Fr. Michael’s Funeral Homily for Fr. Victor Cavalli, O.P.

Fr Vic Funeral Homily by Fr. Michael Hurley, O.P.

St. Dominic’s Benicia

A few years ago, I was surprised by Fr Vic when he asked me to preach at his funeral. I told him that I might not be the best choice, since he had been a Dominican priest for almost 70 years and I had only lived with him for 3. I said “What would I preach about?” He responded, “I don’t know, I won’t be there, that’s your job!” He continued: “Whatever you preach about keep it short.” And so when I recently visited with him at Fr. Paul Scanlon’s Vigil, he reminded of the eventuality of this moment: “You’re preaching my Mass” he said. I said “I know, I know, keep it short.” And he again surprised me by saying “Well you don’t have to keep it that short. There are a lot of things you might say.” It was the moment I was waiting for. “Ok, I’m going to ask 3 questions and everyone is going hear your answer. It’ll be like your final preaching.” Agreed.

First question: “What inspired you to be a Dominican?” His response was typically practical. He knew the OP Sisters from boarding school in Ukiah and knew Fr. William Norton, aka “Blacktop Bill” because he always put in a parking lot at wherever parish he was. He saw all the good that the Dominicans did and thought “I want to do good for others too.” It was either that or the FBI, because he had family in law enforcement and the small Swizz village that he grew up in was the seedbed for the Papal Swizz guard. In the end, the priesthood made sense, because, as he said with a twinkle in his eye, “it was my best chance in keeping on the straight and narrow. I became a Dominican priest because I would have a chance to do good, and have a good chance at heaven.”  

Of course, we have our reasons for what we do, yet we know that for Fr Vic (and for us all), God is the ultimate source of our inspiration. “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you to go and bear fruit.” Just as Jesus called those first apostles, who were not well versed in the Torah or particular educated and he gave them the gifts to preach and teach and heal, so too, God chose Fr Vic and gave him the gifts he needed to lead. We all have a responsibility to lead in various ways, but Fr. Vic had the gift of leadership. He was pastor and/or prior for almost all of our Priory Parishes, including Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley and Benicia. For so many he was not just a priest but a pastor, a real shepherd. As one the Dominican graviori said “When Fr. Vic was in his heyday, if he thought it would have been good for our Province to get into basket weaving, well…we’d be weaving baskets right now!”

In the Gospel, Christ identifies himself as a Good Shepherd who guards and guides the flock. This image hearkens back to famous and familiar Psalm 23 where the Lord acts as a shepherd for the people of his flock. The Good Shepherd leads with rod and staff: rod to protect sheep from predators and nudge them away from danger, and staff to lead them to green pastures for grazing. In the Gospel we see Christ guides: leading with care, tending to the wounded, searching out strays. But also guards: warning with the woes of the self-righteousness, challenging the indifferent or nudging his flock around the pitfalls of unbelief. Christ the Good Shepherd has twofold office: to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

For nearly the past 70 years of his life, Fr. Vic has joined Christ in this role of guarding and guiding.   When it came to guarding, Fr. Vic was old school. In these days when sentimentality is often substituted for spirituality, Fr. Vic was no nonsense when it came to preaching and living the faith. Keenly aware of the reality and power of original sin, the disciplines of the faith were alive and well in his life. It wasn’t just Fridays in Lent; every Friday was an occasion for clam chowder over his favorite chicken soup. On the occasions when he discerned that someone was taking advantage of another person, he’d let them know the woes of the Gospel. For those who might darken the door of church only on Christmas and Easter, he reminded them in a healthy and unvarnished way that none of us escape death and final judgement. The Good Shepherd guards and course corrects the flock.

Likewise, Fr. Vic embodied the guidance of the Good Shepherd. I think of the countless ways in which he brought Jesus Christ to life for so many. Who of us here was not guided closer to Christ because of Fr. Vic. Through him, Christ gave us new life through baptism, fed us in the Eucharist, forgave us in the confessional, anointed and cared for us in our illness whether physical or spiritual. When were lonely, it wasn’t Fr Vic who visited us, it was Christ. When we were in distress, it was Christ who comforted us through him. When fears and anxieties clouded our minds and hearts, Fr Vic brought the encouragement of Christ to our hearts. I’m sure each of us could share a story of how Fr. Vic guided you closer and made Christ present and real in your life.

