There are certain times or dates that resonate in each of us because they affect us viscerally, even to the center of our soul.
On Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, I was listening to the radio. It was a broadcast of a football game. It was a game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. (Yes, in those days, there was a Brooklyn football team called the Dodgers.)
Suddenly, a voice broke in. The voice was telling us that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. I, at 11 years of age, was filled with excitement. I ran into the kitchen where my mother was washing dishes.
“Mom,” I cried, “The Japs have bombed Pearl Harbor. We are at war.”
My mother’s response was instant. Her eyes filled with tears. I was surprised. “Just think of all those boys who are going to die,” she said. She was heartbroken. I found my excitement turning into more somber thoughts of war and death.
Another date that is stamped into my consciousness is Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. I was stationed at St. Cecilia’s in Kearny. In those days, we priests had the responsibility of servicing West Hudson Hospital. I was on duty when the phone rang. As usual, the female voice at the other end uttered just two words, “Emergency, Father.” I jumped into the car and was at the hospital within five minutes.
The situation that greeted me was not unusual. An elderly gentleman had suffered a heart attack. He had gone to God.
As I entered the hospital, the receptionist at the desk said, “Room 305, Father.”
When I entered the room and took out the Holy Oils to anoint the man, the television was still playing. I heard the words, “President John F. Kennedy has died.” Then came the details of his assassination.
It was like a knife in my heart. I found myself praying over the deceased gentleman, and at the same time weeping for our first Catholic President, our beautiful John Kennedy.
Then I stopped in the middle of my prayers. “What a contradiction! Here I pray, mechanically anointing a man who is meeting his Creator – yet crying for a man I had never known personally.”
“What a fool I am,” I thought. “I am performing a sacred function for the soul of a person. My fingers are touching his body. Yet my mind is in Dallas.”
I meditated on that dichotomy for many days. From that day on, I never ever just “gave the last rites.” I have looked at each human being who was dead or in danger of death as a unique and special being – a child of God – at the most important time of his or her existence, that moment when the soul meets God.
If the priesthood should become just a function, then it is no longer the ministry of Jesus. Every soul is precious to the living God. We must love and pray for them all, the way that Jesus did.
– Msgr. John J. Gilchrist
(Msgr. Gilchrist is in residence at the Catholic Youth Center in Kearny. He is a former columnist for the Catholic Advocate newspaper.)