Funeral Homily for Mary Rose Pilsner

by Fr. Peter R. Pilsner


Fr. Pilsner's homily given at his sister's funeral on June 7, 1999.

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Original, June 17, 1999

The following information about Mary Pilsner and the homily given at her funeral Mass by her brother, Fr. Peter Pilsner, is provided here because many PetersNet members had been praying regularly for Mary for some years before her death. Fr. Peter was an online expert in the original "Ask the Experts" section of the Catholic Resource Network, which later merged into EWTN's web site. He was an important presence in the establishment of CRNet, EWTN's web site, and — ultimately — PetersNet.

Funeral Homily for Mary Rose Pilsner
Given by Fr. Peter R. Pilsner, June 7, 1999

Some Details on Mary’s Life

These biographical details (which focus on Mary’s medical history) are given to provide a context for the homily that follows. While the two taken together provide a good overview of Mary’s life story and personality, much remains to be said about her and many precious memories have yet to be recorded.

Mary Rose Pilsner was born on August 31, 1973, the fifth and youngest child of Arnold and Marcia Pilsner. At birth, she was already afflicted with a form of cancer called retinoblastoma, which attacks the retinas of the eyes. By the time the disease was discovered, her right eye was already blind and had to be removed. Her left eye was treated successfully with radiation, and gave her good vision throughout her life.

When retinoblastoma is present in both eyes during infancy, there is a chance that a different kind of cancer, osteogenic sarcoma, will appear later on in life, in the teens or early twenties. That is exactly what happened in Mary's case. Three months after her 20th birthday, she felt pain in her left thigh, and in January the pain was diagnosed as a tumor.

Mary underwent surgery in late February of 1994 on an emergency basis. The cancer had eaten away at the thigh bone causing it to break. The left thigh was removed, and doctors did reconstructive surgery to create a leg stump to which a prosthetic limb could be attached. After surgery, she then underwent extensive chemotherapy.

After the chemotherapy, Mary returned to Georgetown University to complete her degree in nursing. She graduated in May of 1996, magna cum laude, among the top ten of 90 nursing graduates and won the award for excellence in biological sciences.

Then, toward the beginning of June, a routine chest x-ray showed a small spot on one lung. The suspicious area was surgically removed and found to be a very small but malignant tumor. At about the same time she developed pain in what remained of her left leg. An MRI showed it to be a tumor, partly in the muscle, partly in the bone of the stump and pressing on the sciatic nerve. Using medication to control the pain, Mary took her nursing boards in July and passed with a perfect score. Immediately after, she began preliminary chemotherapy. Surgery followed on August 21, in which doctors removed the stump along with half her pelvis. Continuing tests showed that the same lung from which a tumor had already been removed now had a new tumor, so Mary underwent lung surgery again in September. Chemotherapy resumed.

Mary remained cancer-free until May of 1998. She had just been hired to work as a nurse in an adult day care center on Long Island, when a tumor in her lung was again discovered. While she continued to work, she underwent experimental chemotherapy, followed by lung surgery in August. As she was healing from this surgery, another tumor was found in the opposite lung, and Mary had to undergo lung surgery again in October.

February of 1999 was the beginning of Mary’s final trial. During that month she had a fever of unknown origin. At first, it was thought to be the flu, then perhaps in infection. Tests finally showed it to be a large tumor in her abdomen. Mary chose to undergo surgery once again to have it removed. It was her seventh and final major surgery.

Having barely recovered from this surgery, tests done in April began to reveal other tumors, in the lungs and in the pelvic cavity. Mary began a course of experimental chemotherapy but was not able to continue it regularly because of severe side effects. Before Memorial Day weekend, her pain was becoming difficult to control. Having had some success with high doses of pain medication administered intravenously, doctors sent her home on June 1st with the means to continue the medication and increase it if necessary.

Unfortunately, Mary’s pain increased sporadically and she became extremely weak. On the morning of June 4, she passed away rather suddenly in the presence of her parents. The funeral Mass was held on June 7, celebrated by her brother, Fr. Joseph Pilsner, C.S.B., and concelebrated by her brother, Fr. Peter R. Pilsner, and thirty-one other priests.

Funeral Homily for Mary Rose Pilsner,

June 7, 1999

I’d like to begin by expressing, on behalf of my family and myself, our profound gratitude to all those who have supported us by their friendship, love, and prayers over these past five years. We are especially thankful for all of you who prayed for Mary, because we are convinced that from your prayers Mary gained the strength to persevere in faith. I would add as well that our family is having a novena of masses offered for all of you who prayed for Mary, that God may bless you for your goodness and faith.

The Rite of Christian burial states that the homily at a funeral Mass should not be focused on the deceased, but rather on our faith. Today, the directive won’t be difficult to keep, because to speak of Mary is to speak of faith and a journey of faith. And I would like to give you a glimpse of that journey this morning.