Beyond guarding and guiding, Jesus says what set his pastoral office apart from others, is that he is willing to lay down his life for sheep. He is all in. So too with Fr. Vic priesthood was not just a ministry but who he was. He told me: “You never retire from being a priest. If you’re lucky you can retire from administration and paperwork, but never as a priest.” This gift of self, the giving of his life naturally inspired others. This is why an essential part of leadership is not simply doing, but enabling others to do good. I live in SF, and although Fr. Vic was pastor there 40 years ago, there are aspects of the parish that are still impacted by his leadership. When there was a need to reach out to the poor and homeless around the Church in SF, Fr Vic hired an OP Sr. Anne Bertain to lead a community service program. The Rose of Lima center is as active and vibrant as ever. In fact, when I announced that Fr. Vic died last week in SF, I had a woman who told me that 40 years ago, she had come to the children’s Mass and that it was so bad that she went up to him after Mass and told him that she was never coming back because she was trained in music and couldn’t abide their ineptitude. So Fr. Vic asked her if she would help to train the children and start a program and she’s been a parishioner ever since.

Fr. Vic’s leadership extended to the brothers. Fr. Vic spoke with great fondness for the time when some of the students were transferred from St. Albert’s to St. Dominic’s. He loved that they brought a fresh energy to the parish and started so many programs together. Fr. Felix Cassidy of happy memory loved to tell the story of how, early in his studies, he began to despair of learning Latin and passing the required classes. Seriously contemplating leaving when he asked Fr Vic who was finished and was about to be ordained for advice and guidance. “I’m from Switzerland and had to learn English, I failed out of elementary school, but I kept at it and passed the classes. If I can do it, you can too.” And the rest is history.  

Second question: What is your greatest joy in being an OP priest? With hesitation, he said “The children.” Certainly Fr. Vic is well known among the brothers for his time as teacher and principle of St. John Vianney/Daniel Murphy high school. Fr Vic took great pride in the education the school provided in his leadership. His students were the chief of police and fire, many lawyers and other successful in business. But more than that, he found joy in teaching the faith. It was a worst kept secret that Fr. Vic had a drawer with candy in his office for students. When they would come over, he would always be handing out little sweets. I would tease him about being too indulgent and he told me the story of how Fr. Blacktop Bill used to give him sweets/money/trinket every time he saw him. As a young boy, Fr. Norton embodied God. And so when he gave him sweets, it was like God giving him a gift. Fr Vic said “I give sweets so that children will learn and remember that God always wants to give us good things if they look for it.” And this kind of spiritual pedagogy was present all through his life. I remember during one of our daily walks before we were hearing the 1

st confessions of 2nd graders, I asked him how I might put them at ease. 1st

confessions can be fearful. He said “Teach them God’s love in a practice way.” He told me that the penance he would often give is to “Give your Mom and Dad a big hug and tell them how much you love them.” There is nothing better to see how a child begins to understand God’s own love through a love they know. When they experience God’s love, anything is possible.”


Third Question: What is your favorite Bible verse? Wasn’t sure of reference. Like a good Catholic, when it comes to the Bible we neighborhood really well, but not the specific addresses. Proverbs 19:21: “Many are the plans in man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose which endures.” In reflecting on this verse, he shared with me, how often in leadership the choice he was faced with weren’t easy or clear. He shared that there were dark moments of doubt and feelings of his unworthiness to be a priest. He was comforted by knowledge that he wasn’t in control of the results and outcomes. If he was simply faithful in his vocation and did the best he could, God’s purpose and plan would come to be, even despite his weaknesses and failings. In this regard, he always had recourse with the Blessed Virgin, with whom he had a special relationship. Early in the morning and into the evening, you would find him in prayer clutching his small hand rosary. Many times I discovered him in the church or in his room in front of the statue of our lady, seemly having a conversation with her. He would say “when I come face to face with God, I am hoping that Mary is there to hold out the rosary and pull me up into heaven. She’ll get me there.”

As we mourn for our loss, we pray in gratitude for life and legacy of Fr. Vic. We ask our Lord through the intercession of his mother that, he who lived his life as a faithful shepherd of the Good Shepherd, might be led to the rich pastures of his well-deserved heavenly reward.   Amen.
~Fr. Michael Hurley, O.P.