Funeral Homily for Fr. Arthur Lenti, SDB

(Reproduced for InTouch Newsletter with permission from the author)

Fr. John Itzaina (right) proclaims the Gospel and preaches at Fr. Arthur Lenti’s funeral /
Photo Credit: Bro. Khoa Pham, SDB

By Fr. John Itzaina, SDB

Preaching in the presence of Fr. Arthur, however kind and endearing he was, gracious and understanding at all times, was not a pleasant experience. He believed the homily to be a time to open up the Word of God to its meaning and its connection to the Eucharistic celebration. For Father Arthur it was not a time for sidebars or even practical applications or personal reflection as most of us preachers do repeatedly. Although he would keep his evaluation of other preachers to himself, he still was quite intimidating. I considered it a triumph if he admitted that I was at least attempting to focus on the meaning of the text. It rarely happened, however.

Father Arthur passionately believed that preaching a scriptural text without context is pretext, that is, obscures its divine inspiration. So, let me give you the context for the first reading from Lamentations. The book of Lamentations was used as part of the liturgy of a Jewish Festival called the Ninth of Ev. Sounds like something from the Game of Thrones. The Ninth of Ev commemorates all the negative things that happened to Jews, God’s Chosen People: the destruction of the Temples of Solomon and Herod the Great, and more contemporary disasters like the expulsions of the Jews from England (1290), from Spain (1492), and the Holocaust ordered by Himmler in Nazi Germany in 1942. But in the passage of Lamentations even with its heartache, depression, poverty, wormwood and gall are found distinct reasons for hope even in the midst of persecution and disaster, because the favors of the Lord are not exhausted, nor are God’s mercies limited, for God is good and faithful. With the Jewish people we celebrate the life of Father Arthur whose soul, like this passage from Lamentations, sought the Lord, who waited to meet the Lord whose Word he studied, pondered, and lived throughout his life of ministry, of consecrated life, of study of Holy Scripture and the history and spirit of Don Bosco.

Father Arthur had his own Ninth of Ev in 1983. He began his study of Don Bosco in the two years he attended the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome. The house in Berkeley had been closed for lack of specific Salesian formation; so, Fr. Arthur and I, along with Fr. Tom Juarez, had been sent to the Salesian University in order to return to the Graduate Theology Union (Berkeley) to teach and form our students of Theology in all things Salesian. Fr. Arthur immersed himself in the Don Bosco library of Fr. Peter Stella in preparation for his return to Don Bosco Hall (Berkeley). Towards the end of our preparation, he and Fr. Carmine Vairo, provincial at the time, met with the Rector Major, Father Angelo Viganò, to petition the re-opening of the theologate in Berkeley. Sad to say, the Rector Major denied the re-opening of the house in Berkeley. We felt that we had been betrayed; that the very reason qualification and degrees had been attained was the condition and requirement for reopening, but it was all for naught. It was for Fr. Arthur his Ninth of Ev, his lamentation of promises not kept and a waste of two years of intense preparation in Salesian Spirituality. But it was a waste of time, by no means. Almost immediately, at the insistence of Fr. Thomas Prendiville, Fr. Arthur and the provincial began to think of opening Don Bosco Hall in Berkeley as an Institute of Salesian Studies (ISS). The ISS opened in late summer of 1984. I remind you of today’s words from Lamentation: “The favors of the Lord are not exhausted; his mercies are not spent…and good is the Lord to one who waits for him…in hope.”  Arthur’s Ninth of Ev morphed very quickly into almost 35 years of teaching the history and spirit of St. John Bosco and his monumental seven-volume Don Bosco: History and Spirit. And in just four years Don Bosco Hall again saw Salesian students of Theology!

