June 10, 2002
On June 10, 2002, Robert Lloyd Jeffress entered the monastery with several firearms, killed two of our monks and seriously injured two others before taking his own life. Below is information on this tragic event.
Monday, two monks were killed. The real tragedy here is not that Fr. Philip and Bro. Damian are dead. We all come to the monastery to die, and it begins in the novitiate with humble jobs like cleaning bathrooms. Every act of obedience is a dying to self in service of Christ as seen in the brothers in the monastery and the people who come here. We feel their loss, their seemingly senseless loss. But in the last analysis, that is not the real tragedy, because their lives and their faith in the resurrection prepared them for this moment. No, the real tragedy is that Lloyd Jeffress came here troubled and without peace, and he shot the very people who might have helped him find it.
Was he fighting depression? In Bro. Damian, he shot a man who had fought his own battle with depression and was winning. A man who though gruff in appearance was fragile himself and sensitive to others, who could laugh at himself and his foibles, and bring others into that circle of laughter and delight. In sharing his struggles and laughter one could find the beginning of a cure for depression.
Did Mr. Jeffress harbor a grudge against someone or something? Did he need to experience forgiveness and/or reconciliation? In Fr. Philip, he killed someone whom people sought out as a confessor and confidant, one who served as a father figure to many because of his wisdom and compassion which was experienced by many both young and old. That is the tragedy: that the peace of Christ which we have cultivated here for almost 130 years, he did not find, but only brought violence and destruction.
When I say that the real tragedy here is not that Fr. Philip and Bro. Damian are dead, I do not mean to minimize the loss that our community has experienced. We have lost two excellent monks, the kind of men one does not replace.
I do not wish to judge Mr. Jeffress – we pray for his soul as well, perhaps above all. But what he did disrupted our peace, invaded our lives, violated our home and left us helpless before the great loss he wreaked. Why this happened, I do not know – God will reveal that in time. But the evil he did must not triumph, must not define our lives henceforth. We need to find a way to forgive, heal, and move on, though right now the pain makes it difficult.
So let us talk about our two confreres who are now in the hands of our loving God.
Fr. Philip heard shots in the hallway, and from his porter’s office came down the hall and was met by a gunman who shot and killed him. That he took the bullet head on would be symbolic of the way Fr. Philip lived his life. He was courageous and zealous, outspoken and bent on doing things the right way. He was also compassionate and wise. This made him attractive to those faithful who sought his counsel, as he always got to the heart of the matter quickly, appealing to and challenging their faith. As porter of the monastery, he was the first to meet guests and take phone calls, and it seemed that he always had someone in his office. He might be counseling them, or talking about how to grow better corn, or discussing the Theology of the Body by Pope John-Paul II, or just catching up on family news.
He was straightforward – what you saw is what you got. Once he went to a 5th Grade Vocation Day in Iowa, to be on a panel with other priests and seminarians. One 5th Grader asked the panel how much money a priest made. After another priest responded with some of the facts about room and board and mileage and salary, Fr. Philip said, “Now, if you are looking to make a lot of money, then you should not become a priest. You become a priest to serve Jesus Christ and the people in the Church. God will take care of your finances.” This was advice which he himself had lived. He had a simple faith which was coupled with strong convictions, and a zeal for holiness that few possess.
A good monk is one who prays and works in rhythm, and Fr. Philip was exemplary. He was faithful and prayerful at choir (5-6 times a day), but also spent time daily early in the morning in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, then later prayed the rosary for vocations in the infirmary, and read books on spirituality and theology. When he worked he worked hard, and enjoyed physical labor. He loved to garden – he was a farmer before he came to the monastery – and we are currently enjoying the strawberries he planted this spring. One confrere remembers how the day before his ordination, he was seen out on the grounds pulling weeds and cutting grass to clean up the place – doing whatever needed to be done. Last fall he apparently decided that he did not need the air conditioner in his office any more, so instead of calling on maintenance to remove it, he took it out himself (remember, he is 84, and not a big man). He was seen going down the hall with the air conditioner on a cart, hollering, “Get out of the way, I don’t know if I can stop this thing.” And in the winter he could always be seen shoveling snow. He was not afraid of manual labor.