To understand it though, we must go back about forty years and call to mind a dear family friend of happy memory, Msgr. Herman Heide. Msgr. Heide was the chaplain of the Hunter College Newman Club while my parents were in attendance there. He was a great influence on them, and through them, on Mary, my brothers, and me. I suppose you could call him the spiritual grandfather of our family.

Msgr. Heide’s words were taken very seriously by the members of the Newman Club. The running joke among them is how often they begin a sentence with the words, "Msgr. Heide said." Well, let me highlight three things that he often said: first, that marriage is a vocation. It is a way of serving and glorifying God. Hence, as he used to put it, the first job of parents is to help their children get to heaven.

Second, Msgr. Heide taught that suffering has an immense spiritual value, both to win God’s graces for others, and to perfect our souls. How many homilies we heard from him on the value of the cross! Third, he taught the Newman Club members that there is nothing greater any human being can do, than to participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

It is to their everlasting credit, and a reason for profound gratitude on the part of my brothers, my sister, and myself, that my parents took the words of Msgr. Heide to heart. Faith was central in our home. The value of suffering and the cross was taught. And as far as mass was concerned, I think my brothers and I must have broken the school record for attending or serving the most 6:30 a.m. Masses. This is not to say we were or are the perfect family or perfect people. But at least we knew what the truth was, and, when we had a mind to, we knew which direction we should go.

Now to Mary herself. Growing up, she was a happy, normal girl. She liked cheerleading, basketball, and softball. She liked being with her friends. If she was different in any way, it was that she was shy and sensitive, and also very serious about her studies and her goals in life. But there were a few things that happened to her, that made a profound impact on her life.

The first one I wish to mention seems rather simple. In the seventh grade her teacher, Mr. Fred Sagginario, gave his students a project – to do a report on saint he assigned to them.

Mary’s saint was Therese of Lisieux. And as she did the project, she found herself to be very much attracted to Therese. You could say that the project was the beginning of a friendship, a life-long interest. Over the years she read extensively on Therese’s life story and spirituality. Her favorite book, next to Story Of A Soul was The Complete Spiritual Doctrine of St. Therese of Lisieux by Francois Jamart. (I think her dog-eared paperback copy of that book will be one of our family’s treasures.) She even typed out her favorite quotations from that book to share with others, words from which she drew inspiration and strength. At my parents’ request, there are copies of those quotations available to you as you leave the church here this morning, and I know that would make Mary very happy.

At times we noted similarities between Mary and Therese, for example that fact that they were born exactly 100 years apart, Therese in 1873 and Mary in 1973, or again the fact that they both suffered greatly from terminal diseases, Therese from Tuberculosis and Mary from cancer. But I don’t think Mary would want to be thought of as "another Therese." I think she would consider herself a disciple of Therese or perhaps a member of that "army of little souls" that Therese wished to form. In any event, the point should be made that Mary drew strength and inspiration from the life of Therese, and consciously put into practice Therese’s little way.

I remember being at home with Mary one evening, as she was recovering from lung surgery. I was having coffee after dinner, and she was having tea. On the table I noticed a jar of chocolate-flavored creamers, a little gift that someone had given me and that I passed on to Mary. I saw that the jar was practically full, and thought perhaps that Mary had tried it and didn’t like it, so I asked her. She said, very simply, "Well, I do like it, but I try to make small sacrifices." The last thing she meant to do was impress me. But she did. I thought to myself, Here’s our cancer patient, making small sacrifices, trying to put into practice Therese’s little way.

In addition to her encounter with Therese, there was another experience that profoundly affected Mary’s life. In Mary’s pre-teen years, she was a person of faith, but not a person of extraordinary devotion. Often we would pray the family rosary, and ask her if she wanted to join us. Sometimes she did, and sometimes she didn’t. As for any normal girl, there were often other things she preferred to do.

However, Mary had an experience that changed her life in this regard. In her early teens, she needed to have minor surgery done on the socket where her right eye had been, and after the surgery was done, she was in a lot of pain, far more pain than she anticipated. In her pain, she prayed to God, and was amazed at what happened next. Lying in her hospital bed, she began to feel, in the midst of her pain, a powerful if not overwhelming sense that God loved her. It was an experience that Mary felt changed her life. Fr. Benedict Groeshel, one of Mary’s corespondents, used to teach us in the seminary that a spiritual experience in youth often gives clues to God’s plans for the future. Perhaps that was what God was doing, preparing Mary for the future, helping her know that God loves us, even though he allows us to suffer.

