April 27, 2006

A Delightful, Rainy Weekend

The weekend of April 21st to 23rd started out magnificently. At the breakfast table, I read the lead article on page one of The New York Sun. It bore the title, "Fossella Sets Bill for U.S. Tax Credit on School Tuition"; and under that title was another in smaller type, which announced "Nary Ôa Nickel’ Would Be Steered From Public Schools, He Insists."

The article explained that the United States Congressman from Staten Island, the Honorable Vito Fossella, is preparing to introduce a bill for an annual tax credit of $4,500 per family to defray the cost of private and parochial schooling. The congressman noted that non-public schools are closing throughout the state and across the nation as well and pointedly observed that a tax credit would in no way affect the funds that are made available to public schools.

The New York State Catholic Conference issued a statement immediately, thanking Congressman Fossella for his leadership and assuring him of the support of dioceses of the State of New York. Those who fear comparison and competition with public schools reacted negatively and no less immediately. It is interesting to note, however, that none of this second group made any mention of church-state problems on the federal level, probably because they know that the public has become aware of the facts in this regard and might feel insulted if a patently invalid complaint were issued. Rather, the second group suggested that the congressman’s proposal would take money away from public schools, even though what he proposed is a tax credit that would have nothing to do with public school funding.

On the way to my office at the Catholic Center, two radio newscasters observed that Governor George Pataki was continuing to press for a $500 tax credit for parents of students in private and parochial schools, despite fierce opposition from those in the State of New York who fear comparison and competition among schools. Curiously, not a word was said about Congressman Fossella’s proposal. Nor did any New York newspaper apart from The New York Sun mention it on Saturday, Sunday or even Monday-an interesting commentary on how news is shared in our community.

Whatever of this, the weekend continued to be a joy. Each day the rain fell from morning to night. Nonetheless, for me everything seemed bright and promising, partly because of the proposal of the congressman and the persistence of the governor, but also because of what was on my schedule for Saturday and Sunday.

On Saturday, I celebrated Mass at St. Ignatius Loyola parish church on Park Avenue at 84th Street in Manhattan. The occasion was the 450th anniversary of the death of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, and the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Francis Xavier and Blessed Peter Faber, two of St. Ignatius’ first companions. The Superior General of the Society had asked that such Masses be celebrated throughout the world. Pope Benedict XVI celebrated one in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and I was delighted and honored to be invited to be the principal celebrant at St. Ignatius.

The Mass was most inspiring. His Eminence, Avery Cardinal Dulles, and a host of Jesuit priests joined me at the altar; and the church was filled with friends of the Jesuit community in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. I took the occasion in my homily to tell the story of Reverend Anthony Kohlmann, S.J., the first vicar general of the Diocese of New York, who led the diocese during the first six years of its existence inasmuch as the bishop who had been assigned to the diocese was unable to travel to New York from Italy where he lived because of embargoes by the British and French.

What made the Mass particularly moving for me, however, was a ceremony inserted into the liturgy before the final prayer. Three young Jesuit priests knelt in the sanctuary of the church in front of the Provincial of the New York Province of the Society of Jesus, Reverend Gerald J. Chojnacki, S.J., to pronounce their final vows as members of the Society. The formula they used was essentially the formula St. Ignatius himself had devised. It was a statement of total self-giving to the Lord and his Church. No one who heard it could fail to be deeply touched.

The names of the three priests were Reverend Matthew Cassidy, S.J.; Reverend Thomas Benz, S.J.; and Reverend Thierry Meynard, S.J. Father Chojacki read the assignment of each aloud. Father Meynard’s caught my attention in a very special way. He was going to Beijing in China to teach philosophy in a state university. Reflecting on the news that had come to my attention on Friday, I was at first amused and, then, saddened. Evidently, comparison and competition are not feared in educational circles in all parts of the world.

On Sunday I found myself celebrating the 9:30 a.m. Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas parish church on Crotona Parkway in the Bronx as part of a pastoral visit. The community the parish serves is almost totally Hispanic. Hence, I celebrated the Mass in Spanish and gave the homily first in Spanish and then in English. The church was packed, and the participation of the faithful was something I shall not soon forget. They knew all the responses to the prayers of the Mass by heart, and they sang their praises of the Lord with enthusiasm and true devotion.

Afterwards, I joined Reverend Jose Giunta, I.V.E., the pastor; Reverend Luis Calderon, I.V.E., the parochial vicar, and their parishioners for a reception in the school hall. I blessed dozens of men, women and children, tasted all sorts of cookies and cakes, and chatted with the principal of the parish school. Her name is Mrs. Teresa Sopot, and she presides over a sterling example of what an elementary school can be when in the hands of devoted professionals. She could take another 120 students, she told me, even though she is doing quite well with the 380 who are now enrolled. From recent reports I knew the condition of the public schools in the neighborhood but said nothing about them to the principal or anyone else. All the same, the encouraging news that I had received on Friday stirred in the back of my mind. Maybe another 120 youngsters here in the Bronx will be given the kind of education their parents want for them, I told myself. Maybe another 120 youngsters will be able to dream dreams and have them come true.

At two o’clock on Sunday afternoon, with the rain still falling, I processed up the aisle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the annual Mass to celebrate the anniversaries of couples married at least 50 years. Every pew was filled, as were the aisles. Cameras were flashing, and on all sides faces were covered with smiles from ear to ear.

"This is the happiest Mass of the year," I told the congregation before beginning the liturgy. "It is a source of genuine joy to welcome these wonderful Ôyoung’ couples to the cathedral. I congratulate them and thank them for the marvelous example of married life they have given us over the past half century and more. We

The sanctuary of the cathedral was bedecked with Easter flowers. The hymns we sang were familiar and beautiful. When we came to the renewal of the wedding vows, there were tears in many eyes. The rain was still falling outside. Inside everything was bright and glowing.

At the end of the Mass, I processed to the back of the cathedral and up the aisle on the left. Midway, a couple stopped me to introduce their grandson. In the fall he would be entering an archdiocesan high school that his father had attended, his grandfather informed me. "We’re so happy," his grandmother announced. "We know you are working hard for our Catholic schools, Cardinal," she continued, "and we are with you all the way." The grandfather stepped forward. "Yes, all the way," he declared, while shaking my hand firmly and repeatedly. I thanked them and moved on to the sacristy. It had been a splendid weekend, a weekend of prayer, joy, promise and hope.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York