Cardinal Roger Mahony
Archbishop Emeritus of Los Angeles
St. Anthony of Padua Church
It is my privilege this morning to offer the homily during the Funeral Mass for Monsignor E. James Petersen, priest, pastor, and friend to all gathered here. We have just heard notable proclamations from the Scriptures, and I invite you to join me in hearing those passages in harmony with the remarkable priestly and pastoral life of Monsignor Petersen.
However, before we begin that Scripture reflection, I would like to illustrate in another way the profound and meaningful impact of the spiritual and pastoral ministry of Monsignor Petersen. After this prelude, I am confident you will understand his priestly influence.
First, I would now like to invite everyone here present who was personally baptized by Monsignor Petersen, or who has a family member or friend baptized by Monsignor Petersen over the 57 years of his priestly ministry, to please stand and remain standing; do not sit down until we finish.
Next, I would like to invite everyone here present who was married with Monsignor Petersen officiating, or who has a family member or friend married by Monsignor Petersen to please stand and remain standing.
Next, I would like to invite everyone here present who had a family member or a friend whose Funeral was presided over by Monsignor Petersen to please stand and remain standing.
Finally, I would like to invite everyone here present who brought a personal problem or challenge to Monsignor Petersen for pastoral advice and direction, or who had a family member or a friend who went to him for that purpose, to please stand and remain standing.
My friends, from my vantage point, I do not see many people left seated—almost everyone is standing throughout this vast Church. Need I say more about how he has touched so many lives? Pease be seated.
Now, let’s look more closely at the Scriptures which we have just heard proclaimed.
Our first Scripture from the Prophet Isaiah focuses on a key role of prophets down through the pages of salvation history: to lift up to weary people a clear vision of the way forward and the fulfillment of all human longings for God.
The mountain to which Isaiah refers is prophetic language for the Kingdom of God, and Isaiah lists the human issues besieging the people of his time: the veil that covers people and blinds them, the web that is woven over all nations and results in servitude, fear of death, the tears of all people, and the reproaches which have fallen upon them.
In the place of all these burdens, the prophet proclaims God’s salvation for the people: “Indeed, this is our God; we looked to him, and he saved us! This is the Lord to whom we looked; let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!”
This prophetic role belongs in a special way to the priests of Jesus Christ. We, too, are called and sent by God into the midst of our people’s burdens, setbacks, illnesses, and seemingly hopeless situations. And our role? To help all peoples lift their eyes to God’s mountain, to see beyond the immediate miseries and anguish, and to glimpse the glory that awaits us who love God and who are faithful to his ways.
Monsignor Petersen was one of those prophets during his 57 priestly years. Every one of us here at one time or another has brought to him our difficulties and burdens—not just to seek some immediate guidance, but to help us look beyond our Job-like despairs to more peaceful and joyous days when all our tears are wiped away and our spirits are buoyed up with God’s compassion and mercy.
Monsignor’s faith-filled temperament and joyous spirit were contagious. His smile and laugh in themselves eased our burdens, reminding us that we were not alone on our journeys—Jesus was with us and would always be there for us. This prophetic spirit of Jim helped me often over the years, and I know that so many of you had a similar experience.
He assured us of the love, the compassion, and the mercy of Jesus Christ, son of God, and helped us leave behind sorrows and disappointments, and discover the presence of Jesus walking at our side every step of our journey.
I believe that Monsignor’s deep love for music, opera, and the arts opened his soul to God’s beauty in so many ways, and helped lift up so many of our spirits as well. I teased him now and then about the photograph of the Randsburg Opera House and tried to imagine—in vain—the famous Broadway productions that played there.
His dear friend, Monsignor Walter Minhoto, was a constant companion on trips to see the opera, current films, Shakespeare Festivals, philharmonics, and special foreign films. It’s still hard to imagine that back in the 1960s and 70s Fresno had a Fine Arts Theater featuring foreign films.
Today’s Gospel was taken from the 10th Chapter of St. John, the Good Shepherd chapter. This image of Jesus as a good and faithful shepherd so captured the early Christians that the first known art work depicting Jesus is that of the Good Shepherd. Here in the San Joaquin Valley we still see shepherds taking care of their flocks, and can grasp the image. I noticed such a scene when driving up the 99 hwy on my way here a few days ago.
Jesus assigns the title “shepherd” to himself: “I am the good shepherd.” But he hastens to add the qualities of the good shepherd: I know my sheep, they know my voice, they follow me, they trust me, and they know I will sacrifice everything—even my life—to protect them. Jesus contrasts the good shepherd with the hired man who has no interest in the sheep and who runs away at the first sign of danger.
Monsignor Petersen was a good shepherd in the fullest sense, and cared for many flocks around California. Whether it was in one of his various parish assignments, or one of his special ministry leadership roles, or as Executive Director of the California Catholic Conference, his love, care, and concern for every person were deeply felt and appreciated by everyone.
