By Fran Lavelle
I was in Vicksburg several weeks ago and was asked if I knew what the acronym HWLF stood for. I did not. I was told that it is the response to the question, “WWJD? (What would Jesus do?)” The answer, “He would love first.” In the weeks since that brief graced moment, I have had several reasons to remind myself HWLF.
On Catechetical Sunday the Gospel was the parable of the prodigal son. It is a reading that has the power to speak to us in a myriad of ways depending on where we are in our own spiritual journey. The parable lesson is one I have visited and revisited on several occasions. I don’t know if you are ever at Mass and something is said that strikes you to the core of your being, but that is exactly what happened to me that Sunday. Father Cosgrove was talking about the two sons and he simply said, “The father loved them both. You know what I mean? The father loved both of his sons.” Yes, He Would Love First. Loving first means we welcome home those who have strayed and loving those who can no longer see the belovedness of the other.
All of this got me thinking about two unrelated deaths of men who were likewise loved by God, Father Al Camp and a high school friend of mine, Mickey. Father Al and I had several things in common; of great importance was our Ohio roots. When ever Father Al saw me he would say, “Hey, hey there Buckeye.” To be clear, Buckeyes are the nut bearing state tree of Ohio and Ohioans are known as Buckeyes. While I hold no hostility to the large state school in Columbus, Ohio I am not that kind of a Buckeye. I could always count on a flash of Father Al’s cheeky smile and his easy-going disposition, but I knew that below the smiles and salutations was a deeply faith filled man and true servant of God’s people. Hearing stories about Father Al at his memorial Mass underscored for me the importance of living an intentional life of authentic service. I was also reminded not to sweat the little stuff and to laugh. Father Al had a wicked dry sense of humor and loved to laugh.
Later the next week I found out that a guy I went to high school with had died a few weeks shy of his 54th birthday from an overdose. Mickey was a brilliant man with Kennedy-esque good looks. He was the only child of a well-known, well to do family in town. Mickey went to law school and spent most of his career as a prosecuting attorney. About a year ago, Mickey was indicted for federal tax fraud. He spent the past year in federal prison. On July 1, Mickey got out of prison and was sent to a halfway house. A few days after returning home from his year-long incarceration, Mickey overdosed and died. His long battle with addiction ended Mickey’s life just as his friends were hoping he would have a new beginning. I read the eulogy that one of his closest friends gave at Mickey’s funeral. It was filled with the sadness one expects when a life so full of promise tragically ends.
I found myself reflecting on these two lives, both in how they lived and how they were memorialized. The stark difference in their lives seems so apparent, one an 87-year young servant of God’s people and the other a gifted 53-year-old who struggled with addiction. But they also shared many things in common. Both were smart and handsome. Both were raised Catholic. As with all of us, both men lived with the consequences of their choices. I thought about God’s love for Father Al and Mickey. I felt a profound gratitude in knowing that they were both beloved sons of God. They were loved first.
That understanding is exactly what our broken world is in most need of. To know we are loved. Loved by God. Every single one of us. That is the central message of all catechetical formation. It is easy to fear that our catechetical programs, RCIA sessions, adult faith formation classes are watered down by relativism. It is easy to get too far into our heads and look at rubrics and rules and make black and white determinations about who is and who isn’t worthy of this or that. We want to “give them” the truth, not mince words, tell it like it is, but when we approach formation like an academic endeavor, we can turn out people who know the faith but have not experienced it.
We all have the responsibility to share the love of God and the gift of faith. We cannot approach love the same way we approach learning, although we do learn by loving. Now more than ever it is critical that we inspire others to see the belovedness of one another.
In those moments when we ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” may we respond, “He would love first.” And do likewise.
(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)