This experience marked the beginning of a new depth of spirituality for Mary. Her prayer life became more personal and regular. Before this, we would be inviting and encouraging her to join us for the rosary, but now we might find her praying the rosary by herself in her room. And her life of prayer and devotion only continued to grow. She eventually developed a regular spiritual regimen which included the rosary, the liturgy of the hours, spiritual reading, Mass, and prayer before the Blessed Sacrament whenever possible. She was very conscious of what it meant to be living a spiritual life, and had a spiritual director, Fr. James Pereda. I remember her saying, after her last major surgery, "I hope I feel better soon. I need to my soul in order."

Mary had a deep devotion to the Mass and the Eucharist. She felt it was a great privilege that Mass could be celebrated in our home, and she was always grateful when a Mass was offered for her intentions. She also knew that the Mass was a source of grace that deepened faith and inspired works of charity. When an article appeared in the Georgetown student newspaper dismissing the Mass as a mindless repetition of prayers, Mary responded with a letter to the editor. She wrote:

The reason why so many people faithfully attend the sacrifice of the Mass is because they seek greater understanding of and communion with God both by listening to the readings and gospel and applying them to their own lives… It is through prayer and through the desire to apply the Word of God to our daily lives that our "practical" Catholic values come into being.

A good illustration of this can be found in the life of Mother Theresa of Calcutta. What inspires her to cleanse the body of a dying old man with worms coming from his wounds is not the desire to perform humanitarian works alone, but her ability to recognize the suffering Christ within each person that she meets. It is the grace of God, acquired through years of private devotion and prayer, coupled with the thoughtful application of scripture, which enables her to give endlessly of herself to the poor when others who share in her empathy could not.

The value of the Mass and Holy Communion in providing us with God’s grace ought never to be underestimated or ignored.

Mary was not only a person of faith, but also a person of great love and charity. And if I were to name the specific way that she showed charity, I would use the word "considerate". She was sensitive to the feelings of other people, caring about them, and trying never to offend. About a month ago Mary called me at Spellman High School. She was very concerned that she and my brothers and I did everything we could to make Mother’s Day a special occasion. So, I told Mary, no problem, I’ll take care of it. We’ll get mom an nice bouquet of flowers, we’ll get a cake, and we’ll make sure that all of us get together for Mother’s Day. So, the Saturday before Mother’s Day, I went to the florist to pick up the flowers. I got home, and gave them to my mother, who accepted them joyfully and graciously, and put them in a vase. A while later, Mary looked at the flowers and observed that this bouquet wasn’t quite up to standard. She felt it was much too small, and some of the flowers looked droopy. (This was the fault of the florist, of course. It was not my fault. Did I say she was considerate?) She suggested we get another bouquet – a big one, of yellow roses. I responded that first, it was a nice and appropriate bouquet, second, that mom was certainly satisfied with it, and third that the vase was actually too big, and made the bouquet look smaller than it was. I thought that was the end of the discussion. Male logic – it can solve everything.

But soon, and rather gently, the subject came up again. And I responded in the pretty much the same way. Then Mary went to her room brought back some money and gave it to me, saying that she would pay for the roses. This time I got the message. We went out and got the flowers. Mom was happy and surprised to get a second Mother’s Day bouquet, and once again, Mary had done something remarkable. She got her brother the priest to do the right thing.

However, we cannot speak of Mary’s spiritual journey without considering how she dealt with suffering. As I mentioned, Mary was a person of faith, and knew the value of suffering. To see this you need only read the quotes on suffering that she shared with her friends. Or, if you prefer, consider the four subtitles in her favorite book by Jamart, in the chapter on suffering: (1) Suffering is a necessary means to…dispose us for union with Jesus; (2) Suffering…is God’s proof that he loves us; (3) Without [suffering] we cannot reach heaven; (4) suffering is necessary for the salvation of souls. Mary understood and believed these things, and consciously offered her sufferings for others, sometimes for priests, or for special intentions, or for the unborn.

However, I know Mary would want me to say this: that while suffering has tremendous spiritual value and is abundantly fruitful, accepting suffering and offering it up is very hard. In fact I remember being with Mary a few weeks ago, watching Mother Angelica on EWTN (which, by the way, was a great source of inspiration for Mary). Mother was talking about offering up suffering, and Mary said out loud, "But it’s so hard. Tell them it’s hard." Jamart understood this too, and I think that’s one of the reasons that Mary liked his book. There he writes, "Because suffering and the cross have become objects of love, it does not follow that they no longer cause pain, that crosses have ceased to be crosses. They continue to be a load on our nature and my even make us cry out in anguish. A suffering that is not felt is suffering no longer, and it is hard to see how, under such conditions, it could still fulfill its special Christian role." (p. 168)

This is how Mary saw suffering – as something of immense spiritual value, but at the same time, so very hard to bear and accept. But for us, what always amazed and inspired us was that in spite of the difficulty, she did accept it. She walked a very hard road, and as she walked she stumbled, she cried, and it broke our hearts, but she walked it. Again and again, she did it, she persevered, she offered, she prayed, she loved, she believed.

