A Sunday Afternoon of Joy and Laughs

O Sunday, March 1, from two o’clock to four in the afternoon, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was filled with some of the most deeply happy people in the world. They were “catechumens” who will be baptized on Holy Saturday evening in their parishes, their families, their friends and their Baptismal sponsors, all of whom had come to participate in a beautiful service of prayer that is known as “The Rite of Election.”

The service was conducted in English, Spanish and Chinese; and it had two focuses. The first entailed announcements delivered by representatives of parishes from across the Archdiocese, each of whom proclaimed over a hand-held microphone: “Cardinal Egan, the Parish of (Name) takes great pride in presenting its candidates (for Baptism).” The second included an unhurried procession of the candidates and their sponsors from the pews to a dozen or so writing tables positioned in front of the altar rail. Each candidate signed his or her name on pages that were collected at the end of the signing into a large book that was brought to me by Sister Joan Curtin, C.N.D., the director of the Catechetical Office of the Archdiocese. I received it with genuine gratitude and great joy and held it aloft for all to see.

The service included two readings from Sacred Scripture, a homily by me and much applauding, hugging and even shedding of tears. It is clearly a celebration that all Catholics should try to attend at least once in their lives. For it goes to the very heart of what our membership in the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ is all about. Next Sunday (March 8), at the same time and in the same place, there will be another similar service, this one for persons who have been validly baptized in various Christian denominations and have asked to be received “into full communion with the Catholic Church,” also on Holy Saturday evening in their respective parishes.

Before the Final Blessing, Mr. Oscar Cruz, the archdiocesan director of the Catechumenate, went to the podium to announce that during my years as Archbishop more than 5,000 “catechumens” have come to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the First Sunday of Lent to participate in “The Rite of Election.” Next week, on the Second Sunday of Lent, he noted, he will have a much larger number to announce of those who came to St. Patrick’s during the same period to ask to be received “into full communion with the Catholic Church.” Small wonder that so many of us count these two Sunday afternoons among the holiest and happiest of the year.

The joy of “The Rite of Election” this year was curiously enhanced by three persons who approached me before and after the ceremony to suggest that I include in the next issue of Catholic New York another “Brief Interview with the Cardinal” like the one that appeared in the Feb. 12 issue. I responded that in my estimate repeating that kind of thing is seldom effective, but listened to their proposals all the same.

The first came from a priest who felt that I should be interviewed about my reported delight in “private gourmet meals at East side eateries.” He knew that throughout my tenure as Archbishop I have avoided restaurant dining lest it be thought I might be wasting Archdiocesan funds, or worse. “So you got lambasted by that —— for doing something you didn’t do,” he said. “You might as well have been out ‘livin’ it up’ every night.”

I laughed along with the others who were standing nearby and in the spirit of the moment provided them with an exhaustive report of all of my New York “restauranting” from 2000 to 2009. It went this way: (1) Three times in nine years I went to lunch with a supporter of many archdiocesan undertakings in his “Four Seasons” restaurant when it was inconvenient and, recently, impossible for him to come to eat at my residence; (2) When the owner of “Le Cirque” left the restaurant’s location across from my residence, I dropped in for a cup of coffee with him and his wife to say “goodbye.” Moreover, when asked to bless his new location, I had to do it twice because we brought no holy water with us the first time. On those occasions I had, if memory serves, a glass of wine and a salad the first time and a glass of wine and dish of “tortellini” the second; (3) Two priests took me to a steakhouse for my birthday in 2003; and (4) Recently I had some “pasta” and wine in an Italian restaurant, courtesy of the wonderful ladies who do the secretarial work in my office at the Catholic Center. This is the whole shameful story. It is certainly the kind of thing that should upset and scandalize any newspaper reporter in this incredibly “uptight” town of ours.

The second request for another “Brief Interview” came from a layman who is well advised about what the Archdiocese has and has not sold during my years as Archbishop. Apart from a church that was relocated from one end of a block to another and a campus ministry facility that is being rebuilt in the same place and the same size too, there has been the sale of (1) a church and rectory that had been rented to an Oriental Rite congregation and (2) what New Yorkers call “air rights.” “Not a lot to get excited about,” the layman quipped, “unless, of course, you’ve let yourself get obsessed with air especially ‘hot air’.”

The third request that I give another “Brief Interview” came from a priest. To a group assembled for photographs after the Cathedral service, he observed with some marvelously humorous turns of phrase that it has never been proven that there was even one priest in the “group of priests” who were said to have criticized my handling of clerical abuse cases on a Philadelphia “blog” in 2006; and he wanted that made known far and wide. “How many times have we told it to the so-called ‘media’?” he asked. I answered that I had lost count, did not care anymore, and hoped that, when he retires, Jay Leno’s job will be available again. “Your opening monologues would be a ‘smash’,” I opined; and all agreed.

Even though the piano that was the centerpiece of my first “Brief Interview” reared its head in the press again in recent days, no one mentioned it in conversations before or after the ceremony on Sunday afternoon. If they had, I would have courageously reported that in nine years I have never played even one note of Mozart for any member of the clergy, religious or laity, despite worrying reports to the contrary in the press. In fact, my debut and only New York performance on the 88 keys took place in the apartment of a sick man whose wife an excellent pianist began to play for her guests, could not continue and asked me to finish the piece. I did, and it was not Mozart. It was Chopin’s “Fantaisie Impromptu” which, after I retire, I intend to relearn so as to get it up to tempo in spite of my advanced years. One can only imagine the scandal that will occasion.

Oe of our priests was reading this article as it was being written and wondered why I had made no reference to the “independent contractor” mentioned once again in a newspaper article a few days earlier. I replied that no one had brought it up and that I had frankly become tired of hearing about it. Nonetheless, here is the story. In a court case about clerical misbehavior in a nearby diocese before I became the Bishop there, a lawyer asked me if priests pay taxes. I said that they do four times a year, and added that the tax is called a “self-employment” tax. He asked if priests are therefore “independent contractors.” I replied that I was not familiar with the term. Thus, he hemmed and hawed in an almost comical attempt to explain the matter; and the testimony ended in a mass of confusion that frankly defies all efforts at unraveling. And this is just as well, for the unfamiliar term had nothing to do with the subject under consideration.

So much for “Brief Interviews.” When I returned to the Archbishop’s Residence after the Cathedral ser vice, I noticed an envelope slipped under the front door. It contained the good news that a man for whom I had been praying since Christmas was on the road to recovery. “I know that you will be as happy as we are,” the note read. “When our friend is back on his feet, we want to take you out to dinner in some really nice place.” An unseemly “scowl” came across my face. “Imperiously,” I rose to my full height and declared there and then that I could not accept such an invitation. Who knows? It might be for a “private gourmet meal at an East side eatery.” And worse yet, the piano player that I presume they have in such luxurious settings might sneak in a measure or two from a Mozart sonata. “Erect, somber and mournful,” I took my stand; and I will not relent until after April 15 when we have a new Archbishop.

It was a great Sunday afternoon. Much joy and a lot of laughs as well.

Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York