These remarks were delivered by Margarita Mooney, May 7th, 2019, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City at the funeral Mass for John Aroutiounian, 1993-2019. Below is a link to the audio and the text of the eulogy.
The last time I saw John Aroutiounian was Sunday, April 7th. We met at Big Daddy’s, a 1950s diner on Broadway. John’s cancer was well advanced by that time, but he didn’t want to talk about his illness. So we talked about politics, we talked about our favorite music, and I unburdened on him some of my own personal concerns.
When the food came, John was so sick he could barely eat. I could see his energy disappearing fast. They brought the bill and John reached for his wallet. When I told him to put his wallet away, he got mad. He was a person for others. Generous to an heroic degree. The creditor in almost every relationship.
Easter was just a couple of weeks away, and John had told me not long before, with a sparkle in his eyes, that if he felt better, he was going to hop on a plane to the Holy Land—Jerusalem—for Easter. But as his suffering worsened rapidly, he looked at me that day and said, “Margarita, I’m not going to make it to Jerusalem for Easter. I may not make it to Easter at all.”
As I said goodbye to him that day, he was in terrible pain, but he called out to me, saying that he was so happy I had come over, and he thanked me for being there with him. As I walked out the door, he shouted three times that he loved me.
We pray that John has now finished the pilgrimage of life to the heavenly Jerusalem where he celebrates the fulfillment of all Jesus accomplished on Easter.
I have had the joy to write several letters of recommendation for John since I met him during my time on the faculty at Yale. He made it so easy to praise him to others. He had some huge accomplishments, like winning the tough but friendly competition to be speaker of the prestigious Yale Political Union. But his erudition and passion were surpassed by his compassion, serving as a suicide hotline counselor and as a freshmen counselor at Yale’s Jonathan Edwards College.
John and I worked together to organize a variety of student groups, first at Yale and then through a nonprofit I started called Scala, that focused on integrating intellectual and personal development. John keenly wanted to imbibe everything he did with a spirit of friendship and community. More than just a student of mine and a collaborator, I thought of John like a son, someone with whom I could share intellectual jousting but also the ups and downs, joys, and sorrows and big questions of life.
In God’s providential plan, I had scheduled to have dinner with John in New York in January 2018, on the day he received his cancer diagnosis. His body didn’t really show signs of illness until almost a year later. John chose to suffer quietly, without a lot of attention. John was a self-giver. He wanted to care for others. He didn’t want the spotlight on himself.
It was very hard, but also an honor, to watch him suffer so much. When I visited him in the hospital on March 24, we wept together over his pain and fears about his earthly end. When our tears dried, we talked about a subject he had broached several times since he received his diagnosis: that suffering can be redemptive. If somehow God was going to allow John to die so young, John believed firmly that his suffering would not be in vain. Jesus once said in the Gospel, “No one takes my life from me. I freely lay it down” (Jn 10:18). John likewise willingly offered his life, in the prime of his life, to God for the good of others.
I was blessed to one of the few people near John in his final weeks on earth. In one of my last emails to him, I told him that in seeing his so body sick, I simultaneously saw more clearly why so many people loved him: he had a soul and heart that desired truth, beauty, goodness and the infinite. As his sufferings grew, his faith grew, and therefore his natural ability to love others expanded as well.
John desired great things. When we were talking about some of them, I suggested to him that those desires were the sign of God’s image in him. We long for the transcendent, and that helps give unity and grandeur to the beautiful things of the world and lifts our human loves up to a sacred level. John smiled, because in some ways, I think, he recognized it to be autobiographical: John knew how to unite the human and the sacred, and he did that most powerfully through the way he embraced his own cross. It made him better, not bitter.
Suffering, he shared, doesn’t rob us of our grandeur; rather, when lived well, it prepares us for grandeur by breaking our sense of control and our self-centeredness. Suffering does this by turning our attention to our dependence on God, which rather than diminishing us, ennobles us.
Not long before he died, he told me how much he loved liturgy. To worship God, John said, was the most human thing we can do because to be in the presence of our Creator fulfills the deepest desires of our humanity. I went to Mass with John on March 31st. He was suffering so much that he could barely walk or stand. But he was there, worshipping God with all he could muster. It moved me to tears.
As he approached the end, I wrote in my journal that although I feared he was dying, his life would always bea sign to me of the dignity of every human person, and how his big dreams were a sign of the great things we are called to become even as and after our bodies waste away.
I finished the entry with a prayer expressing the hope that comes from the depth of the Christian faith we shared: “John, I will see you again in heaven and call you by name. And we shall worship together again at the throne of our Creator, Lord and Redeemer.”
In the last few months of his life, when his medical diagnosis was grim, when it appeared science couldn’t save him, I joined John and his loved ones in praying for a miracle down to the last moment of his life. I didn’t want John to die! John had so many things, so many people to live for! He loved so many people!
But, I believed that if God didn’t grant the miracle we were all asking for, John had accepted his innocent suffering as a kind of martyrdom, an offering of love, an act of obedience even. Through John’s love and obedience, the willing sacrifice of his life on earth, I firmly believe that God will work even greater miracles in this world.
And I hope that, when my earthly life comes to its end, I will imitate John’s courage and faith. Like he did on earth the last time I saw him, when it’s time to go home to the heavenly Jerusalem, I believe that John will call out, not just to me, but to all of us who loved him, telling us he loves us, and saying how happy and grateful he is that we have come to be with him.