Homily for the Requiem Mass for fr. Joseph Nicolas d’Amécourt, O.P.
Angelicum – Rome, October 12, 2020, Thomas Joseph White, O.P.
Let me say a word first about our Christian confrontation with the brutality of death, and second about our dear brother and friend, fr. Joseph d’Amécourt.
When anyone dies, especially a close friend we are confronted with basic questions about the truth. Their bodies are no longer the same. They turn cold and inanimate. We think of the saying of Aristotle, one Joseph would cite: “the cadaver is only equivocally called a man,” but in this case, the cadaver is only equivocally said to be our friend. He was just here, giving us his opinions, promising to see us in September. And now where is his soul, and his person? And more generally and more acutely, as what has happened will pertain to all of us, what can we expect, or even hope for, in the face of death? What does our human situation amount to?
Here Our Lord and the Holy Catholic Church confront us with three basic truths, which we do well in our moments of grief to remember. The first concerns the reality of God the Creator, who has made all things from nothing and who holds all things in being, who is and who was and who will be forever. In death we fall into the hands of God our Creator, who is omnipotent, merciful, and good. He who has made us can sustain us in being forever, and can remake us, in the mystery of the resurrection.
Second, the soul is the seat of the human personality, and is immaterial and incorruptible, characterized by the twin faculties of the intellect and will. In death this core of the person is invited into a spiritual life of grace and glory, by which the soul is purified progressively and beatified eventually.
Third, the body is an essential part of our constitution as persons, to say the least, but our bodily life is not forfeited forever, because the mystery of the resurrection of the dead is real. It has been inaugurated in Jesus Christ and is present mysteriously in our world: mysteriously but really present. It is manifest in an especial way in the Eucharist, the real presence of the body of Christ in glory, by which we can come to experience by moment the reality of his risen presence among us.
Why we are here today then? Of course we are here to commend to God the soul of our dear Brother, Fr. Joseph Nicolas d’Amécourt. Simultaneously, however, we are also here for a deeper and more primal reason, because of the Cross and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In the Mass we enjoy not only the real presence of the resurrected Christ, but also the real presence of the sacrifice of the cross. He who was crucified for us is now rendered present and the living effects—the charity and merit—of his Cross are extended to the Church, so that we may join to Christ crucified our personal grief, our deep mourning, and our prayers for others, including the souls of others who have departed this world. Joseph would want this above all, that we pray for him, in the liturgy of the sacrifice of the Cross. The death of Our Lord is a death that has changed all the others. Now we die into a mystery. And say truly that our life is not ended but changed.
In the liturgy of commendation of a soul to God, the Church signals to God her collective hope in the general resurrection. This world of human life and death is fundamentally good, but it not enough. She asks God to raise the dead, she looks forward to the a dawn of creation already enunciated however secretly in the empty tomb of Jesus. She confesses the truth of the Apostle: “You are a new creation.” In the face of death and its brutality, the Church says the words of Jesus, “Behold I make all things new.” “Every tear shall be wiped from their eyes.” And the union between the now and the then is achieved already by love. In the love of God we touch the then of resurrection and it becomes our possession in hope, a hope the liturgy proclaims with solemn confidence and serene inward joy, even in the midst of this valley of tears.
When I first met Joseph d’Amécourt he was a young priest, about 33 years old. I was investigating religious life at a monastery in France and he was asked to speak to me each day during the week, for about an hour. He was very serious in those days, the young Fr. Joseph. He smiled in those conversations, but less often, quoting Sts. Therese of Lisieux and John of the Cross, not pretentiously, and in fact very helpfully. Joseph went to Church a lot in those days. As time went on he became less observant religiously but a whole lot funnier, humorous. (I don’t know if there is a correlation. Perhaps a study will have to be made!) He had a wonderful wit, sometimes sharp but typically humorous. I was with him in that same religious community when it went through a terrible internal political crisis in the midst of which he was, compared with most others, relatively calm, patient, and careful not to allow strong emotion cloud his judgment. He would interject appropriate and cautious humor into the most difficult moments. It always gave one the sense that truth and love, expressed through humor, could transcend even the worst of crises, or at least show the glimmer of light above the clouds.
