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Funeral of Father John Michael Payne, OCD

Published: January 16, 2017

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor preached the following homily during the Mass of Christian burial for Father John Michael Payne, OCD, superior, at Marylake Monastery in Little Rock on Monday, Jan. 16, 2017.


Bishop Taylor

My life has been intertwined with that of Father John Michael for over 35 years. When I was a newly ordained priest assigned to Sacred Heart Parish in Oklahoma City, he was assigned to the neighboring Little Flower Parish, just across the river.

He was in my priest support group the entire time he was in Oklahoma. We met monthly to discuss what was going on in our lives spiritually, ministerially, intellectually and physically, and I quickly learned that he was a person of real spiritual depth.

So more recently, after I came to Little Rock as bishop and after he was assigned once more to Marylake, I asked him to be my spiritual director and confessor, and we have met monthly ever since. Over the years we have talked about many things — not just my sins, which thankfully he is taking to the grave!

He was human and sincere and that is what made him so dear to me ... and to you. It was also a reflection of his closeness to God. And so it is with faith and confidence that we entrust him to the Lord whose love is everlasting and who has given us the gift of eternal life.

But also his love for the Wrape family, how much he enjoyed playing bridge on Tuesdays at Holy Souls and interesting details about the history of the Carmelite Order in Arkansas and Oklahoma, even bizarre things —like Governor Marland, the previous owner of the Mansion the Carmelites once owned in my home town, Ponca City, Oklahoma, who was just as scandalous as Dr. Brinkley, the previous owner of Marylake.

I was going to tell you his story and that of the Carmelites while they were in Ponca City, but decided that like the story of Dr. Brinkley, it would be insufficiently edifying for a funeral homily.

But if you twist my arm, I'll tell you at lunch. The Carmelites have a history of moving into places of ill repute. But anyway, back to Father John Michael. I was scheduled to meet with him for spiritual direction again at 8:30 the morning of Monday, Jan. 9.

So, like all of you, I was shocked to learn of his sudden death the day before. I felt the loss of a good friend and spiritual guide immediately, as did many of you. Now I have to find another spiritual director.

Father John Michael understood the human condition. That is why he was such a good spiritual director for me and so many others. It is also why the Gospel reading chosen for this funeral is so appropriate.

It is taken from the Bread of Life Discourse in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus emphasizes in unmistakable terms not only that the Eucharist is his real body and blood, soul and divinity, but also — and this is the reason for using this reading at a funeral — that by receiving the Eucharist we gain eternal life!

"If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world." It is obvious that the Eucharist unites us to Jesus who through his incarnation shares fully in the human condition, but how is it that we gain eternal life by receiving the Eucharist? The answer is twofold.

First of all, Jews understood blood to be alive. That's why Jews were forbidden to eat blood — they had to butcher animals in just a certain way and then immediately drain all the blood out of the meat because the blood was the life of the animal because all life belongs to God.

Abel was a mere mortal, but remember his blood cried out from the ground long after his body was dead because life was in the blood. Well unlike Abel, Jesus is not a mere mortal, he — and his blood — is divine as well as human, and so since as God he is immortal, Jesus could die in his humanity but not in his divinity.

In the Eucharist we take that divine blood into ourselves, that life that cannot die, such that while — like Jesus — we too will die in our humanity, we remain immortal and so will be raised from the dead by virtue of Jesus' divine life received in the Eucharist already flowing in our veins.

"He who drinks my blood has life eternal and I will raise him up on the last day." Father John Michael believed this firmly. He not only took this immortal blood into himself practically every day even before entering Carmel, he also ministered it to you and me for over 45 years as a priest.

The same applies to the Bread of Life that is Jesus' body. This bread comes from heaven like the manna did on the journey from Egypt to an earthly Promised Land, except that Jesus feeds us with the Eucharist — this new manna, so to speak — on our journey to a far greater heavenly Promised Land.

"This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and died nonetheless, the man who feeds on this bread will live forever." This is our great hope and consolation!

So today we are gathered to commend Father John Michael to the Lord. When I was preparing remarks for his 50th anniversary of religious profession, I noted that his interests in this life were far reaching: photography, history and art to name a few.

As Father Sam Anthony mentioned last night, he was at heart an artist more than anything else, and like any artist he was a keen and insightful observer of life. He quickly noticed especially humorous, charming and ironic human foibles — including his own — that I, being much more practical and far less observant would never have picked up on unless he had pointed it out.

But there is one thing I did pick up on. On blogger he listed his favorite books as the "Confessions of St. Augustine" and St. Therese's "Story of a Soul:" Very edifying for a Carmelite; Rome would approve.

But then he ruined it by listing his favorite movies: "The Graduate," "The Shining," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane." I guess he liked these for their artistic value and photographic qualities? In other words, his spirituality was incarnational and he had a sense of humor, and I'm sure his brother Carmelites have plenty of stories they can add.

He was human and sincere and that is what made him so dear to me ... and to you. It was also a reflection of his closeness to God. And so it is with faith and confidence that we entrust him to the Lord whose love is everlasting and who has given us the gift of eternal life.

As we heard St. Paul proclaim in our second reading: "For I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor powers, neither height nor depth nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord."

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