Priestly love manifests itself in San Francisco

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Priestly love manifests itself in San Francisco

By Fr. Rif’at Bader-San Francisco

Over a period of two weeks, the United States of America marked the largest gathering of Latin Patriarchate priests who arrived to attend the ordination of Fr. Bernard Poggi, the first ever ordination of the Latin Patriarchate in the United States.

The ceremony was presided over by Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal who spent nearly two weeks in the US taking part in important religious ceremonies with the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher in California, Houston and Washington where he met with US officials in the White House.

The atmosphere of friendship and priestly love was prevalent in the meetings of the priests as well as their field and tourism visits which took place on the sidelines of the ordination. Tears were expressive, for Fr. Labib Copti who was very enthusiastic to have his spiritual "son" Bernard ordained. He was expeditiously admitted to hospital and underwent a delicate operation which made him unable to attend the ordination. A day prior to the ordination, he told Bernard in a parental spirit: "I present my pain for your sake.”

Upon visiting him, he told us about a moving experience of one of his parishioners, a young Filipina woman who was suffering from cancer. She was staying in the same hospital. With the death pangs engulfing her, she screamed “I want to see Fr. Labib, I want him to pray for me.” Learning about that, Fr. Labib insisted on giving her the sacraments despite the fact that medical devices were still seen on his body. She passed away holding the hands of the priest who reminds me of a book by Jesuit Henry Nowen titled,” The Wounded Healer”, which talks about the wounded doctor who ignores his wounds to treat those he loves.

Going back to St. Thomas More Catholic Church where by the time Fr. Bernard celebrated his first Mass in an Arab and priestly atmosphere in the presence of Patriarch Twal and several priests, another priest was suffering from illness. He was Fr. Sami Totah, the first priest of the Latin Patriarchate in the United States who served the Yonkers, NY, parishioners for 37 years. He fell ill which made him return to San Francisco where his two brothers and sister live. His heath condition deteriorated after the ordination ceremony which made the available priests cancel their schedule in other US cities and stay at the bedside of both Fr. Labib and Fr. Sami.

Prayers and hymns where held at the hospital and the monastery. Masses were celebrated at the bedside of Fr. Sami who kept smiling until the last moments of his life. He concelebrated the Masses with a feeble body but a vigilant spirit getting ready to enter the Kingdom of God. He blessed his brotherly priests, prayed with them, and left this world with dignity and holiness. The last words he uttered: “I love you.”

Then Bishop Boulos Marcuzzo presided over the evening prayers, the requiem and the burial at the Holy Cross Cemetery. With the impressive priestly presence, Bishop Boulos placed with the body of Fr. Sami--who was born in Ramallah 67 years ago--an olive branch, a rosy rosary from the olive trees of the Holy Land, fragrant roses from Nazareth and a photo of the wall of separation with the face of Mary, Our Lady of the wall, carved on it as a sign requesting the prayers of the priest awaiting the gift of peace from the Kingdom of God.

What a beautiful priestly and brotherly love, and spiritual unity... it was manifested in America amid the joy of the ordination and the ache of separation. However, the last words and smile of Fr. Sami dispel the fear of death, and confirm what Solomon’s Song of Songs say: “Love is as strong as death” or rather love is stronger than death, that is why Bishop Boulos said in the funeral homily: Fr. Sami had faith that is why he is experiencing what he had sought, he conveyed love and will continue to love in eternity.

I told Fr. Copti what I had heard Bishop Salim Sayegh say as well as what I saw revealing on the face of Fr. Sami hours before he passed away: “A priest who fears death is not worthy his priesthood.” Fr. Labib reacted saying: “A priest who fears pain and rejects it is not a priest’.

O San Francisco, a city of secrets… a city of turbulent shores…you have become the city of holiness… the city of sacraments and priestly love.

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