The following is from Fr Frank Brennan SJ's homily for Therese Mary Vassarotti at St Christopher's Cathedral, Canberra, 27 November 2012.
We gather to celebrate the life of Therese, wife of Kevin, mother of Rebecca, Megan, Mark, Sophie, Andrew and Patrick, beloved daughter, treasured sister, friend and educator of a Cathedral full of people. There would be far more clerical gentlemen here on the sanctuary this morning but for the fact that the Australian Catholic Bishops and their advisers are gathered at their plenary conference in Sydney with some very weighty matters to discuss. Therese, a true friend to many of them, would understand their absence; and with the perspective of a mother and grandmother she would firmly but engagingly insist that children entrusted to our care should always come first. Any other considerations, no matter how theologically or sociologically couched, would be secondary.
The first Executive Officer of the bishops' Commission for Australian Women, Therese said back in 2001 'I love my Church and I see this as an opportunity to be part of its journey, to come to full understanding and implementation of the gospel message, centering on themes of justice and understanding of the human condition with its male and female side' with 'men and women making decisions together and sharing their wisdom.' She and Mary MacKillop will no doubt see this as a work in progress.
Therese, the builder of community, educator, scholar, reformer, and leader in all spheres of life, was always attentive to the lost voices whether in the Church, in the classroom, at home, in health care or in the public square. Having been a sometime teacher of Australian literature at Merici College before taking on the whole Australian Church in health care and Christian leadership, she would have delighted in Christopher Koch's new novel Lost Voices in which the Tasmanian narrator Hugh Dixon says, 'Late in life, I've come to the view that everything in our lives is part of a pre-ordained pattern. Unfortunately it's a pattern to which we're not given the key. It contains our joys and miseries; our good actions and our crimes; our strivings and defeats....God or destiny (whichever you prefer) drops each of us into a location and a time whose meaning we either inherit without thought, or else must struggle to discover.' Therese spent her life searching for the key, discovering and handing on the meaning of the time and place we have shared with her.
In all four gospels there is an evocative scene of a woman wiping Jesus with her hair. In the synoptic gospels the woman is unnamed but in John's gospel the woman is named as Mary who is twinned with Martha who does all the work of labouring in the kitchen. Mary applies the very costly ointment not to Jesus' head but to his feet. She wipes away not her tears but the ointment. Therese has been both Martha and Mary for so many of us gathered here in St Christopher's this morning. Like Martha, she has prepared countless dinners for family and all comers treating them as if they were Jesus her neighbour. It's the knack a mother of six develops without show, and often without thanks. Like Mary, she has feted us, encouraged us, spoilt us, nurtured us, and anointed us.
Back on 16 March she emailed me saying, 'I have been aware that you have included me in your prayers and for that I am most grateful. I am incarcerated in the Canberra Hospital for the foreseeable future where the aim is to protect me from infection. It is a strange existence, so far away from my previous life. If you are in the neighbourhood I would love to see you. With good wishes.' She was always realistic. Hope was founded in reality. The facts were friendly. There was always room for grace.
A couple of months ago, we celebrated a beautiful family Eucharist in the new Vassarotti home at Yarralumla by the lake. We all had the opportunity to reciprocate and anoint Therese who had spent herself anointing those she loved and encouraged all her life.
Therese was always the woman of faith, the woman of the Church. Like Elijah, she never expected great winds, earthquakes or fires to manifest God's action in her life, in the Church or in our world. But she was ever attentive to the gentle breeze. She was never judgmental, always accepting and tolerant, seeking ways of understanding and loving — between bishops and laity, between Christians and non-believers, between Christians and Jews, and most especially in recent years between Christians and Muslims. She was always discerning those slight movements which spoke of the action of the Spirit.
Late last year, she came to me at Australian Catholic University and told me that she was a little troubled because she and Kevin had found that ideal retirement place at Yarralumla by the lake. She was feeling a slight pang of Catholic guilt while acknowledging 'you have the poor with you always'. But she knew how to pick her mark. There she was explaining her predicament to a Jesuit who was living in the heart of the Embassy belt at Yarralumla. She had an enchanting, disarming way of stripping away the nonsense and cutting to the quick.
In recent months, it has been a bit of a family joke that I have had entry to the apartment through the back gate, arriving on my bicycle when riding around the lake preparing a homily on the weekend. At the beginning of this month, the sun had finally come to Canberra. Therese was sitting out on the back patio surrounded by children and grandchildren. She had a ticket of leave from the hospital. With grace, humour and gentleness, she recalled that a friend had urged her to live until October when the roses would be in bloom. She said, 'I've lasted until November, and look at these most beautiful roses.' With tubes hanging out her emaciated body, she revelled in the garden surrounded by roses picked by her children, the scent being taken in by the grandchildren at play. She schooled us all in beauty and truth even in the midst of adversity.
On my last visit to her at home, she was upstairs in bed. Kevin and I gathered at the bedside. She delighted that the two blokes were able to share a good red and a fine cheese while she sipped lemonade through an awkward straw. There was almost nothing left of her but she was still gracious and refined. Meanwhile downstairs, children, in-laws and grandchildren were gathered around the family meal table full of life sharing stories from the Brindabellas to Berlin. Therese had decided she was not going back to hospital. She was planning her funeral. She had spent years teaching people in Catholic health care about the dignity of dying and surrendering to the mystery of the realm beyond sense and experience. In her no nonsense way, she was now showing us how to do it. And so she made her way to Clare Holland House.
On the Sunday afternoon 36 hours before she died, she was weak and peaceful, though she still said it was 'terrible', and it was terrible that one so good and committed to life was needing to make her farewells but with little breath to do so. We prayed simply the Hail Mary noting the poignancy of the request that Mary Our Mother pray for us in the narrowing time line between now and the hour of our death. She prayed as she always had. She died as she lived — gentle, tenacious, and with style. Holy without being sanctimonious, accepting of all, all inclusive, but sure of her identity and distinctiveness — able to run a Spirituality in the Pub night on Timor in the same week as a daughter's wedding; able to speak on behalf of the Commission for Women at Yarralumla Church 45 minutes after auctioning the family home; never in a hurry, but always on a mission. At her 60th birthday, she heard the adulation of generations but humbly doubted the affirmation. Now she knows the completeness of God at work in her.
She is happy, having lived and died in the Lord, resting forever after her work; her good deeds going with her. But then again her finest deeds are sitting here in the front pews. May she always walk just slightly ahead of you turning like Martha to give a helping hand and like Mary anointing your feet wherever you might walk, you coming to admire even more her footsteps and her graced style.
In the Koch novel, Hugh ends by reflecting on the Tasmanian hills: 'Go near to them, and those hills that wove a mystery against the sky dissolve; become mere tree-covered slopes; cease to be themselves. Distance, and only distance is where they have their being; distance makes them into visions. It's a distance that can never be crossed, since it belongs in another dimension: the dimension of the angelic, and the life beyond this.' Therese has gone ahead of us. May she rest in peace. May we keep her so close that the mystery of death be liveable, and so distant that the mystery of life with each other be set against the vision of life with God for ever. Amen.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law, director of strategic research projects (social justice and ethics), Australian Catholic University, adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University, and a board member of St Vincent's Health Australia.