July 23, 2003
Saints and an Arrowhead
Two years ago a Jewish couple here in New York invited me to their home for dinner. They wanted to introduce me to a number of their Jewish friends; and I was, of course, both honored and delighted.
Toward the end of the meal, my hosts asked me if I would say a word or two to the guests about Jewish-Catholic relations. Accordingly, I rose to speak briefly about the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in this regard and, as well, about my own experiences with the Jewish community in Chicago in the late 1960s when I headed the office of ecumenism and human relations for the Chicago Archdiocese.
In the course of a question period after my remarks, one of the guests asked–out of the blue, as it were–if I had ever heard of the Machabees. I responded that I had and was surprised to learn that the same could not be said for any of the other guests. Hence, at the request of several of them, I recounted the story of a political-religious movement of the Chosen People in the 160’s B.C., which was known as the Machabees and led by a man called Judas Machabeus. In addition, I told in some detail of a battle that Judas and his army had waged against the forces of King Antiochus IV of Syria.
As I finished my account, one of the guests inquired as to why I was so knowledgeable about Judas and the Machabees.
"Because their story appears in the Second Book of Machabees, the last book in the Catholic compilation of the Jewish Scriptures," I replied, "and especially because the 12th chapter of this book from what we call the Old Testament contains a marvelously clear endorsement of Catholic doctrine and practice regarding the offering of prayers for the dead."
"After a fierce battle against the army of Antiochus," I explained, "Judas discovered that some of his fallen soldiers had been superstitiously wearing pagan amulets or charms under their tunics. Anxious about their salvation, Judas took up a collection for prayers to be offered in the temple of Jerusalem for the forgiveness of the soldiers’ sins and the repose of their souls."
"The 12th chapter of the Second Book of Machabees," I concluded, "ends with these words: ‘It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins.’ This is a truth that we Catholics have embraced for 2,000 years, a truth of theological importance, and a truth that provides us both strength and consolation when we lose our loved ones in death. And this is why I know as much as I do about Judas and the Machabees."
The questions came to an end. I sat down, and we all began to chat over coffee with the guests at our tables. The matter of the Machabees, however, kept coming up in the circle of tables in which I found myself. Hence, for whatever reason, I told of an episode in my life related to the story of Judas Machabeus which I had described many years earlier in an article for the monthly newspaper of the diocese in which I was then serving. It was a rather simple tale, and it did not seem to make much of an impression on the ones to whom I had narrated it.
Nonetheless, as I was saying "goodbye" to our hosts, one of the guests approached me to ask that I accept something which he characterized as "very precious." He had carried it on his person for many, many years, he reported; and he wanted me to have it. The gift was a shiny, black arrowhead, he informed me, that belonged to a soldier in the army of Judas Machabeus.
I protested that I could not accept something that evidently meant so much to him. The guest, however, insisted, placing the arrowhead in my hand and assuring me that he wanted me to have it. I am not altogether certain that he was one of the guests who had heard my "rather simple tale." Still, I like to think that he was and that it somehow struck a chord with him. In any case, here is the tale, as it appeared in the aforementioned diocesan newspaper.
Holy and Wholesome
It was to be my first funeral Mass. I was home from the seminary in Rome but a few weeks and was still learning how to be a curate in the cathedral parish of Chicago.
The announcement on the rectory bulletin board was quite clear: "Funeral Mass tomorrow morning at 10:30, Father Egan." Somewhat unnerved, I spent several hours that night reviewing the rubrics for a Funeral Mass and preparing a fitting sermon.
The following morning, robed in the black vestments of the era and led by two acolytes in starched, white surplices, I made my way to the altar, eyes cast down and chalice in hand. Not until the "Collect" or "Prayer" of the Mass did I have occasion to turn around to see the congregation.
It consisted of two ladies and two gentlemen, all very much up in years and all kneeling piously in the front row. In the center aisle there stood a metal cart upon which had been placed a wooden coffin covered in grey felt. At the rear of the cathedral two young men were making a quiet visit to the Lord; and above in the choir loft, the organist sat motionless.
The name of the deceased was written on a card which the sacristan had placed upon the altar. I took the card with me to the pulpit. Next to the name were the words: "Catholic Charities Funeral: No known relatives or friends."
