To be with the Rev. John Flynn was to walk with faith.
Seriously—he would cross the streets around Saint Martin of Tours parish in the Bronx barely looking to see if any cars were barreling down the way. How he never got hit is a minor miracle. Yet whenever I accompanied him on his regular walks around his neighborhood, I just had to take it as an article of faith that we wouldn’t be mowed down by a crazed livery cab.
Granted, this lanky, tousle-haired priest with busted shoes and threadbare black slacks was out there often enough to be known to one and all in Crotona, a hardscrabble patch tucked between the Bronx Zoo and Little Italy. Everybody looked out for him.
That’s because he looked out for everybody. His walks were sometimes celebratory, especially when he went to watch youngsters playing on a nearby field that had been salvaged from an abandoned lot. Other times, it was nothing less than a march along a modern Via Crucis, to console parents of young people who had been slain in the local drug trade. More than once, he went to bless the very spot where some unfortunate soul drew his last breath.
“We think God's cathedral is the world,” he told me a few days before Christmas in 1996, when a man was murdered inside a garden shack near the church. “We bless the whole thing with holy water and rededicate the world to the things that create.”
Father Flynn, 83, died on September 24th in the Bronx nursing home where he had lived more or less since his retirement as pastor of Saint Martin’s in 2010. You see, even though he had retired, he stayed loyal to his flock and friends and went back pretty much every day to walk the streets of his old parish. When heart and memory problems slowed him down, he simply found a new mission—walking the halls of the nursing home to minister to his fellow residents.
He had grown up comfortably in Yonkers, where, his sister Mary Ellen told the New York Times, he used to play being priest. Though asthmatic, he was also athletic, a trait that stayed with him for much of his life, especially on any given Monday when he played some serious golf with his fellow priests. After his ordination in 1955 he eventually was assigned to Saint Raymond’s parish in Parkchester, then an Irish enclave, where he is fondly remembered to this day.
He returned their affection, even if one of them would eventually break his heart. When he suggested the church reach out to their Hispanic and Black neighbors, someone speaking from fear, ignorance—or worse—scoffed at him.
“If you love them so much,” he was told. “Why don’t you go live with them.”
Which is exactly what he did.
He spent several years as a missionary in Venezuela, learning Spanish and seeing up close not just the poverty, but the power of small communities of faith. When he returned to the Bronx he was assigned to St. Francis Assisi parish, where he witnessed the fire-stoked wave of destruction that incinerated much of the South Bronx. Yet it was also a heady time for brothers, nuns and priests—like Fr. Neil Connolly, Sr. Pat Dillon and Fr. Dean Brackley—who used their churches and community centers to organize residents to demand from the city not a hand out, but what was rightfully theirs—a chance to live with dignity.
“You can't just baptize people, give them communion and let them die too young,” Fr. Flynn once said. “It's letting them take control of their lives and let them live the full years that God wants them to live, with respect.”
He arrived at Saint Martin’s—my childhood parish—in the late 1980s, right when crack and guns were threatening to finish off what the fires had not. He joined with residents and organizers in the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition to push for better housing, streets and schools. Yet the toll on teenagers continued, driving him to the point of near-desperation after officiating over one teenager’s funeral too many.
In 1991, there were wide-eyed whispers about this crazy priest at Saint Martin’s who would go out at night offering to trade a crucifix for a gun. That’s when I first met him, reporting a story about this seemingly Quixotic mission to pacify Crotona. He ventured outside the safety of the rectory, walking up to young men with hard faces and even harder hearts, unflinching in his honesty and, yes, love. He knew he would likely not get a gun—and he never did—but he was after something more lasting.
“I want folks to know there is a way here out of the agony of violence and someone who can hold their hand as they choose life over death,” he told me in what would be the first of countless conversations. “The gun is a symbol, as is the cross. The cross is not going to save anybody, but if it gets into their souls, it will.”
And so it went for much of the next two decades. He took great delight in bantering with the children at the grammar school, where he taught them religion. He presided over weddings, baptisms and funerals, where the church pulsed with the tearfully joyful sounds of Spanish hymns. He set up the Save a Generation program, to encourage dropouts to get off the streets and back to school. He welcomed the community to the Quonset hut turned gym where the parish had its annual Thanksgiving dinner—and where everyone was invited, not just the poor and hungry, in case people were ashamed to reveal their need. He helped the local police and firemen, once talking a suicidal man down from a roof.
Father Flynn could talk to anybody.
When his body and his mind showed signs of age and affliction, his spirit did not. In the months after his “retirement” from Saint Martin’s, he feverishly put together a plan to save the school, which by then was set to be shuttered. His idea was to turn the building into a school for Catholics, Evangelicals and Muslims, where secular subjects were taught in common, breaking up only for instruction in their own particular faith.
His plan went nowhere.
Privately, his voice betrayed pain, sadness and frustration. Yet I never heard him utter a single word in anger.
Saint Martin’s—the school whose students’ dreams and accomplishments brought him such delight—closed in 2011. He had a mild stroke soon after. A little more than a year later, he was dead.
Let this be said about Father Flynn—for a man who ministered to the poor and wounded in a neighborhood that often strove against an indifferent—if not hostile—world, he was filled with joy. It suffused his priestly vocation, which he shared selflessly with any and all he encountered. He was not just some happy-go-lucky guy, but someone who knew the one great thing: they don’t call it the Good News for nothing.
The strains of “Unchained Melody” filled the sanctuary of Saint Martin’s where he lay in state the day before Cardinal Timothy Dolan would celebrate his funeral Mass. An honor guard of four women stood reverently by the open casket. People dabbed at their eyes, but their sadness soon gave way to a smile or a chuckle when they saw the photo-filled displays of the man and his ministry. Many went up to his sister Mary Ellen, talking to her in Spanish as if she shared her brother’s hard-won fluency. She did not, but she knew what they felt.
My wife, Elena, and I sat in the very pews where as I child I fidgeted during Mass when Monsignor Francis “Two Gun” Reilly held forth. Despite his nickname, I later learned he had been among the first clergy to rally people and parishes against the arson, abandonment and official indifference that would have let Crotona vanish in smoke and ashes.
As a child, my eyes often wandered to the huge mural of the Assumption behind the altar, and then to the stained glass windows along the sides. Now, I looked up and beheld them with the faith—insecure and insufficient as it is—of an adult who had the good luck to know Father Flynn. Beneath them, visitors from all races, creeds and fortunes came to pay their respects.
At one point, two fearsome-looking members of the Ching a Ling Nomads, a local motorcycle gang, strode up the church’s aisle in full swastika-adorned regalia. Their jangling strut fell silent when they reached Father Flynn’s casket. They stopped, nodded solemnly, and walked off. A few minutes later, a bishop followed behind them.
The stained glass window nearest Father Flynn’s body said it all.
Go Teach All Nations, it declared.
Padre John Flynn, the People’s Priest of the Bronx, lived the Great Commission to his dying day—and then some.