March 6, 2003
On Friday, Feb. 14, St. Valentine's Day, I was on a train out of Penn Station at 7 a.m., on my way to Washington, D.C. Early in 2002, President Bush had named me to a commission concerned with recognition for police officers, firefighters and emergency workers. In the afternoon, in the office building next to the White House, five individuals and a team of six - all from police departments and fire departments across the nation - were to be given medals of valor by Vice President Cheney and Attorney General Ashcroft in the presence of the commission members. This was a ceremony I felt I should attend.
As I made my way through the morning papers, a man of about 50 years of age tapped me on the shoulder. "Cardinal, I want just a minute to tell you about my pastor," he announced. "He is a deeply spiritual priest, and this is his first pastorate. You should know that he is doing a bang-up job."
Before I had an opportunity to reply, the man was seated across from me and warming to his subject.
"This priest went to the seminary rather late in life," he reported, "and the seminary was somehow able to work things out so that he could catch up with his studies. I am not sure about the particulars, but I know this: However you folks are preparing candidates for the priesthood, it certainly worked marvelously for my pastor. You should be very proud."
I thanked him for his kind words and told him that he had made my day, not knowing then how many others would be doing the same throughout the rest of the weekend.
Early in the afternoon, I attended a reception for the police officers and firefighters who were to be honored, along with their families and friends. They hailed from California, Nebraska, Mississippi, Illinois, New Jersey and Long Island, New York; and most seemed to be Catholic. For over an hour I posed for photographs, applauding the cameras that flashed and joining in on the kidding about the ones that did not.
As the picture-taking was drawing to a close, a relative of one of the honorees took hold of my arm and held it tight. "I grew up in the Bronx," he declared with evident pride, "and I went to Cardinal Hayes High School." He released my arm to make a grand gesture, with both hands flailing. "Best education in the world!" he cried. "I was ready for college; I was ready for life. And when I went to Hayes, my family couldn't pay the whole freight. We didn't have two nickels to rub together. I will always be grateful, Cardinal. Always!"
At the conclusion of the ceremony for the conferring of the medals, after the vice president and the attorney general had left the stage, I spied the Hayes alumnus gesturing in my direction from across the auditorium. The place was noisy. Hence, he formed his lips to say silently, but enthusiastically, "Thank you. Thank you."
My day was made again, and there was more to come.
On Saturday morning, on my way back to New York, on the same Amtrak train, I was plowing through a file folder of reports that had been too long on my desk. A couple across the aisle smiled in my direction several times, and finally the wife said in a stage whisper, "Hello, Cardinal Egan." I smiled back; and in the blink of an eye the couple was settled into the seats opposite mine and telling me about the priest who had witnessed their marriage some 40 years before. "He's retired," the husband observed. "The wife and I have been wondering how he's doing. Is there someone taking care of him?"
I told them that the priest was well, even though suffering some of the physical woes that accompany being up in years.
"Up in years," the wife intoned. "Isn't that a nice way to put it!"
She cleared her throat and went on. "And what about the sisters who are 'up in years'?"
I responded in detail, describing the new retirement residence for priests that is under construction in Riverdale and the million dollars that the archdiocese provides each year for retired sisters and brothers.
"I am so happy to hear this," the wife confided; and with that her husband handed me a calling card for the restaurant their son owns in Florida. "We live near Tampa now," the husband explained. "If you are ever down there, come over to my son's place. The meal will be on us. We're both glad to know that you're taking care of our priests and sisters. God bless you!"
The weekend was getting better and better.
On Sunday morning, my priest-secretary and I left Manhattan at 7:15 for Brewster, where I was to celebrate the 9:30 and 11:30 Masses in St. Lawrence O'Toole Church on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the parish. Both Masses were crowded. I could well understand why the pastor, Reverend Robert J. DeJulio, and the lay leadership of the parish were planning to build a new and larger church; and in both liturgies I thanked and congratulated the congregations for the generous pledges they had made toward the project during the anniversary year.
The Masses were beautiful, with well-prepared altar servers, excellent readers, inspiring music, an honor guard from the Knights of Columbus and two members of the parish youth group to make a presentation after the final prayers. When we returned to the rectory for lunch at the conclusion of the second Mass, I was delighted to meet the parish staff and learn about the outstanding parish school, the splendid parish catechetical program and so much more. And I was no less delighted to hear from the pastor about the assistance he was receiving from the archdiocesan offices in connection with his building program.
The vicar general and the chancellor had visited the parish to go over the proposed plans for the church with the pastor. The archdiocesan Real Estate Office had helped in acquiring the land. The Finance Office had been involved from the outset regarding costs, and the Building Commission was working closely with the pastor and his lay leadership and would be continuing that collaboration throughout the construction program.
"What a great parish!" I said to my priest-secretary on the road back home. "It is a strong and growing community of faith; and I am as pleased as I can be that the administrative offices of the archdiocese are serving it so well." As our car glided onto Madison Avenue, I mused to myself, "The weekend could not get better than this."
But it did.
After supper that Sunday evening, I began to wade through some of the mail that had arrived on Friday while I was in Washington. One letter was from a sister and two priests who are chaplains at the Rikers Island prison. Several years ago, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York had made available to them two adjoining brownstones in the South Bronx in which they had created a halfway house for ex-prisoners and a haven for their loved ones. It came to be called Abraham House, and it is one of the truly marvelous expressions of Christ-like charity in our midst. Scores of ex-prisoners have lived there and learned to make for themselves new and crime-free lives. Hundreds of families of prisoners and ex-prisoners consider it their second home, where spouses are counseled and consoled, where the children of prisoners and ex-prisoners learn their catechetical lessons and do their homework, and a spirit of compassion and genuine holiness permeates every nook and cranny. I had had the honor of presiding at the Christmas party for children in December, and afterwards I had not been able to stop talking about Abraham House.
The letter informed me that a third brownstone, adjoining the other two, had been acquired to expand the work of the sister, the priests and their incredibly devoted volunteers. Abraham House is growing. More ex-prisoners and their families will be cared for. The future of this grace-filled affiliate of Catholic Charities is brighter than ever. I set the letter aside and decided to call it a day.
The weekend was a most delightful and encouraging time for me. It reminded me over and again of the great work for the Lord and His People that the Archdiocese of New York is doing quietly and continually. During the weeks that followed, I was scheduled for meetings concerning the 2003 Annual Cardinal's Appeal in Orange County and Ulster County. In both of these meetings I referred to the various institutions and programs that the faithful who support the Appeal make possible, and each took on a special meaning as a result of my Valentine's Day weekend.
As I spoke of our archdiocesan seminary system, I could hear in my mind's ear the man who was impressed by the way in which his pastor had been prepared for the priesthood.
As I spoke of the educational and catechetical works of the archdiocese, I could see in my mind's eye the alumnus of Cardinal Hayes High School moving his lips in "thank you's" from across an auditorium.
As I spoke of the care the archdiocese provides to our retired priests and sisters, I recalled the couple from Florida who love the clergy and religious of the archdiocese so dearly.
As I spoke of the administrative offices of the archdiocese, I remembered the extraordinary parish in Brewster which those offices are serving with expertise and dedication.
As I spoke of Catholic Charities, I rejoiced in the addition to that loving refuge in the South Bronx that is called Abraham House.
And as I thanked those who attended the Appeal meetings, I thanked the Lord as well for a most delightful, in fact, a most appealing Valentine's Day weekend.
Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York