If a critical reading of Lamentations gives us insight into Fr. Arthur as a man of hope, the second reading gives us a reminder of how to live life in the shadow of the death of Fr. Arthur and our own inevitable deaths. St. Paul writes in Romans that we experience the death of Jesus in and through our Christian baptism. Jesus’ death was his baptism; our baptism is dying and rising with Christ in the Sacrament of our Baptism. By our Baptism we walk in the newness of life, not in waiting for a future final resurrection from the dead, but right here, right now through our participation in Jesus’ death on the Cross and his Resurrection. This we are remined of in the death, funeral, and burial of Fr. Arthur, but also in every Eucharistic celebration: that Jesus is raised from the dead, dies no more, and that death no longer has power over him.

For me, the Gospel of the two disciples on their way to Emmaus is just another way of experiencing our own Ninth of Ev, fortifying ourselves in the celebration of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and beginning to understand and celebrate Jesus dying and rising.

The two disciples escaping from events of Jesus’ death on the Cross are joined on the way by Jesus. We experience the deep emotional turmoil, their own Ninth of Ev, of the two disciples at the death of Jesus, plus their confusion of reports of Jesus alive and the empty tomb. Knowing the difficulty of coherently putting all these events together, Jesus explains everything with the use of Moses and the prophets, explaining how their (Moses’ and the Prophets’) rejection and acceptance shed light on his own death and resurrection. When Jesus is at table with the two travelers and takes bread, blesses, breaks, and gives it to them, Scripture and Liturgy come together, and they recognized the Risen Lord in the breaking of Bread.

In the interest of full disclosure, Fr. Arthur taught me Old Testament when I was a student of Theology in 1970-71 at the Josephinum near Columbus, Ohio. I cannot say that I was a particularly good student, and I did once characterize his teaching as going out in a vast field of Hebrew Scripture and digging a hole 12-feet deep. I lived with him for nine years and never discussed this with him; but he did tend to dig deep for just a fleck of gold. I now admit that I was too intellectually immature and a biblical coward to look into the Biblical 12-foot-deep hole full of fascinating and helpful biblical gold nuggets. Whether it was Old Testament or New Testament, his digging deep always clarified the text, gave the needed context, and helped us all to enter the core divine truth of God’s Word.

Another illustration: 1 Kings 19 where Elijah is fleeing Israel and the wrath of Jezebel and goes to Mount Horeb (Sinai in another tradition) experiencing the wind, earthquake and fire and a tiny whispering sound. I asked Arthur why “windstorm” and “earthquake” and “fire.”  I had a little time for a 12-foot-hole answer. He explained in great detail that the Hebrew words of storm, earthquake and fire are similar and sounds building up to a Hebrew word that approximates the sound of God like a whisper, vibration, and a mysterious movement…or something like a “silent sound.”

The post-resurrection narrative of the two disciples on their way to Emmaus mirrors not only in Fr. Arthur’s life of scholarship and teaching Scripture and Salesian history and spirit, but also in the God’s revelation of friendship and communion in the sharing of a meal. Fr. Arthur shared his friendship with many of you here by his wizardry of cooking. Whereas he shared his vast knowledge as a renaissance man with some of us; he shared his love of cooking with most of us, his beef Wellington, or his deboned duck, or his Christmas English pudding laced with brandy and marinaded for months! Or his stuffed mushrooms and elegant hors d’oeuvres that took hours and hours of preparation. Dining on his culinary creations was an experience of dying and rising and going to heaven; except for those of us who had to wash the pots and pans and the dirty dishes or debone the ducks or watch him plough through mountains of vegetables for the elusive perfect shape and texture. He was accomplished in a wide variety of things: in ancient languages, as a poet, songwriter, artist, chef, opera singer that he learned from his parents, researcher, professor, liturgist, much of any and everything except for being a meteorologist. I hold him in high regard in all things but for predicting the local weather.

I know I have rambled and strayed far from Fr. Arthur’s homiletic rules of limiting the homily to its strict textual meaning; but we all have our personal stories of Fr. Arthur, and we ought to share them today in his memory. “We have loved him in life; let us not forget him in death.”