Meet Aaron McMillan
Fr. Carola just sent me word that a friend from Australia, Aaron McMillan, who had been suffering from brain cancer, recently passed away. I remember Fr. mentioning Aaron's situation while we were in Rome. At that time, Aaron had experienced a "remission" of some months that he attributed to the intercession of John Paul II - this remission was truly a blessing, as it gave him and his family that much more time togther on this side of the veil. Fittingly, Aaron's funeral Mass was celebrated on the birthday of John Paul II. The sermon (below) by Fr. Carola was read.
Aaron seems to have been (having not heard his music myself - yet?) a talented pianist living a very full life. I highly encourage you to read these two articles in the Australia press on his life and legacy, which only begin to hint at the story of his conversion (reversion, actually) to Catholicism only a couple of years ago:
Musician whose life was a hymn to his humanity
Inspiring talents used to the full
Aaron McMillan: Requiescat in pacem
A. M. D. G.
Father Joseph Carola, S.J.
Funeral Sermon for Aaron McMillan
St. Mary’s Cathedral
Sydney, NSW, Australia
18 May 2007
Gospel - John 3:16-21
Each one present this morning in St. Mary’s Cathedral has his or her own story to tell about Aaron McMillan—how he touched their lives, how his passionate love for music inspired them and how his valiant battle against cancer has strengthened them to meet courageously the various challenges which they themselves must face each and every day. I, too, have a story to tell. It is the story of how God touched Aaron’s life, how God loved him and strengthened him unto the end. While I tell my story from a country far away—I write these words to you from Rome—I have lived this story intimately with Aaron in God’s Spirit. For, time and distance have no power to separate those who love one another in the Lord. Even death stands disarmed before such love. At the heart of this love is God’s love for us, and God’s love, when embraced in faith, bears fruit in everlasting life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The final years of Aaron McMillan’s life powerfully reveal this boundless love which God has for us in Christ Jesus.
I came to know Aaron through his mother Gail. Shortly after the death of Pope John Paul II, she began a retreat under my direction in Brisbane. It was April of 2005. When Gail spoke to me of her son Aaron and his ongoing fight against cancer, I counselled her that we pray for his healing through the heavenly intercession of our recently deceased Holy Father. Upon my return to Sydney, I met Aaron, and we visited on a number of occasions at his flat in Bondi. During our third visit on August 7th, 2005, Aaron questioned me about prayer. I explained to him that prayer is matter of entering into a loving relationship with God. In prayer one speaks with Jesus as one speaks to a friend. But in the end, prayer is not so much a matter of what we do, but rather of what the Holy Spirit does within us. The Sacraments which Jesus has given to us—above all, the Eucharist—are the most sacred moments in the Church’s life of prayer. As a Catholic priest I deeply longed to share with Aaron the healing grace of God which He bestows upon us through these Sacraments. I especially wanted to offer to Aaron the possibility of receiving the Sacrament of the Sick. But after so many years of not practicing his Catholic faith, Aaron would first have had to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, otherwise known as Penance or Confession. But such a sacrament can never be imposed upon another. One must freely embrace it. It must be the fruit of God’s grace working within the individual as he or she comes to experience the mercy of God. Although I could not yet administer the Sacraments to Aaron, I could most certainly pray with him. Therefore, before I departed, I laid my hands on him in prayer, praying to God through the intercession of Pope John Paul II for Aaron’s physical healing and spiritual well-being. Four days later, Aaron left the following message on my voice mail at Canisius College in Pymble:
Joseph, this is Aaron McMillan here. I wanted to give you a call. It’s so hard just to express this over a phone message. But I just wanted to tell you that the next morning after you had visited me, when I woke up, there was a profound difference in the size of the lumps on my bones, on my body, and I attribute that to your visit and your prayer. And I was very, very humbled, and I cried, and I thanked you and I thanked the prayer that you had said because something really profound happened. And…I mean, my friends have felt those spots before, and they felt them again on Monday, and they were amazed. So, it wasn’t just my own interpretation. It really, really was a physical change. And I have also felt very, very tired since Monday as well, but in a sort of peaceful way. So, I do thank you so much.
Days before, Aaron had struggled to walk. He could hardly even lie down flat on his bed because the pain from the cancer in his spine was so intense. Yet, after that healing—a healing, which we now recognize as having only been temporary—Aaron actually ran. He also experienced a deep-seated peace, the likes of which he had not known since his battle with cancer had begun. Even more than the physical changes, it was this peace and the tears of consolation which Aaron shed which struck me most profoundly. In that healing God revealed the depths of His love for Aaron. He gave to him a foretaste of the peace of heaven where, we pray, Aaron now swiftly runs. The human heart longs for peace, not some momentary lack of distraction but rather that steadfast interior quiet rooted in a love which never fails. Christ Jesus alone can give such peace, for He gives us His peace—a peace which this world simply cannot give. While Aaron’s physical healing was not permanent, that peace, which he experienced, took deep root in his heart, bearing fruit in his spiritual conversion. I firmly believe that the Lord gave Aaron that profound grace back in August of 2005 in order to sustain him spiritually through the agony of these past two years just as Our Lord temporarily transfigured Himself, revealing His divine glory to His disciples on Mount Tabor, in order to strengthen them for the coming days of His passion and death. On the cliffs of Bondi Beach, God revealed to Aaron that the sufferings of the present are as nothing in comparison with the glory to be revealed (cf. Romans 8:18).
