Just stumbled on this: my homily for All Souls Day, 2008:
His name was John Robert McGraham.
Most of his life was unremarkable. He grew up the second youngest of six children in Cypress Park, in Los Angeles. As a little boy, he loved comic books and he’d sometimes run through the house with a towel tied around his neck pretending to be Superman.
When he was in his early 20s, he got a job working at the Biltmore Hotel in LA, and then later was hired as a bellhop at the Ambassador Hotel. But McGraham ended up in a romance that didn’t work out. After he broke up with his girlfriend, he became depressed, and began missing work. His depression grew worse, and John Robert McGraham began disappearing for days at a time, often spending nights on the street.
For a while he lived with his mother, but then returned to the streets, this time for good.
His family tried to help him. His sister Susanne said recently, “He just seemed beyond our reach.”
Last month, on a warm early autumn evening, John was minding his small corner of Third and Berendo Streets in LA when someone came along, doused him with gasoline, and lit a match. His ragged clothes went up in seconds. And John Robert McGraham became another tragic statistic. He was 55 years old.
A couple nights later, thousands gathered not far from where he died for an impromptu service to remember him, to grieve for him, to pray for him and let the world know that John Robert McGraham mattered. Many never knew his name. Most didn’t know his story. But he was a familiar fixture in the neighborhood. They could not let his passing go unnoticed. This man mattered.
John Robert McGraham may have been homeless. But he wasn’t without a home. You are never without a home when you have people praying for you. Those prayers become your roof, your floor, your walls, your shelter.
And that is in essence what we are doing today, the commemoration of All Souls, as we pray for the souls in purgatory. This day reminds us that every soul, like John Robert McGraham’s, matters. And it is a reminder that we have another dwelling place – a heavenly home.
The beautiful words of the gospel tell us how precious we are in the eyes of God. “This is the will of the one who sent me,” Jesus says, “that I should not lose anything of what he gave me.” He cherishes and seeks out every soul. Christ wants to bring all of us home.
This time of year, our thoughts turn more and more to the place we call home. Holidays are coming up. There are gatherings around the family table. Home is our destination again and again. We’re drawn to the bright light that offers us comfort and warmth, especially during this cold part of the year.
But home, as I indicated, is not just brick and mortar. It is also people. It is the arms that hold you. The shoulders you lean on. The people who share your joys and your tears — the ones who pray with you and for you, even after you are gone.
We are all a part of that – a community, a communion. Yesterday, we celebrated the communion of saints. Today, we honor a communion of souls.
Many are closer than we realize. Just think about it. They are in the stories we tell, and the jokes we share. They are in the recipes we’ve saved, advice we’ve remembered, shortcuts we’ve taken, ornaments we’ve wrapped in tissue and saved to hang on the tree.
The people we pray for today are in a thousand small details that together make up the world we know. They are memory. They are life.
They are my mother and father. They are our neighbors and friends. They are parishioners we all knew and loved.
They are men like Deacon Jim Hynes, who was ordained with me and died earlier this year, much too soon and much too young.
They are women like Sister Emmanuelle, known as France’s Mother Teresa, who helped countless people who were poor and suffering, and who died last month at the age of 99.
They are people like Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare movement, who died last spring. She once said, “We should live in such a way that in our last hours we will not regret having loved too little.”
They are people like John Robert McGraham.
These are among the souls we remember and pray for this day – our communion of souls. They are worth remembering, and cherishing, and celebrating.
The Church refers to them as “the departed,” as if they were on a train that has left the station. Maybe that says it best. They have finished their earthly journey, and reached another destination.
We hope that they made it safely.
And we pray that one day we will join them, in that place of warmth and light, that place we all call home