That evening at supper the senior curate asked me how the funeral had gone. "We have three or four of those Charities funerals a week," he observed, "and the congregation is usually pretty much the same."
"Did you meet Emily?" one of the other curates inquired.
"Who is Emily?" I asked.
"She usually sits in the front row with a few of her friends," I was told. "Every morning she checks with Lillian at the switchboard to find out if there is to be a Catholic Charities funeral the next day. Emily doesn’t want anyone going to the Lord alone."
As it happened, that week I was assigned to two other such funerals; and the congregation was always the same. They followed the coffin in. They prayed the Mass devoutly. And they followed the coffin out. Anyone happening into the cathedral would have assumed that they were elderly relatives or friends of the deceased.
It was several weeks later that I made the acquaintance of Emily and the other members of her group. One afternoon I was passing a diner across the street from the cathedral school. The four of them were seated in a booth near the window. They waved and beckoned me to join them.
There was no difficulty in divining which one was Emily. She was in her late 70s but stood ramrod straight and had a commanding voice. "We have been looking forward to meeting you, Father," she announced. "We have been seeing you at funerals a good deal lately."
With that, she extracted from her unusually large handbag about 20 pieces of notebook paper that were rolled up and clipped together at the top. She smoothed them out on the dinner table and reviewed the funerals I had celebrated. There was one for Charles, and I had spoken on the mercy of God. There was another for Cynthia, and I had spoken of the joy that would be ours in heaven. There was a third for Gilbert, and I had spoken of salvation through Jesus Christ for all without exception.
And so it went. I was both impressed and amazed. Each of the funerals was carefully recorded on an individual sheet of paper at the top of which were written in flowing Spencerian script words from the 12th chapter of the Second Book of Machabees: "It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins."
"A holy and wholesome thought," Emily read slowly and with evident pleasure, as she folded up her pages.
"But why do you do all of this?" I asked, immediately regretting that I had not formulated my question in a more diplomatic fashion.
"The Communion of Saints," one of the gentlemen responded without a moment’s hesitation.
"Of course, the Communion of Saints," Emily interjected. "All of us in the Church–whether in heaven, on earth or in purgatory–are one family under one Father in heaven, with one loving brother, Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. We are the Communion of Saints; and if we truly believe that, we have to take care of one another."
There was a minute of silence, but only a minute. For Emily had more to say.
"The dear departed that Catholic Charities send to the cathedral for their funerals," she explained, "are our brothers and sisters in the Lord, members of our one Catholic Church, enrolled in our one ‘communion.’ They deserve to have caring loved ones praying for them at their Funeral Masses, and we do our best not to disappoint them. We treat them like our blood relations."
"Or at least close friends," the other lady added rather meekly.
There was a second silence, longer than the first. It was broken by the gentleman who had spoken earlier. "We do it," he stated as though he were replying for the first time to my original inquiry, "because of the Communion of Saints."
Emily and the others nodded in agreement.
Not long after this conversation, I was transferred to live at the Cardinal’s Residence a few blocks away. Still, I ate lunch each weekday at the cathedral rectory and regularly made a visit to the Blessed Sacrament in the cathedral before going up to the dining room.
Often I would see the end of a Catholic Charities funeral with the "saints" walking slowly behind the wooden coffin that bore another "saint" whom they had never met but whom they genuinely loved. I knew that another page had been inscribed from the Second Book of Machabees. I knew that the theme of another funeral sermon had been duly recorded. And I knew, above all else, that something altogether "holy and wholesome" had taken place.
To what extent this story of mine occasioned the extraordinary gift that was presented to me after the dinner with my Jewish friends, I cannot be sure, though I feel quite certain that it played a role. Whatever of this, I keep the gift in my residence in an honored place and count it among my most treasured possessions. One day when the "saints" lead me to the Lord, it will be transferred to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to be reserved in a room in which items of great value are kept. There it will be an enduring and powerful reminder to the People of God of the Archdiocese of New York that praying for the dead that they might be loosed from their sins is, in the words of Holy Scripture, and specifically in the words of Judas Machabeus, both "holy and wholesome."
Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York