For decades, the U.S. Navy’s recruiting slogan was “Join the Navy and see the world.” There are times when another slogan seems just as appropriate: “Join the Clarion Herald and see the archdiocese.”
One of the great blessings of our job at the Clarion Herald is the chance to follow a very moving target, usually Archbishop Gregory Aymond. The archbishop’s peripatetic schedule puts to shame another jingle: “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium.”
Consider that in the space of a little more than 24 hours last weekend, Archbishop Aymond prayed for unborn life and women in crisis pregnancies in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic on South Claiborne Avenue; presided at the Funeral Mass for a quiet giant of a priest, Father Tony White, at St. Joseph Church in Gretna; celebrated the 125th anniversary of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Slidell; and honored the 175 years of history at St. Augustine Church in Treme, where there were so many people inside the historic church getting a double dose of the Holy Ghost that a woman came out of the congregation with a handkerchief during Communion to wipe the archbishop’s brow.
He smiled and kept on serving – and distributing – the Lord.
I can tell you the archdiocese is an amazing place, teeming with goodness. Earlier in the week, more than a thousand people crammed inside the Chapel of the North American Martyrs at Jesuit High School for the Memorial Mass of Jesuit Father Raymond Fitzgerald, the beloved former president of Jesuit High School who died last month of ALS at the age of 58.
Jesuit Father Richard Hermes, Father Fitzgerald’s good friend, in the manner of all good storytellers, recalled two incidents that perfectly described his mentor’s deep well of humility. Father Fitzgerald was a brilliant scholar, fluent in more languages than a U.N. interpreter, but perhaps his most endearing quality was recognizing that God, not mere mortals, was the one in charge.
Father Hermes was a young Jesuit scholastic and teacher when he informed Father Fitzgerald of the results of his first Latin I test for 90 students: “Thirty A’s, 43 B’s, 12 C’s, four D’s and one F.” Father Fitzgerald smiled and offered a “laconic” response: “Acceptable casualties.”
As Father Hermes was finishing preparations for a retreat for more than 300 freshmen, which was organized by a dozen teachers and 75 student ministers, Father Fitzgerald took a grandfatherly view when he gave a presidential pep talk to the juniors and seniors who were running the retreat: “Gentlemen, as long as nobody abandons the faith today, we’ll chalk it up as a victory.”
Flash forward to last Saturday. One of the striking things about Archbishop Aymond’s prayer in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic was his appeal to a merciful God that the hearts of women who believe there is no way out of a crisis pregnancy other than abortion will be touched by someone or something that will convince them to keep their child. As a Planned Parenthood volunteer in a yellow vest – a woman in her 20s – came out to count the pro-life crowd, the archbishop also prayed for the conversion of those in the abortion industry.
Two hours later, at the funeral for Father White, Father Randy Roux delivered the homily. Not many people knew of Father White, a native of Ireland who was ordained as a Holy Ghost missionary priest and served many years in Nigeria before a civil war forced him to leave and eventually brought him to New Orleans.
He was in residence for many years at St. Patrick Church on Camp Street, where he quietly and reverently celebrated Mass and also developed a life-changing outreach ministry to those suffering from alcoholism.
But it was a small thing Father White did that stuck with Father Roux.
“Every day, Father White made his bed and placed a crucifix on his pillow,” Father Roux said. “He always said he wanted to begin each day with Christ and then come back to rest in Christ.”
That crucifix was placed on his casket Saturday.
On Sunday at St. Augustine Church, Archbishop Aymond celebrated a two-hour Mass at the historic church, dedicated in 1842. There were black Catholics and white Catholics and Catholics of every description over-filling every pew, fitting because St. Augustine Church at its beginning was home to whites, free people of color and slaves.
Lucille Benjamin, 95, St. Augustine’s oldest living parishioner who attended St. Mary’s Academy in the French Quarter, was seated, left of the center aisle. She was right behind the Sisters of the Holy Family, who taught her at St. Mary’s in the sacred lineage begun by Venerable Henriette Delille. Mother Henriette ministered throughout Treme and the French Quarter through the religious congregation she founded in 1842.
Benjamin, wearing a special anniversary corsage, snaked her way up through the packed aisles for Communion.
“After Katrina, I didn’t think I would be able to make it,” Benjamin said. “This means a whole lot. It means my whole life to be here to witness all of this.”
And then, just down Rampart Street from St. Augustine Church, the city’s apple red streetcar slid quietly past the front of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on its maiden voyage.
In Catholic New Orleans, time is a relative commodity.