SERMON FOR FR. TIMOTHY SPARKS, DECEASED
At the wake last evening Mr. Santos, a friend of Fr. Timothy Sparks for many years, gave us such a beautiful eulogy, that I am at loss to say anything more. Yet the Gospel in the liturgy today both illumines what Mr. Santos said about Fr. Timothy and that Gospel is also made more real for us by what Mr. Santos had tell us about Fr. Timothy as a spiritual guide.
The first reading speaks of God's love for his Son and hence for us a also his children. The Gospel speaks of how the God's law, that seems very heavy is made light by love. In the life of Fr. Timothy Sparks we see both the yoke the Law and how it is can be born to the end of life by the strength of love that makes it an "easy burden." Fr. Sparks was born in Matoon, Illinois 1905; was first professed 1924 and then ordained in 1930 in the Province of St. Joseph before the division of the Province. He later studied at the Angelicum and then returned to teach in new Province of St. Albert the Great and later became an Assistant of our Master of the Order in Rome, until he returned again to teach and write..
In the Gospel reading Jesus says that "My yoke is easy and my burden light." Yet the moral responsibilities that the Law of God places us are many and difficult. There is no question of our escaping these responsibilities. Jesus says in the same Gospel According to Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount that "I have not come to abolish the Law...not the least letter of it will be taken away until all has been fulfilled." Fr. Spark felt these responsibilities deeply and in his humility felt he was often failing in them. This caused him great sufferings and a period of deep depression after he returned from many years of service as an Assistant to the Master General in Rome. There he acquired something of that Romanitá or manner that the Romans have form long experience over the observance of law and order that enables them to meet difficulty situations with finesse.
This sometimes led Fr. Timothy to make fine distinctions that produced many anecdotes for our amusement. I will mention only one. Once when he was acting as secretary for a Provincial Chapter, he was much concerned in preparing a list of names of officials to be appointed that proper respect was given to each one by title and position. The student Brother who was assisting him grew weary of this indecision and finaly said, "Father, let's just leave the list as it stands, but underline the names of those of the brethren that you feel might otherwise not be given the honor due them. For Timothy was delighted by this section, but then hesitated, and finally said, "Fine, Fine, God ahead and underline them. Brother…. But don't hit the keys too hard!"
I want to stress, however, that this scrupulous obedience and observance of the least detail was not just scrupulosity…although it was that and cause him much suffering and when he returned from Rome worn out, a severe period of depression. No, more deeply it was Timothy's great love of the truth, the motto of our Order of Preachers. What he wanted to always obey was the truth, what ought to be, what the wisdom of God had provided. His one concern was to obey, to conform to the truth of God.He was always concerned, even to the point of scrupulosity that at several times of his life caused him to suffer seriously from depression, profoundly dedicated to obeying God even to the letter.
This love of Truth, especially as he found it in the great intellectual tradition of our Order in teaching the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, led him to make very important contributions to our Dominican Province of St. Albert, that was divided from the Eastern province of St. Joseph in 1939, when he was just nine years a priest. I often heard from the close friend of Fr. Timothy, Fr. William Humbert Kane that in their day as students in Washington philosophy and theology were not always taken with great seriousness and only a few of their professors were really scholars. The emphasis was on pastoral activities or being a member of the Preaching Band that gave parish retreats. But he and Fr. Tim were determined with the support of our first provincial Fr. Peter O'Brien, that our province would be outstanding in the intellectual apostolate. Since the studium of the Eastern Province had obtained a Pontifical Faculty of Theology all that our Province could hope for was a Pontifical Faculty in Philosophy and with great effort this the two obtained it.
Fr. Sparks himself usually followed the ancient method, learned at the Angelicum, of dictating his lectures from an outline on the board. We fledgling students sometimes referred to him, therefore, as Section II-Big A-One- Little a-Little b. While this method would not go down today it did assure that our notebooks were meticulously exact and that no point, not even Section II Big A, One, Little b was missed. Today students who have the advantage of Aquinas Institute of Theology, with its varied faculty having degrees from excellent schools, its accreditation, and its university location must realize that none of this would be theirs if it had not been for Fr. Sparks unceasing devotion to one of the four great pillars of Dominican Life, study.