Joseph was a classicist by temperament. He naturally preferred Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, to Hume, Kant or Heidegger. Not as a reaction to the bewilderment of the modern world or by desire for authorities or nostalgia for stability. His instincts were traditional in a reasonable way. He understood that both we and the ancients all share the same human nature and condition, and so we can have an unpretentious confidence in the acquired wisdom of the past. At the same time, when he sought to show the insights of Aristotle or Aquinas, Joseph also promoted common sense, “to keep it real,” as it were, and he tried to show the enigmas, or as he said the aporias present in the works of great thinkers. He was truly a philosopher priest, a rare and distinguished vocation, of one who has found the truth in Christ by grace, but who also seeks the truth of all things in themselves, by reason and natural desire, animated by the confidence of a Christian, but who uses that confidence to disable shallow thinking so as to allow for greater questioning.
Most of us who were particularly close to Joseph knew him as a pedagogue, and older friend who encouraged us in our studies. (When I was in my third year of doctoral dissertation writing and was confronting a possible thesis crisis, Joseph sat down with me at a table in the monastery and drew out a prospective new line of attack, which later became the outline for the revision.) He was a person who could read anxieties, and usually sought to defuse them, by inviting students to accept reality, take a deep breath, and proceed at a gradual pace. “We hike up the mountain in the spiritual life,” he once said, “we don’t rock climb vertically.” And in life more generally, he was often sensitive to the pain or suffering of others, acknowledging it with a presence of thoughtful hope that was realistic, that did not promise too much but that also discretely trusted in providence.
As many of us know, our friend spent his life writing or compiling parts of one book, which is on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, filled with the “aporias” he so treasured, in which it is argued, apparently, that there is no unified and intelligible explanation of the gifts in the western medieval tradition. I never had the heart to tell Joseph or anyone else around him this, but I’ve always found the interpretation of John of St. Thomas regarding the gifts of the Holy Spirit to be perfectly compelling textually and as well as spiritually beneficial. And it seems to me that Joseph had two of these gifts in particular, that of “knowledge” and that “counsel.” Knowledge because he could very clearly in most cases distinguish the primary from the secondary: the service of God versus the service of the world based on worldly fears or desires. Even in his times of greatest suffering or limitation, he had a sense of the absolute primacy of God. And he gave good advice based on this disposition, throughout the course of his life. Scientia et prudentia were present in a stable way.
There is each of us an tremendously noble human being, desirous of what is absolute: longing for the truth that liberates, and of union with God and one simultaneously weighed down with the weaknesses of our fallen condition and the trials of this world. The grace of God leans into that person and elevates gently from within so that we are moved by inward desire to go to God unhindered. That desire sustained and revived Joseph constantly, even in his harder moments in life, as a Dominican priest, as a preacher of the truth, as a seeker of the truth, and as a humble confessor of the faith.
He died on the feast of our Lady of the Rosary, or as it was called in the past, Our Lady of Victory, a significant feast day of the Order of Preachers. Joseph told me once that his vocational calling began when he was a teenager in France during the summer vacations, when they stayed at his Grandparents’ house in the country side. After dinner each night he, his siblings and cousins, parents and grandparents, would recount the rosary together, kneeling on the wooden floors of the house. In that solemn moment of prayerful stillness, the world was made subject to the Virgin Mary. “Pray for us now and at the hour of our deaths.” We have reason to believe that the blessed Mother was faithful to that request, and remained present to Joseph in the hour of his need.
Dear friend, that chariot of Plato that you so admired, animated by the twin powers of knowledge and love, take it now to God, to be consoled by light, healed and strengthened by fire.
With your impressive compatriot Therese of Lisieux, who you admired, take that pathway of hope into the life of God.
With our older brother St. Thomas Aquinas, stand forever in the sight of that incomprehensible kingdom.
And with our Lady of Victories, remember us and eventually pray for us in turn, so that we may follow in your stead, in our pilgrimage unto God.
So now we say to you dear friend:
Go forth Christian soul from this world
In the name of God the almighty Father who created you
In the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who suffered for you,
In the name of the Holy Spirit who was poured out upon you
Go forth, faithful Christian
May you live in peace this day,
May your home be with God,
With Mary the Virgin Mother of God,
With St. Joseph, and all the angels and saints.