Everything he did, he did with zeal and energy – he tried to do it right. He was sent to the reservation in the Dakotas to minister to the Native Americans and he thought he should live among them, which he did in spite of the poverty and lack of amenities that he would suffer. It was a matter of how he could best minister, how he could best show Christian love for these people he was serving. Whether he was comfortable did not matter.
[Sometimes his straightforwardness hid the great love and compassion he had for others, especially for penitents who came to him for confession. His gentleness and kindness shone through when he worked with hospice patients. His favorite work was hospital work.]
In more recent years, he gave retreats to college students and couples on sexuality and marriage. He understood how important family life is – his own upbringing in the Schuster clan taught him that. He understood that the vocation crisis in the Church is not about celibacy so much as it is about family life: the family is where one learns sacrificial love, faith and prayerfulness. And he wanted our young people to know God’s love and God’s plan for them, that suffering is redemptive and life is not about self-gratification. He feared they were not learning what he had learned in his family. The Schusters can be proud of their son, and we thank you for the great gift that he was to us for c. 60 years.
The Larson’s, too, can be proud of Bro. Damian. He is perhaps the monastery’s best known monk. The public knows him for his weather forecasts on radio and cartoons in the newspapers, for his lectures on weather to local groups, where his sense of humor shone. Those who visited the abbey saw him on a tractor mowing lawns or conducting hay rides, often with a pipe in his mouth.
He always had a certain unabashed DELIGHT in his work. That delight made him fun to work with, and led him to dream up creative projects, like building The Holy Smoker, a ten-foot long grill on wheels that he and Charles Wright (an employee) built. Or the gazebo at the NW end of Lake Placid which was built at his instigation. Or the maze he planted for children to play in. Just last Sunday he grilled hamburgers, trying out a new method in his quest for the ultimate grill technique. His model of the basilica and the cathedral of Notre Dame, built out of little sticks, are marvelous reproductions.
His sense of humor made him valuable within the monastery as well. Monks here take turns waiting tables. The waiters eat early, serve at tables, wait for the rest of the monks to leave, then clean up. Years ago there were a lot of elderly monks who left their tables rather messy. This led to a certain amount of murmuring about the mess and how hard it was to clean up. Bro. Damian was a member of that crew, and he did not chastise his brethren for complaining. But the next night, when the waiters came back out to clean up after the meal, Bro. Damian was wearing a gas mask and carrying a scraper. The laughter dissolved all thoughts of grumbling, and they continued the week in good humor.
Bro. Damian was in charge of the grounds, and in that capacity he always seemed to have work or a project for a young man who came to look at the monastery. As Vocation Director, I treasure the rapport that Bro. Damian was able to establish with these men, and just last weekend said that I could use a couple of more Bro. Damians. I don’t think that we monks fully appreciate the witness that Bro. Damian gave to these young men, be they students or prospective monks. I would like to share with you what one of those young men wrote me when he heard of Bro. Damian’s death. This was a young man from Queens, NY, who was in his early 20’s when he came about 5 years ago. He had come to stay for the better part of the summer. He describes his memories.
Conception was always a place of peace for me--I have never felt more calm and more alive than the summer that I spent there on those grounds, riding the tractor, pounding stakes into the ground, standing in the chapel, just sitting on the stairs heading into the dorm and looking out over the grounds. I felt a type of peace there that was complete and allowed me to breathe so much easier. And the reason why was because the men who lived, worked and prayed there were at peace. I have never met a more diverse group of men who all allowed each other to be who they were and also allowed me to be who I was. And Damian was the man who I felt most connected to. Maybe because I worked for him, maybe because when he walked he was always hitching up his pants, maybe because he would sit in a chair opposite from me and laugh, maybe because he taught me how to drive the manual transmission truck, maybe because he never seemed to be in a big hurry and whenever I was with him, I would inevitably slow down and relax as well, maybe because when he planted flowers along the dorm, he really cared about what flowers he was planting, maybe because when he looked up at the sky, he really looked at the sky--studied it and really saw it. Saw it in a way that I could never do. Here's a story--I am not sure if I ever told you before but it is one that I will keep with me always:
I was sleeping in St. Benedict’s Hall. I had been working in the monastery for a week or so just getting familiar with the place and trying to understand my surroundings (instead of just being part of it which I would later figure out how to do). and I had been working in the field all day and I was pretty tired and fell asleep quickly. I woke up to a boom of thunder that was the loudest I ever heard. When I looked at my watch, it was after two in the morning. And I am not sure why I did this, but I walked to the window and it was pitch black until a flash of lightning illuminated the grounds. and there was Damian, standing against the door of the garage, smoking his pipe and just looking at the sky. Everytime there was a flash of lightning, I would see his outline, just standing there, smoking, and looking. there was something just so honest about his figure standing there partly shielded in the rain--something so beautiful and pure and, and I know this word does not carry the power that I want to but it is the best word to describe him, so real. And I am grateful that I was able to look out that window and see him standing there--he has given me something that I will always hold onto and will personally strive for--a realness that comes with just being. It was one of the best presents that he could ever have given me and he never knew that he gave it to me.
