the cross. He gave up his life, selflessly sacrificing it to show the truth that death leads to life. Peter and the disciples had to see it to believe it. Jesus shows up on the beach, teaching yet, again, that we’ve got to trust what he says and shows us in action. Don’t rely on your own skills and talents to get you through what life hurls at you. “You can trust me” Jesus says. I’m living proof.
Rich practiced what he was taught. He worked on execution, seeing that it is true when you let go of yourself for the sake of others, their lives and your own life is richer and fuller. The Paschal mystery, the teaching of Jesus played out in Rich’s life so that Rich could face death unafraid. He knew that Jesus was right and gave himself over to the mercy of Jesus.
Rich gave his life as an educator in selfless service to the youth of this area at Wesclin and St. Rose. As a family member said of him, “even as a coach never belittle child for mistake, but always took the child off in private off to side and explained how to do better. He touched a lot of lives and influenced them for good.”
Rich gave his life selflessly as a husband and father, sacrificing much in love, which was returned making life so much richer.
Even in death Rich is living out the way of Christ, letting his body be used to teach future doctors who will make life possible for others.
Rich executed the teaching of the Master. So he was ready, like Peter, to jump into the waters of death, unafraid, tucking in his baptismal garment, so to speak, so that he’ll be properly dressed for the banquet of life. We must let him go before us to that banquet of the Lamb of God with trust that Jesus’ word is true.
So what are we to do now that your dad and brother, our friend is gone. We are invited to eat and drink. We come to this meal, not on a beach, but around the altar of sacrifice and eat the meal that recalls the one who gave us the theory and executed it to perfection.
Here at the Eucharist is where we come to be reminded He is risen. Here we recognize him and cry out “It’s the LORD!” By God’s mercy, Rich is at the heavenly banquet with Jesus our celebration of the Mass gives us a glimpse of, so Rich is here with us at this meal. Knowing that we are strengthened to continue to practice the fundamentals of faith so that when our time comes we’ll be able to let Jesus execute the work of salvation.
Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch, but we might proclaim the Good News of today’s liturgy this way, like a baseball announcer…
It’s the bottom of the ninth, tie game. There’s one man on the bases, a Shortstop named Ritzheimer. Played a good game most of his life career. Just a few sinful errors. The runner takes a lead. Looks like the new man, the designated hitter, Jesus Christ is at the plate. There’s two outs and the evil one throws his special pitch of death, hoping to take out humanity’s team. The batter swings at death. JESUS CHRIST, he hits it out of the park! We won’t be seeing that ball, again. Ritzheimer heads for home and he’s safe! And, here comes Jesus Christ who won the battle of life and death to celebrate the victory with Boomer Ritzheimer.
And that’s a winner for humanity!
©2013, Rev. Joseph C. Rascher