He began his priestly ministry at the Shrine of St. Therese here in Fresno, and concluded his fruitful years of shepherding at his beloved St. Therese. Along the intervening years, his various assignments allowed many people to experience his form of shepherding which was so personal and life-giving. His many personal sacrifices for others are well known by all of us over the years—whether at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Parlier, or here at St. Anthony of Padua.
I would single out Monsignor’s special shepherding to us, his brother priests. His deep personal knowledge of the history of the Diocese—begun in his home-town of the mining area of Randsburg—as well as his friendship with the many priests who served here over the years, merited his being asked to give the homily at almost all Funerals for priests. When I was able to return here for a priest’s Funeral, it was always Monsignor Petersen who was the presumed homilist. In the fullest sense, he was a good and faithful shepherd for all his brother shepherds, all of us priests.
He not only ministered to us, he also gathered us together for fraternity. I recall with fondness the many clergy dinners held across the Diocese during his years. And the card games! He loved to play bridge and poker; but he loved even more having priests enjoy each other’s company and the laughter which permeated those moments.
My brothers, please keep alive this invaluable spirit of priestly fraternity towards each other. Make an effort to know one another fully. Be there for each other after his example.
Our second Scripture today reminds us of a key teaching of Jesus Christ, and one given new emphasis and importance by the Second Vatican Council: the dignity of each baptized member of the Body of Christ, and the call for every brother and sister of Jesus to share their gifts and talents with everyone.
Monsignor Petersen, together with his good friend, the late Father Sergio Negro, and Monsignor Tony Janelli and Monsignor Walter Minhoto took the leadership in our Diocese right after the Council concluded in 1965, and creatively began the process of formation and instruction in fostering collegiality and subsidiarity. They organized sessions for us priests in the little town alongside the 99 called Goshen—since it was half way between Fresno and Bakersfield. Those sessions in which we studied the 16 Council documents became known as “Goshen II” echoing the title of the Council.
They developed programs to form more deeply our laity—beginning at the parish level. The new forms of lay leadership and participation in the Church began to emerge under their guidance. Parish Councils and various committees began to place at the service of all people their unique baptismal gifts. Consultation and decision-making now began to reflect the advice of our lay men and women.
The vision of St. Paul in this Scripture began to unfold across our Diocese. It was recognized that lay people could best serve the material operations of a parish, and the role of parish business manager began. Lay principals in all our schools became the norm.
Even at the level of the California Catholic Conference Monsignor Petersen insisted that his successor not be a priest, as he and his two predecessors had been, but that a qualified layman was more suited to this role of representing the Church in the affairs of government and the legislature.
Did all of this go smoothly and evenly? Not at all. We human beings were involved, so some degree of messiness emerged frequently in those early years. For example, the initiative to establish a Team Ministry in Merced with its three parishes could have benefitted with a stronger involvement by all the parishioners to help form and shape this new ministry. But as the Council pointed out, the Holy Spirit was given to the Church to help it become more faithful to the intention of Jesus Christ for his Church.
Today we look back with fondness, and a few chuckles, as new measures of participation and governance emerged in our parishes and Diocese. Here in our Diocese, that progress would never have happened without the consistent leadership of Monsignors Petersen, Minhoto, Janelli, and Father Negro. This was especially crucial because our Bishop at the time was not yet a convert to the Council’s vision of shared governance in the Church.
What is essential to keep in mind is that these efforts did not emerge on the basis of an organizational overhaul of the Church. Rather, these initiatives flowed from God’s plan of salvation as envisioned by Jesus, as led by the Spirit, and as articulated by the Council. But the implementation was left to the baptized members of the Church around the world.
We were blessed in the Diocese of Fresno to have wise, committed, and courageous leaders to help us come to know this vision deeply and to begin to form it and live it out.
Our Christian Faith assures us that for all who believe in Jesus Christ death is not the end of our journey, but rather, the completion of the first phase of our lives. Our liturgy in a few moments will remind us that through death, life is changed, not ended.
It is that enduring belief and trust in God’s promises that gives us hope. While we recall so many wonderful aspects of Monsignor’s life and ministry today, his most precious gift was that he pointed us towards God, and called us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus—our way, our truth, and our life.
I long to conclude my own earthly journey and to step across from this finite and material world into the spirit world of God, and to be united in giving praise and glory to God in harmony with so many loved ones. And one of the first ones I long to seek out is our beloved Monsignor Jim Petersen.
May we all be comforted and strengthened today as we lift up our prayers, and as we reflect on God’s Word. May our shared stories of Monsignor Jim Petersen’s influence upon our lives give us hope to continue forward along our own journeys to the Kingdom of God. Amen.