Another great fruit of Fr. Sparks' efforts for our intellectual mission was the Thomist Association that ran adult education classes in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas taken by many teachers, lawyers, physicians and other professionals in cities Illinois of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
The Gospel indicates that what ultimately makes the burden of the yoke of the law light is love. I believe this was the reason that devotion to St. Joseph was so important to Fr. Sparks as was shown in the articles he did in his later years now collected by Fr. Bail Cole in the book Dominicans on St. Joseph. In the Gospel Jesus prefaces his words about his easy yoke by saying that he and the Father are one, and thus only the Father knows the Son and the Son the Father. Where did Jesus in his humanity learn what it is to be a true "father" and a true "son. From St. Joseph, whom Mary in the scene of the finding in the Temple, speaking to Jesus, simply calls "your father." The Scriptures describe St. Joseph by a single adjective, "for he was a just man." The New Jerome biblical Commentary points out that in this passage we find that Joseph was "just" because he was deeply concerned to obey the law that concerned adultery, when he discovered that Mary was pregnant, yet his justice was so compassionate that he could not bear that she be stoned as the law seemed to require, and instead decided "to divorce her quietly." Thus in St.Joseph Timothy Spark found his model of that compassionate justice in which law and love are united.
Thus in dealing with others Fr. Timothy was always deeply compassionate, as I can witness, since soon after my conversion he was my first confessor. It was he too that when I wanted to enter the Order about only a year after my baptism, said to me, "But you are a neophyte, better finish your doctorate degree, and then enter." Wise advise then and I always found him a wise adviser. Mr. Santos related to you what a prudent and kind spiritual director Fr. Timothy was and many, many other Sisters and laypersons will bear witness to this when he directed them or heard their confessions.How many of us remember that it was always he who remembered to send a card of congratulation on our birth days or other important events.
This combination of obedience to truth in authority joined with compassion and cooperation became especially manifest in his attitudes and conduct when the great changes came with Vatican II. These changes were probably crushing to Fr. Timothy, as devoted as he was to tradition. I am sure it was very hard for him, especially when the existence of the Studium here became threatened, priests began to leave, and very liberal ideas circulated. For some this would have meant withdrawal from the Province's activities and bitterness about the disappearance of so many things that they held dear. What was most remarkable about Fr. Timothy, however, was the serenity with which he accepted these innovations and accommodated himself to new ways that must to him have appeared frightening and even disastrous. His faith, wisdom, and Roman experience told him that the Boat of Peter may rock in the waves, but it will not go under. I, at least, never heard him criticize whatever was done in our province by its leaders, or even withdraw from those whose antics that must have alarmed him most. He kept steadily to his own business and convictions, without judgment on others.
This it seems to me is in a special way the lesson we can learn from Timothy Sparks life, the lesson of how true charity leads to true loyalty to community life, a charity that does not judge others but simply seeks always to find what is right for one's own conduct. A charity, however, that he always tried to base on truth, on what we used to call "solid doctrine." This example was given not only to us but to many persons who cam to him for counseling. He was known throughout Chicagoland as an excellent spiritual director, always sympathetic, always moderate, understanding and wise. I want especially to recall Dr. Herbert Ratner, so long a resident in this village and a friend of this house, whose wonderful life and spirit were always under Fr. Sparks guidance.
Fr. Sparks was the oldest member of our Province, always deeply concerned for its future, as our Council meets here this weekend to make important decisions for the future of the Province may we seek his prayers for us, as we pray for him that the joy of his Lord if it is not already his will be so very soon. We thank God for his example. Let us by the intercession of St. Joseph and his most holy wife St. Mary ask God to help us have that spirit of dedication to this Province and its intellectual and preaching ministry that he had.
Again the Gospel today tells us that to those who love the law of Christ it is an easy burden, but what it demands of us as Dominicans is a great compassion for human weakness and a great patience in a mutual search for and fidelity to God's Truth.