(This man has captured some of the essence of Bro. Damian.)
We come to celebrate the lives of two fine monks who died tragically last Monday: Fr. Philip Schuster and Bro. Damian Larson. We celebrate the hope that they are in total peace, having arrived at the destination which they were created for. Both of these men brought the life of Christ into the flesh by the way they lived, choosing to allow the Holy Spirit to animate their lives of obedience, conversion of life, and stability in this monastery. We thank God for the gift of their lives, and the privilege of journeying with them all these years.
Readings: Lamentations 3:17-26; Romans 8:14-23; John 17:24-26
Homily by Abbot Gregory Polan, OSB
I would like to begin by thanking in my name and in the name of all the monks of Conception Abbey the representatives of religious and diocesan communities, our own bishop, Raymond Boland, and truly all of you, most sincerely for your presence and your participation here today at this Mass of Christian Burial for our confreres, Father Philip and Brother Damian. The outpouring of prayerful support, faith-filled encouragement, and heart-felt sympathy has been overwhelming. We monks of Conception Abbey know that we have been moving through the mystery of these days with a strength that is not our own. A list of those who have expressed their sympathy and solidarity with our community would be far too long to enumerate. Yet I must make special mention of the gracious support of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who brought us into their home for prayer and a meal when our own home had been locked-down; our time with them began the healing that will continue into the future. Our neighbors here in Nodaway County have been so generous in their willingness to do whatever needed to be done; we are blessed in the people of the surrounding area. We will forever be indebted to the members of the Nodaway County Sheriff's Department and the Missouri Highway Patrol, and all the other agencies, who were here with us within minutes of calling 911, and stayed with us in a fashion that distinguished them as true servants and loyal friends.
In a moment of tragedy such as we have experienced, people of faith ask themselves, "How does God speak to us in this event? Why does God speak to us in a manner such as this?" To be sure, there are no easy answers. Yet it is our faith that allows us to even ask these questions, and it is the word of God that we have heard this morning that enables us to open the door to probing this mystery, to seeing light in this very dark moment. It is the word of Jesus to his disciples, at the Last Supper, in his darkest hour, that sheds the brightest light for us to ponder. He says, "I wish that where I am they also may be with me [...] that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them" (Jn 17:24, 26). Likewise, St. Paul says, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us" (Rom 8:18). These words of the New Testament tell of the victory of Jesus Christ. He who endured hatred, misunderstanding, betrayal, bloodshed, and death was raised up by the God whom he called "Abba," Father. He was victorious in his suffering, and so was glorified. And those are the words of St. Paul to us: "we are children of God, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him" (Rom 8:17).
It is this belief that enables us to wait in hope for what the Lord will reveal as the blessing which shines through this tragedy. The Book of Lamentations counsels us: "The Lord is good to the one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good to hope in silence for the saving help of the Lord" (Lam 3:25-26). Waiting is the ultimate posture of faith in the Old Testament. It enables us not only to ponder the great mystery before us, but also to keep sinking our roots ever deeper, rooting our trust in the One who alone is always faithful. Right now there is speculation about what gave rise to the motive Mr. Jeffress had for his action; that may be the important work of law enforcement, but it is not our work at this moment. The work of this monastic community and those who walk this path with us is to wait in faith and in prayer for the Lord to unfold for us the meaning of this mystery before us. We know that in the plan of God there is a wisdom which only time and faith enable us to comprehend. It is a wisdom that will show itself in unexpected happenings of grace and goodness. And when it comes, we will know it because it will bring us peace.
