Mass of thanksgiving and remembrance

| September 23, 2010 | 0 Comments

Bishop Lee Piché presided at the “Blue Mass,” a Mass of thanksgiving and remembrance to honor police officers, firefighters and emergency personnel, Sept. 11 at the Cathedral of St. Paul. The event honors those that serve the community and those that have died in the line of duty. Names of more than 400 Minnesota officers and emergency workers that have died were read during the Mass. Bishop Piché also remembered the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The text of his homily follows:

The American composer John Adams created his heart-wrenching piece of music, On the Transmigration of Souls, to honor the memory of the victims and heroes of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. The piece begins with a collage of city sounds, soon blended with the sparse, plaintive, lingering chant of the strings and harp, and a boy’s voice repeating over and over: “missing … missing … missing.” Other voices come in – a woman’s, a man’s, another woman’s – reciting fragments of texts such as, “I’ll miss you, my brother, my loving brother,” and, “You will never be forgotten.” The piece reaches its climax in the reverential reading of several dozen names, a small percentage of the total number of victims who died in those horrendous events nine years ago today.

As for the texts Adams used, many of the phrases were taken from the missing-person posters that family members and friends had taped up on the fences near Ground Zero in Manhattan. The intangible and more timeless musical composition has enshrined those transitory memorials and made them more permanent, preserving them for centuries to come – or for at least as long as the piece will be played. That is one effect of this piece. It helps us to hold on to the memory of those victims because, unlike a memorial on paper or cardboard which disinte¬grates in the rain, the piece is more like a permanent monument to the fallen.

But the piece does something else. The overall emotion of the composition is one of immense sadness, but not defeat. Even the title expresses the overall movement of the composition, which begins with the feeling of fragmentation, separation, but which ends with the suggestion of a gathering together. It is called On the Transmigration of Souls: the idea is not that these souls have vanished, but rather that they have made a transition to some other place, a migration to some other land. Our faith teaches us that “the souls of the just are in the hand of God,” (Wis 3), and that the new world to which every human life is on pilgrimage is the Kingdom of heaven.

There is yet one more important idea that this piece evokes. Listening to it, one has the impression of the many, many shattered lives, the separation of many, many loved ones, and an immeasurable sorrow – as once again we are confronted by the sheer magnitude of the disaster, the unthinkable number of victims who all died on that one day in that one place. And yet, along with this, the piece also conveys the sense that each and every one of those victims was and is still precious, unique. The heroes and victims are not remembered as a multitude, but as individuals: “My sister,” “My brother,” “My daughter,” “My son,” … “I love you.”

As I listened to the piece again the other evening, a vivid image came back to my mind. Several years ago, my mother and I visited New York City and went to the memorial at Trinity Church, a few blocks away from Ground Zero. Among the various objects on display were a pair of shoes, laces tied together, which had been left hanging on a wrought-iron fence, where they believe a fireman had suited up and changed into his boots in order to go up into one of the crippled and burning buildings. That fireman, like so many others, never came back. As I looked at that pair of shoes, my heart felt an unexpected pang of anguish, and my eyes were stung with a sudden rush of tears. In a flash, I was wrenched from the protection of anonymity, from the anesthetic effect of seeing the disaster through the lens of a long list of names. The incomprehensible devastation of September 11th had so shocked and numbed me – as it did so many of us – that it had been difficult to move beyond the “crowd” of victims, victims unknown to me and therefore just names. In that moment of insight – seeing those shoes – I experienced in a small way the unspeakable grief of the mother, the father, the brother, the sister, the spouse, the son, the daughter who had lost by sudden and violent death the loved one who had worn that pair of shoes. This was a person with a history, with a treasury of childhood memories, with hopes and dreams for the future, with plans for the weekend – a person – well, just like me; a person who, as one theologian has expressed it, is “a universe within.”

Today we remember each member of our own law enforcement and emergency personnel who died in the line of duty. As we reverently recite their names, we honor the memory of each one as a unique and cherished individual. When we hear so many names read, one after the other, we can lose the sense of each one’s individuality. And so we take a moment to look more closely at just one of these many heroes; doing so can help us to appreciate how each and every one of the others, too, is “a universe within.”

Toward the end of our list of slightly more than 440 names, we find the name of Richard Crittenden, the North Saint Paul police officer who was slain in an ambush a year ago last Tuesday. I saw the article in the paper about the unveiling this week of a life-size bronze statue of Officer Crittenden, who is depicted in that monument as walking hand in hand with his granddaughter Meghan. All who knew him and saw the statue agreed that it was a fitting memorial to “Grandpa Rick.” He was remembered by friends as a person “who always had a hug for you. He made you feel important.” The fact that he is holding the hand of a child communicates a powerful and, I believe, appropriate message, not only about Officer Crittenden, but about all our heroes who wear the uniform of law enforcement, fire and rescue, and emergency response. These are the men and women who have sworn to protect us, children and adults alike, and who day by day take us in hand for our safety. Their vigilant presence and their selfless sacrifice provide the rest of us with a greater security in an increasingly insecure world. They protect us even from ourselves, when we make bad choices, choices that could endanger our own lives and the lives of others. They are the ones who put themselves in the line of fire, who enter harm’s way, so that we may be shielded and delivered from physical danger.

And so today we remember the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice, who laid down their lives in service to their brothers and sisters. Using the words of the Apostle Paul, we commend these public servants as those who “sowed bountifully”; therefore, we are confident that they shall also reap bountifully, because it is the Lord who made the promise. They had within them a spirit of self-sacrifice, “enriched in every way,” as Paul says, “for all generosity, which … produces thanksgiving to God,” the very thing we are doing at this Liturgy. These public servants whom we remember today are like the faithful servants in the Gospel who accepted the talents entrusted to them by the Master and traded with them for an increase. The fallen heroes we remember today invested their very lives by taking the risks that enable the rest of us to live in safety. How fitting that they should hear these Gospel words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. …Come, share your master’s joy.”

We celebrate this holy Mass as an offering of Thanksgiving and of Remembrance. The thanks we offer to God, and to our fallen heroes, is perhaps small compared to the reward that God has promised to those who give their lives in complete self-sacrifice. But the memorial we erect today, in our celebration of this Liturgy, surpasses the bronze statue of Richard Crittenden, which we hope will stand in North Saint Paul for hundreds of years to come. Our memorial of this Mass surpasses even the long-lasting tribute of a piece of modern classical music like On the Transmigration of Souls. In our hearts, we wish that each and every one of the 440-plus fallen heroes could have a bronze statue erected in his or her honor – for they each deserve some such monument, and what they have done is worthy of a permanent memorial. We wish that each and every one of these fallen heroes could have a symphony composed in his or her honor alone, for each one is a universe within, precious and unrepeatable, and dearly loved.

What we cannot do, God can. And the Sacred Liturgy is no mere human work, but an action of Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, in communion with his mystical Body on earth, the Church, the community of believers. What we are doing here and now is offering to God the eternal Father, with Jesus Christ his Son, a perfect sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, a sacrifice of reconciliation and forgiveness, a sacrifice which is itself the memorial of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. Because it is a work of the whole Christ, the Liturgy we celebrate, the memorial we make, is eternal; it is everlasting. Our tribute to these fallen heroes shall never be erased, shall never be eroded or obliterated by time, but shall last forever. We have placed their memorial in the heart of eternity upon the altar of heaven; we have placed their souls into the hands of the living God; and we have placed the praise of their good deeds on the lips of the communion of saints, whose song and whose symphony is timeless: “Well done, good and faithful servants. … Come, share your Master’s joy.”

Tags: ,

Category: Local News