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Gone too soon but home with God

“Why is everybody so sad? Don’t you believe in heaven?”

That was the question a young girl asked me, her pastor, after the death of another young student in our school. I’ve been thinking about her poignant question as we prepare for Lent, the celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection and following a couple of recent unexpected deaths.

As a priest for more than 50 years, I have presided at more than 1,000 funerals. Most are not surprise deaths. They follow serious illnesses, a period of declining health or ideally a long life well lived. There is of course sadness saying goodbye to a loved one, but we also celebrate that loved one’s passage to heaven. 

Other times, however, death catches us off guard by its suddenness. I am frequently reminded how quickly our breath can leave our bodies. I recently learned of two such deaths within a 24-hour period that shocked me, saddened me and put me on my knees praying for all who have gone before us.

The first came on Jan. 18, when 23-year-old Ryan Realbuto was murdered on his way home after being at adoration and a mixer for young Catholics. Ryan was from the Rochester area of New York, and was living here in Washington after graduating from St. Bonaventure and joining the Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps. He was giving his time and talent to Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, working with freshmen in the work study program. 

Ryan and some friends got off the Metro on Thursday evening and were walking to their apartment when they were confronted by people in a car who demanded their money. After Ryan told them he didn’t have any, he was shot and died a short time later.

I didn’t know Ryan personally, but I know where he had an impact. I am on the board at Don Bosco Cristo Rey and am familiar with the Capuchin volunteers and the good work that they do. His sudden and senseless death moved me. The idea that a good and faithful young man’s life could be snuffed out so quickly brought me a sadness that I haven’t experienced for a number of years.

Ryan Realbuto, a 23-year-old member of the Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps, was fatally shot just after 10 p.m. Jan. 18, 2024, while walking with fellow volunteers in the Michigan Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C.. He is pictured in an undated photo. (OSV News photo/courtesy Realbuto family)

I then received word that my good friend Bishop Mario Dorsonville had also died unexpectedly at age 63. He died in intensive care a few hours after undergoing surgery. This news also shocked me, and it brought back great memories of a wonderful priest and bishop I knew well who was doing great things as leader of the diocese in Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana.

Long before he became a bishop, Father Mario came to live at Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac in the 1990s when I was pastor there. He had come to this country from Bogota, Colombia, and the hope was that living at Mercy would help him learn English.

I still laugh at the thought that I played a part in helping him learn English. If you know me at all, you know I talk too fast, swallow words, and my English is far from perfect. But God knew what he was doing. Father Mario and I became good friends, and with the help of many people – including my own mother reading with him – he indeed learned English. 

He learned it so well that he received a doctorate in ministry from Catholic University within three years. He was then assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes in Bethesda, and so began his career helping and leading the Latino community here in Washington. He eventually became head of the Spanish Catholic Center, and when I was appointed president of Catholic Charities 13 years ago, he was a vice president and running that wonderful program making sure those who needed help got it. 

Nine years ago, Father Mario was named auxiliary bishop of Washington by Pope Francis, and I was thrilled to be part of his ordination to the episcopacy at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. Last year, he was assigned to Houma-Thibodaux, his first chance to be an ordinary, i.e., a leader of a diocese. It was a new part of the world for him, far from home, and with fewer Spanish speaking people. Nevertheless, he was an instant success. People loved him, and he loved them. That was true his entire life.

It is difficult seeing people like Ryan and Bishop Mario called home unexpectedly. Through my five decades of priesthood, I’ve presided at funerals of babies, teenagers, college students and young adults. Those funerals can be difficult because the death seems out of order. It’s not “supposed to be” that parents bury a child, that a college student goes home to God, or that someone in the prime of life leaves us too soon.

But we are not in control. God is the author of life, both here on Earth and for all eternity. We rightfully hope and pray for long healthy lives for ourselves and loved ones, but sometimes the mystery of death comes in ways we’ll never comprehend. 

The key is our belief in the resurrection and that death is not the end but our transition to eternal happiness with God and our loved ones. As the preface in the funeral Mass tells us, life has changed, not ended. 

We all want that to happen as late as possible, but sometimes it comes sooner than expected. It’s at those times we reach deep into our faith to echo what one mother said after her college-age son was killed by a drunken driver: “I don’t understand, but I accept.”

May the holy season of Lent remind us that resurrection follows Good Friday, that Jesus conquered death. We can thank God for our days of good health, offer up our suffering and make the most of every day by loving God and each other. Then we’ll be ready to meet Jesus whenever our time comes.

May Lent also be a time we remember those who have gone before us, and perhaps pray in a special way for all who die unexpectedly. Those are some of my intentions this Lent, remembering Bishop Mario and Ryan Realbuto and all who are called home sooner than we would like but now rest comfortably in heaven in the loving arms of God.

(Msgr. John Enzler serves as the mission advocate of Catholic Charities of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and is a chaplain at his alma mater, St. John’s College High School in Washington. He writes the Faith in Action column for the archdiocese’s Catholic Standard and Spanish-language El Pregonero newspapers and websites.)