Monsignor Joseph L. Luca, pastor of St. Louis Church, sought to ease the grief of family, friends, and classmates from Mount St. Joseph High School and Virginia Military Institute - 1,200 in all - who gathered Saturday at the Clarksville Roman Catholic church to mourn the death of John Alexander Evans.
Evans, a 19-year-old VMI cadet from Highland who had graduated earlier this year from Mount St. Joe, died last Saturday in a Lexington, Va., hospital after collapsing in his barracks room upon completion of a 10-mile training march.
Autopsy results are expected this week.
"Our hearts go out to you. We can only imagine the pain and suffering you are experiencing at your great loss," said Luca.
"We cry with you today. We hold and embrace you in Christian love. We are here to be supportive of you and offer prayers and support in the days ahead," he said.
Luca reminded mourners, many with creased faces and others who dabbed their eyes during the solemn two hour Mass of Christian burial, that "John was living his dream at VMI."
The pastor spoke of Evans' determination, leadership and persistence.
"He inspired his Mount brothers and his Rat brothers at VMI to keep on pushing until you meet your goals," he said.
Luca had no explanation for why such a gifted young man had died unexpectedly.
"We are trying to make sense of why the Lord would take from us such a man. I wish I knew an answer. No one does," he said.
He reminded mourners that "life has not ended. It has changed. We thank God for the gift of this wonderful young man. We thank you for this gift and look forward to the day we are reunited," he said.
"May John enjoy God's eternal embrace," Luca said.
Daniel Evans, an older brother, gave an emotion-filled eulogy. After looking out from the altar at the sea of faces, he said, "Wow. What a view. My brother touched so many lives."
Then he added: "He was the gentlest of giants on whose shoulders we stand today."
Turning to a large contingent of VMI cadets dressed in gray uniforms and wearing black wrist bands inscribed with "John Evans," his brother said, "His love of VMI ran deep. And by never giving up and staying the course, this will keep my brother's memory alive."
As the recessional hymn "On Eagles Wings" filled the sanctuary, pallbearers slowly wheeled Evans' mahogany casket down the aisle, and family members followed.
At the rear of the church, the pall which had covered it during the Mass was removed, and replaced by a U.S. flag.
Outside, under a leaden sky and slight drizzle, an honor guard stood at attention, waited to salute the casket.
A bugler sounded taps. Then a seven-member firing squad offered a 21-gun salute whose sharp volleys echoed over a rain-sodden Howard County cornfield.
After the flag was removed and folded with military precision, an officer presented it to Evans' mother with a crisp salute.
Accompanied by a bagpiper playing "Amazing Grace," the honor guard tenderly placed the casket now bearing beads of rain into the waiting hearse for the short ride to the church's cemetery, where Evans was to be interred.
Also surviving are another brother, Paul Evans; a sister, Elizabeth Evans; and paternal grandmother, Virginia Evans.