In January of 2006, Aaron wrote to me: “I do hope that [my] journey here on earth will be a long one! There is much to achieve, many people to help and to share music with. I think I have also learnt to accept that ultimately these things are not in my hands. They are far beyond my control. I must have complete faith in God, in the Lord, that everything is happening in the right way, at the right time and for the right reasons. It has been a big lesson to learn and accept this.” In the same note Aaron mentioned that he had begun to pray the rosary again with his grandparents as he had done when he was little. Later, in September of that year, just before his second brain surgery, Aaron wrote to me again. “There is a 10-15% chance of death,” he reported, “So I put my faith in the Lord and ask for his guidance and protection.” He signed the letter, “Yours in the Lord, Aaron McMillan.” Indeed, by then we had truly become friends in the Lord. Our Catholic faith bound us together. For, Aaron’s faith had come to fruition that previous July 25th when he made his first Confession, received his first Holy Communion and was confirmed. He later received the Anointing of the Sick and afterwards regularly received the Eucharist.
In his journey of faith, Aaron reached a particular milestone last Christmas. In fact, it would be more correct to say that God revealed the depths of His love for Aaron in a particularly powerful way on the day of Christ’s birth. On Christmas Day Aaron managed to make his way down to the hospice chapel where he attended Mass with his family. While in the chapel, he gazed upon the crucifix and meditated upon the meaning of the letters INRI placed above the Crucified Christ’s thorn-crowned head. The letters stand for ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.’ Aaron rightly recognized that by that sign Pilate and Jesus’ executioners intended to mock Him. This realization moved Aaron deeply. For the first time in his life, he fully appreciated what those letters meant. They mocked the Lord. Aaron later explained to me that at that moment he experienced in an entirely new way what Christ on the Cross had done for us. In His death Jesus revealed that no greater love has a man than to lay down his life for his friends. The Christian stands in awe before this mystery, recognizing in faith that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” On Christmas Day Jesus drew Aaron into the mystical depths of His love. The Crucified Christ spiritually embraced an agonizing Aaron. Aaron responded in tears. Never before had he been so moved when contemplating Christ, he later confided in me. At Aaron’s side sat his dear grandmother who had always been a powerful influence in his life. Beholding his tears she went to comfort him, but Aaron assured her that he was all right. For, the tears, which he shed, were not those of sorrow, but rather tears of love.
Aaron McMillan is the wayfarer---as indeed we all are. This earthly life is but a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage undertaken in faith as we make our way to the Father’s House. The God who created us never intended that we make this journey alone. In His great love for us, He gave us His only Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. Aaron believed in Jesus. All present today in St. Mary’s gather together to commend Aaron to Christ’s mercy so that in finding forgiveness for his sins he may come to live forever in the fullness of that peace which he experienced intimately at certain graced moments in his life. Saint Paul instructs us that, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Romans 6:8). I firmly believe that Aaron did indeed die with Christ, for such was the intent of his final prayer. Hours before his death, we spoke on the phone. I encouraged Aaron to turn his thoughts towards Jesus. Together we prayed the Hail Mary, imploring Our Lady to place him with her Son. Only hours before he died, the words of that prayer, which he had first prayed as a little child, were on his lips: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” With those same words Aaron’s mother Gail kept vigil that night at his bedside as she prayed the rosary for her son. Today we implore Our Lady yet again to place Aaron with Jesus. Our faith gives us the hope that Aaron now lives with Christ and on the Last Day will rise again with Him in a body spiritually transformed and purged of the cancer which took his life.
With a passion rarely found among us, Aaron pursued beauty—beauty in the musical phrase with its harmonies as well as dissonance. May he now know Eternal Beauty—that Uncreated Beauty which Saint Augustine rightly acclaims ever ancient and ever new. All created forms of beauty—the musician’s composition, the artist’s canvas, the bard’s poetry—reflect in their own inspired way the Divine Beauty which has created us. As true beauty is never impersonal but rather moves the human heart as a lover woes his beloved, Uncreated Beauty personally draws us forth. My friends, Divine Beauty, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has called the wayfarer home, having first lovingly prepared the path through a reawakening of Aaron’s Catholic faith. Pray with me now that Aaron’s pursuit of Beauty reach its goal. With the angels and saints, may he forever behold the infinitely beautiful Face of God.
Aaron, “sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the faithful” (Psalm 149:1). While your ‘Schubert’ piano concerto must go unfinished, your life in the Lord has become your masterpiece. In cooperating with the abundant grace which God bestowed upon you, you have composed in your very being a glorious hymn of praise unto the Lord. Thank you, dear friend, for showing to us in the midst of your suffering God’s saving love. Go now, O Wayfarer, to the Father’s House. Until we meet again, rest in peace.