Thoughts & Views: Infamous days that will live in memory



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.)

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