An Advent of Mourning

Advent beckons, and still the mourning continues in and around New York. The news brings stories of battlefield successes in Afghanistan and heartening reports of men and women celebrating their liberation from the Taliban. But the war news brings little cheer to many homes in the New York area. The memorial Masses go on.

Several neighborhoods were particularly hard hit. At St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre on Long Island, a lector read the names of more than two dozen parishioners missing in the attacks. Included among them, the lector noted, were his son and son-in-law.

One place where the grieving has been profound and terribly prolonged is the parish in which my father grew up and in which I was baptized. St. Clare’s, on the southern shore of Staten Island has a mix of cops, firefighters and young office workersa wonderful sort of diversity, even within a predominately white congregation. Much has been made, in the New York newspapers anyway, of what a profoundly Catholic tragedy Sept. 11 was. It was not just the cops and firefighters, representing as they do particularly Catholic institutions, but also many of the traders in the hard-hit brokerage houses. The New York Times took notice in a page one story on Nov. 4 pointing out that the civil servants and the white-collar office workers often came from the same Catholic schools, that the office workers (and more than a few of the civil servants) attended local Catholic colleges like Fordham and St. John’s.

On the streets of St. Clare’s parish, that commingling of Catholics seemingly divided by their work but united in their faith, interests and values, is very apparent. Cops live next door to men and women who wear business suits for the daily train ride to the city, as Manhattan is called in these parts. Firefighters throw block parties with their lawyer neighbors. It is a mix not found in some of suburbia’s wealthier enclaves.

Then again, St. Clare’s is not a suburban parish, despite appearances. Its parishioners tend to own their own homes with backyards and a grill, but it’s still New York City.

Thirty people from St. Clare’s lost their lives on Sept. 11. Eleven of them were firefighters. Some of the most heart-rending funerals and memorial masses have been in St. Clare’s red-brick church, like the one for Louis J. Modafferi, the captain of Staten Island’s Rescue Company 5. Like the city’s other rescue companiesthe New York Fire Department’s elite troopsRescue 5 was wiped out on Sept. 11.

With the governor of New York, the mayor and other political figures joining the Modafferi family in their grief, the fire commissioner announced that Captain Modafferi had been promoted posthumously. We’ll now refer to him as Battalion Chief Louis Modafferi, the commissioner told mourners.

Msgr. Joseph Murphy is the pastor of St. Clare’s, and he celebrated the Mass for Battalion Chief Modafferi. It has been a horrible autumn for the priest. I called him because of my longtime connection to St. Clare’snot only was I baptized there (or so I’m told), but I went to Mass there with my grandparents, who lived down the street, and I worked for a couple of years as an unpaid janitor in the parish school. My father, a one-time student at St. Clare’s and a firefighter based down the street (across from my grandparents’ house), cleaned the school gym on Sunday nights. I gave him a hand, but not without a pricehe let me shoot hoops when we were finished.

Monsignor Murphy said that in his 48 years as a priest, I’ve never experienced so much sorrow. Going to all these funerals and memorial Masses, I have felt terribly sad. This is the most painful period in my life. On a single day several weeks after the attacks, St. Clare’s celebrated four memorial Masses. Many are for parents whose children attend the parish’s thriving school.

The grief and sorrow of survivors and loved ones is unknowable. But so, too, is the pain of the priests who have had to minister to so many peopleto so many young people. One of the first funeral services we did was for a young family, Monsignor Murphy said. The family had already scheduled a baptism for their child for the Sunday after Sept. 11. The day before the funeral, the victim’s widow asked if she could have the baptism as part of the funeral Mass. It was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever seen: a funeral for the father, a baptism for the child.

Monsignor Murphy said he does his best to counsel the grief-stricken, to let them know that I care, to reach out to them in any way I can. The exhaustion in his voice was evident.

But just as he reminds families that they are not alone, he also is not alone. The parish established several ministries to help survivors, and the response has been overwhelming. A close-knit parish community became closer still as parishioners donated time, money and expertise to help their neighbors. Hundreds of people, Monsignor Murphy said, have come forward.

Of course, there is no silver lining to the horror of Sept. 11. But the example of St. Clare’s, and many other parishes in and around New York and, for that matter, the rest of the country, at least reminds us that evil is not triumphant.

With God’s help, that thought will help the grieving through their Advent season.

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