“May Richard Gerard Lennon, our bishop, brother and child of God, rest in peace,” said Bishop Christopher Coyne, bishop of Burlington, Vermont, and a close friend of the late bishop.
With those words, Bishop Lennon, the 10th bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, was laid to rest on Nov. 5 in the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in downtown Cleveland. Celebrating the funeral Mass was his successor, Bishop Nelson Perez. Concelebrants included more than a dozen and a half bishops and more than 100 priests from the Cleveland diocese and beyond.
Members of Bishop Lennon’s family travelled from the Boston, Massachusetts area, along with family and friends from Greater Cleveland and more. Hundreds of others watched the live stream of the liturgy on the diocesan website.
Those arriving at the cathedral for the Mass saw a Cleveland fire truck with its ladder extended across East Ninth Street in front of the cathedral as a tribute to Bishop Lennon. A large American flag hung from the ladder. The late bishop’s father was deputy fire chief in his hometown of Arlington, Massachusetts and Bishop Lennon served as a fire department chaplain, a ministry he cherished.
In his homily, Bishop Coyne offered a personal glimpse of his dear friend, eliciting more than a few laughs from the congregation that nearly filled the cathedral. His stories resonated with those who knew the late bishop as intelligent, compassionate, obedient and a servant of the Church -- but who also had a sense of humor, loved to laugh and could be headstrong.
Bishop Coyne recalled that a few days after Christmas three years ago, he was enjoying some “down time” in Maine and was out for a walk when he slipped and fell on an icy patch. He wasn’t hurt, but while on the ground, his phone rang. It was Bishop Lennon telling him he would be resigning the next day because the struggles with his increasing memory loss, dementia, heart and other health issues were affecting his ability to serve the diocese and Church.
“I asked if I could do anything for him, and he said ‘yes. I’d like you to preach at my funeral -- but no eulogy. I’m not a saint,’” Bishop Coyne recalled. He told his friend that he agreed he wasn’t a saint, and they enjoyed a laugh. Bishop Coyne said he pulled his rosary from his pocket and prayed for his friend as he walked home.
The two men met when Bishop Coyne was a seminarian. He recalled how then-Father Lennon was well known because he lasted 10 years at a parish where the pastor was infamous for going through numerous curates, sometimes several in one year. Bishop Coyne once asked his friend how he survived and he gave three reasons.
“I was sent there by the archbishop so I served out of obedience. I was there for the people, not myself,” Bishop Lennon said. “And he also told me that he didn’t pay any attention to the ‘jerk,’ but he used another term,” Bishop Coyne said, as the congregation laughed.
When word got around that he was the homilist for the funeral Mass, Bishop Coyne said people shared many stories with him about their interactions and experiences with Bishop Lennon. One priest told him the late bishop said there is no substitute for a priest greeting people after Mass. He also learned that a children’s choir the late bishop started at his first parish assignment was still in place. “And that’s amazing considering that he couldn’t sing,” Bishop Coyne said.
That reminded him of another story when at the seminary he handed his friend a hymnal one day. “Richard told me that he couldn’t sing. I said everyone can sing,” he said. But he later agreed that Bishop Lennon wasn’t a singer, which drew more laughter from those in the cathedral.
In another story, Bishop Coyne shared how he, as a seminarian, and Father Lennon, a very busy priest, were taking a class at the seminary about Cardinal John Henry Newman. The professor had a reputation for being difficult and a “C” was passing, so anything better was superfluous. He said the workload was heavy, with hundreds of pages of reading and multiple papers required. Bishop Coyne was determined to get better than a C and he did, earning a B minus after working extraordinarily hard. He was impressed that Father Lennon had time to keep up with the coursework.
Then he noticed that his friend didn’t show up for the final exam. “The professor told me that he was auditing the course,” Bishop Coyne said, as the congregation laughed.
After Bishop Lennon was born, Bishop Coyne said his parents and godparents were greeted at the church door. They were asked three questions: his name – Richard Gerard Lennon; what he asked of God’s Church – faith and what does that faith hold out to him – everlasting life.
“Those same questions could have been posed yesterday,” he said, when Bishop Lennon’s remains arrived at the cathedral.
He said his friend had humility and knew himself well enough to admit his own failings. Much like the tax collector, who asked God to be merciful to him, a sinner, Bishop Lennon knew he could rely on God’s mercy.
“He could be headstrong. And when he made up his mind, he was convinced he was doing the right thing for the right reason,” Bishop Coyne said.
Jesus’ life is like a seed being planted in the soil. The seed will die but it also grows. He said this relates to Jesus’ death on the cross, which he knew was needed to extend his mercy to the world.
“A believer’s death is a path to vindication. Whoever loves his life loses it. Whoever hates his life in this world reserves it for eternal life,” Bishop Coyne said, adding that a believer’s death is a death to self and sinfulness.
“To know, love and serve God with all our hearts, minds and souls in this life is to know him fully in the next life to come,” Bishop Coyne said.
He noted that the sermon delivered at St. John Henry Newman’s funeral in 1890 is as relevant today for Bishop Lennon as it was then. The homilist said not to weep for someone who is gone or to waste idol praise. Rather, the best of prayers should be offered so that we can reach the golden palace gate where the angels await.
“I will miss my friend. I will miss his smile, his laugh and his good counsel. But I will pray for him,” he added.
After Mass, the bishop’s casket was carried into the cathedral’s Resurrection Chapel, where he was interred with the remains of most other deceased Cleveland bishops.
Memorial contributions can be made to the Catholic Community Foundation, 1404 East Ninth St., Cleveland, 44114, or to the Daughters of St. Paul, 50 St. Paul’s Ave., Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts 02130.