September 4, 2003

Happy and Holy

It was the week of the "blackout." Thus, we were late in making arrangements for a parish visitation on Sunday, August 17th. My office spoke with the pastor of St. Jude’s parish on 204th Street in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan. He would be delighted, he said, if I were to come to celebrate the 8:30 and 10 o’clock morning Masses. However, there would not be time, he added, for the special arrangements he would like to make for such an occasion. The Masses would have to be just what they are on an ordinary Sunday in the summer.

The traffic was unusually light. Hence, we arrived more than a half hour before the first Mass and, accordingly, had an opportunity to chat with the pastor, Reverend Elias Isla, in his rectory dining room. The curate or, as we say today, the parochial vicar, was away on vacation.

The parish, the pastor told my priest-secretary and me, welcomed about 2,000 to Mass on an average weekend. The parishioners were almost all Latinos, with the vast majority hailing from the Dominican Republic. The parish school is filled, and the parish catechetical program thriving. Moreover, each Sunday a parish Mass is televised on Channel 34 for one hour, and on two Sundays each month there is another two-hour televised program from the parish. All of this has been in place, we learned, for six years and is a facet of parish life of which the parishioners are very proud indeed.

Father Isla was ordained in Spain in 1957 as a priest of the Calasanctian Fathers, often called the Piarists. In 1967, along with a large number of other priests from his religious community, he volunteered to work in dioceses of Europe and North America with growing Hispanic populations. His superiors chose to assign him to New York where he earned a degree in Education from Columbia University. In 1989 he became a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and shortly thereafter was named pastor of St. Jude’s parish. A professor of Latin, Spanish and History during the early years of his priesthood in Spain, he is a man of extraordinary culture who glides easily from stately Castilian, to fluent English, to the lovely lilt of Dominican Spanish.

By 8:15 I was vested and brought over to the parish church, a modern, brick edifice that was built in 1949. It seats around 450 in the pews with another hundred or so chairs around the walls to handle the overflow.

Entering the body of the church from the tiny sacristy, I passed a free-standing tabernacle. Kneeling around it were three rather young men. Their heads were deeply bowed, their eyes were closed, and each had a hand reverently holding on to the pedestal that supported the tabernacle. As I stopped to genuflect, a woman up in years knelt to join the men. It was immediately clear that the Lord in the Eucharist enjoys a very special place in the piety of the People of God of St. Jude’s.

Both of my Masses were in Spanish. (There are four Spanish Masses and one English Mass each weekend.) All parts from the "Lord Have Mercy" to the "Lamb of God" were sung by heart and from the heart, between the congregation and a vested choir of men and women. Nor should I have been surprised. For the pastor is an enthusiastic singer and the choir director, Mr. José Beato, a gifted musician.

My homilies were in Spanish, and their theme was drawn from the Gospel of the day, wherein the Lord was telling the crowds that He would give them His flesh to eat and His blood to drink. (John 6:51-58) As I spoke, I knew that I was preaching to a people who truly love their Eucharistic Lord. The proof was in their eyes, in their song, and in the uncommonly devout manner in which they attended to my words. I had intended to inspire them to a deeper commitment to the Son of God under the appearances of bread and wine. As it happened, it was rather I who was inspired.

After the second Mass, Father Isla, my priest-secretary, and I toured a "flea market" that was being held in the church parking lot in support of the parish school. The chairperson of the event told me that such an affair is held five times a year, and the pastor added that the school is in excellent financial condition as a result of such commitment. Both spoke glowingly of the principal, Mr. Michael Deegan, who served on the faculty for many years before becoming the principal in 1996. "We have a great school," a young man with a child holding on to his legs announced, and several others shook their heads in enthusiastic agreement. "Una escuela maravillosa!" an elderly gentleman added with a tone of authority and evident pride.

At lunch in the rectory I listened with great interest to the plan which the pastor and his parishioners have for their parish. They call it "El Proyecto San Judas" ("The St. Jude Project"). It includes an expanded church, a "gathering-space" for meetings and celebrations, and a shrine in honor of their patron, St. Jude. For the shrine they already have an imposing Carrara marble statue of the saint which was acquired by the first pastor of the parish, Reverend Francis J. Kett, whose curate at the time was a young priest from the Bronx by the name of Terence J. Cooke, who in 1974 presided at the 25th anniversary Mass of the parish as Terence Cardinal Cooke. The statue is kept in a shrine in the vestibule of the school, awaiting the fulfillment of the "Proyecto."

As we drove home after the luncheon, the sun was shining brightly and the City seemed to have a rather special glow about it. It could have been my imagination. It could have been the "upbeat" report on the car radio about how well we New Yorkers had handled the "blackout." Or it could have been – and deep down I knew it was – the result of a Sunday morning in upper Manhattan with a community of faith that made everything appear good, decent, happy and holy.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York