The first time I really saw this was with her first major surgery. Mary had been given all kinds of assurances that the doctors could save her leg. Then, a crisis ensued, and her doctors told her that the leg had to be amputated, and that it had to be done immediately. The news was devastating to her. How was she going to be able to handle this? How could anyone?

After her time in the recovery room, she was brought up to the pediatrics floor. She got a phone call from one of her friends, and since we were all standing there, we could all hear what she was saying. She said, "Please pray for me. I’ve had this surgery and I’m not going crazy over it. I think it’s because people are praying for me." Thus her journey of faith, difficult indeed, continued.

That’s how Mary was. She had so many trials. Yet, each time, she found the strength from God to continue and persevere.

The last few months of her life were especially difficult. As she got news of new tumors, she began to feel overwhelmed. She felt as if she had already given everything she had, and now God was asking more. She became so distressed that she began to think she should not receive Communion. She was even afraid that she might die not accepting God’s will. I spoke to her about this, and told her that if it were really true that she was not accepting God’s will, she wouldn’t be so worried about not accepting God’s will. I encouraged her to receive Communion as a way of seeking strength and grace from God. This seemed to convince her, and she received Communion. Once again, she picked up her cross. Once again, her journey of faith continued, and with all the signs of her devotion: praying the rosary, praying the liturgy of the hours, doing her spiritual reading, asking to see her spiritual director to go to confession.

Her faith and devotion stayed with her to the end. Over Memorial Day weekend my parents, James, John, and Connie (John’s fiancée) were with her at the St. Ann’s Cancer Center at Mercy Hospital. Mary was there trying to get some relief for her pain. As she was lying there in bed, in terrible pain, she said, "I think we should be praying more. Could you please pray the rosary? I can’t pray it with you, but I can listen." So we did.

Later that weekend she and I were alone while my mother went home to do some errands. The nurse came in the room to discuss a DNR and in the course of the conversation she said to Mary, "You know you have two months to live, if that." After the nurse left, Mary said, "It’s a relief to finally hear someone say that."

I said to her, "Does that sound right to you? Two months?" She replied, "Well, God can do what he wants. He can always cure me. But if I’m not going to get better, I would rather things happen quickly."

We then began to talk about getting ready. She wanted to see her spiritual director and make a general confession, and I told her I would contact him for her. In speaking about death, she said, "I think it must be a beautiful moment." Then she went on to tell me a story about an experience she had while doing a hospital rotation at Georgetown. A patient whom Mary was caring for died, and it was her job along with another nurse to prepare the body to be taken away. Mary said to me, "the other nurse was telling me ‘come on, let’s go’ because I was just standing there. I was in awe thinking what a privilege it was to be in that place. To think that God had just been there and taken that man’s soul to himself."

I think it would be best to end my recollections here, rather than go into the details of her last days. Suffice it to say that the night before she left us, I was able to say Mass at home by her bedside, and she received Communion for the last time.

In reflecting on Mary’s life I think there is a great lesson to be drawn. To use the words of St. Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians.

7 We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

In other words, when we encounter someone like Mary, someone who is afflicted, but is not crushed: who is perplexed, but does not despair; who is struck down, but not destroyed; who suffers, but does not lose faith, and indeed beyond that, who in her suffering lives in a spirit of faith and devotion, who shows love and consideration for others even as she struggles and suffers; when we see this in someone like Mary, we encounter, in a way such as we can neither escape nor deny, the treasure within – the treasure of God’s grace in our souls, the treasure of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the treasure of the supernatural life. In all our trials, as hard as they may be, the presence and power of this treasure, of God’s grace, can prevail. That is the lesson to draw, that is the lesson Mary herself drew, and that is her gift to us.

In closing, I would like to quote from a poem that Mary liked to share with her friends, a poem Therese called, My Song for Today. It was written by Therese, but you can almost hear Mary saying these words about herself.

My life is but an instant, a passing hour
My life is but a day that escapes and flies away
O my God! You know that to love you on earth
I have only today. 

Oh, I love you Jesus! My soul yearns for you
For just one day remain my sweet support.
Come reign in my heart, give me your smile
Just for today.

If I think about tomorrow, I fear my fickleness
I feel sadness and worry rising up in my heart
But I’m willing, my God, to accept trial and suffering
Just for today.

Lord, I want to see you without veils, without clouds,
But still exiled, far from you, I languish
May your lovable face not be hidden from me
Just for today.

Soon I’ll fly away to speak your praises
When the day without sunset will dawn on my soul
Then I’ll sing on the Angel’s lyre
The Eternal Today!

Mary, may the friendship of Therese welcome you, may the arms of the Blessed Virgin embrace you, may the love of Jesus fill you, and may you enter the unspeakable joy of the eternal today.

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