We Benedictines have had "peace" as our motto for centuries. Yet the events of the last days have threatened our tranquility; but these events have not destroyed our peace. So many people who have written to me these days have expressed their deep sorrow that something like this would happen in a place they associated with peace, tranquility, and prayer. What is happening in our world if peace is threatened even in a monastery? Where can people then go if even our monasteries are no longer the places of peace we so desire and desperately need? Yes, there has been an injury to the peace of this household of faith, but it has not destroyed that essential element of our Benedictine life. Our call is to peace, and we have already begun to rebuild that which is the foundation stone of our life. We, the monks of Conception Abbey, know that we are called to be men of peace and to share this peace with all who come among us. St. Benedict is so simple and so clear in the outset of the Prologue to his Rule: "If you desire true and lasting life [...] avoid evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it" (v. 17). That is our heritage and that is our gift to the Church and humanity; and it will not be taken from us. What such a tragedy as this often does is to bring people closer together in a bond of solidarity and peace that is made stronger and cannot be broken. That has happened here. God's Spirit enlivens us, strengthens us, and impels us forward to a graced tomorrow. This monastic community has already begun to rise from the ashes of last Monday, determined to be even stronger men of prayer, faith, hospitality, and peace.
In monasteries, where the word of God is read and reflected on several times each day, there are special and unique moments when God speaks with stunning clarity. On Wednesday evening, at our first celebration of Vespers back in the Basilica, the assigned reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans gave us a roadmap for proceeding out of this event; and so I read,
Let love be sincere; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the holy ones, exercise hospitality. Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them [...] Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, on your part, live at peace with all. Beloved, do not look for revenge [...] Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink [...] Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.
In the spirit of that passage, I ask each of you to join me in prayer, not only for Fr. Philip and Bro. Damian, for Fr. Kenneth and Fr. Norbert, but also for Mr. Robert Lloyd Jeffress. When brutal deeds are enacted, it calls for heroic and radical forgiveness. Such acts of violence as happened here on Monday, could only have come from someone in desperate need of help. Hatred, anger, and an unwillingness to forgive only keep us crippled and bound by the evils that surround us. If we endure evil and do not allow it to conquer us, we will share in the victory of Jesus Christ, in the hidden life of the resurrection of Jesus.
So many, particularly in the news media, have asked whether our spirit of hospitality will change as a result of this event. Hospitality and the Benedictine charism are so intertwined that it really is inconceivable that such a thing would happen at Conception Abbey. Our 1,500-year tradition is so cherished, we could not allow that to happen. In fact, the two men whose lives we remember today, Fr. Philip and Bro. Damian, were the epitome of this essential part of Benedictine life. They welcomed people not only into their home, their monastery, but also in their hearts. They had a way of putting people at ease, focusing them on the beauties that surround us, and inviting them to share in the peace of our life. They were two men who, each in his own way, contemplated the movement of God in their lives, and never lost the urge to keep searching and discovering that the wideness of God's mercy could not be exhausted. And that is where we feel the loss: the uniqueness of their goodness, the passion of their convictions, and their distinctive humanity which whether gently or sometimes not so gently, rubbed against the fabric of our lives giving it color, distinction, and a wholly human touch.
Our great consolation is the belief that our two brothers were ready to meet the God who would call them at the most unexpected moment, and in the most mysterious of ways. They who were icons of honesty and simplicity were taken from us in a brutal and senseless way. While we grieve their absence among us, our faith tells us to rejoice in the new life they possess in the kingdom of God where every tear is wiped away, where sadness and mourning flee, and where they rest tranquilly in what the sought here on earth -- the beauty and peace of God.
Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
The presence of so many friends of Conception Abbey here this evening is a great gift to us. The outpouring of prayerful support, heartfelt sympathy, and hope-filled encouragement has enabled us to moved forward with faith. As I have said before, we have been living on a strength that is not our own. We have tangibly seen God's grace touching our lives through you; we have tangibly seen God's grace active within our monastic community, allowing light to shine through the dark events of 10 June 2002. Your presence here this evening honors our slain and wounded brothers, Fr. Philip and Bro. Damian, Fr. Kenneth and Fr. Norbert, and it encourages us who strive to follow Christ under The Rule of St. Benedict in this little corner of God's great creation. We thank you most sincerely.
It is a custom in Benedictine monasteries for there to be thirty days of prayer for the monk or sister who has passed from this life to eternity. That is what we commemorate this evening. We also gather to celebrate the mystery of the cross of Jesus Christ. That very cross of Christ came to us at Conception Abbey and proclaimed something mysterious, yet not out of the grasp of mind and heart. St. Paul says it so profoundly, "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the learning of the learned I will set aside (1 Cor 1:18-19)." And isn't that what we all said: How senseless; how tragic; how useless. Yet in the events of 10 June 2002, there was a divine wisdom for us to probe, to detect, and to uncover. Such divine wisdom usually reveals itself slowly over time. As we ready ourselves with faith in the gospel, God opens our minds and hearts to see the proximity of his kingdom. That kingdom breaks in upon us and shocks us into the reality of God's wisdom -- a wisdom that tells us that human death is not the end of life, that suffering is not without meaning, that loss does not come without even greater gain, that violence can teach us an important lesson, and that forgiveness is the sure way to peace and hope.
The unexpected and violent deaths of Fr. Philip and Bro. Damian potently reminded us of the closeness of God's kingdom and the fragility of human life: we know not the day or the hour. And almost immediately our thoughts turned to their readiness to meet God. It consoled and comforted us to believe God took them when they were ready, and reminded us of the absolute priority of being aware of the Master's call at all times and in all places.
The suffering of these days has had profound meaning. With e-mails, cards and letters from around the world, we have experienced the saving grace of Christ's resurrection which touches our life more often than we even realize. Solidarity in suffering is the living of the Beatitudes; we who mourned knew comfort as never before.
The loss of two of our brothers can never be replaced, yet their heavenly intercession has already made us away of their goodness on our behalf. The early Church apologist, Tertullian said, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." What has the shedding of their blood of our brothers done for the Christian communities of northwest Missouri? Has it drawn us closer together in prayer? Has it united us in a bond of solidarity that we did not have before? Has it reminded us how precious hospitality and welcome are in a world where so many today feel alienation and loneliness? I trust we will see hospitality only grow stronger among us.
The violence inflicted upon us has taught us an important lesson. Television and movies today can exploit violence and portray it as though life moves on easily after it has happened. We know differently. Violence shatters lives and often leaves them filled with fear and anger. In our world today, violence takes on many forms and its consequences are long-lasting. Drawn into the world's circle of violence, we have, hopefully, become gentler with one another, more patient and understanding, slower to anger and quicker to respond in need. Violence can be halted only by the gospel values of love and forgiveness, gentleness and mercy.
Forgiveness is the way out of self-destruction and misery. In the face of betrayal and misunderstanding, Jesus showed us the way to life -- "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk 23:34). To the world, that is foolish; to the person of faith, it is the path to peace. We do not know what tortured Robert Lloyd Jefress to lead him to what we can only call brutal and misguided deeds. Yet the word of God teaches us that we are not to judge him; rather our duty is clear and direct -- to forgive. In doing that we free both ourselves and others to experience the goodness which God holds in store for each of us, redeemed sinners that we are.
All this only touches, only touches on the divine wisdom that has begun to reveal itself in the cross among us. There is much more to be revealed, and in time, we will come to see it. But for now, we give thanks for the lives of Fr. Philip and Bro. Damian; we pray for the healing of body, mind, and spirit of our confreres Fr. Kenneth and Fr. Norbert. We thank God for the friendship we share among the Christian Churches of our area. And we praise God for the mystery of the cross which reveals to us a wisdom from which new life comes. In the cross will we find the hope and courage to move forward. In the cross we discover the strength to give ourselves tirelessly for the kingdom. And in the cross of Christ we regain the joy which comes in knowing that our lives serve and bring blessing to one another.