I was celebrant at the funeral Mass for Jack Olsen last Saturday morning in Sacred Heart Church in Bay Head, NJ.
My memories of Jack go way back to when the Olsens lived in the house on the corner of Lord Avenue and 3rd Street in Bayonne, NJ. My mother was a friend of Jack’s mother and when we were young she took my sister and me regularly to see the Olsens. We played with their 9 kids. Just down the street from their house was a football field where some of the best local teams played. During the 2nd World War Italian prisoners of war were held in barracks there and many Bayonne Italians went down to talk to them and pass them food. It put a human face to war.
Just beyond the Olsen’s house was the Kill Van Kull, the busy three mile waterway between Bayonne and Staten Island. Bill Olsen, Jack’s father, was a tugboat captain. As a kid, I couldn’t think of a better job in all the world than pushing and pulling big ships and barges around New York harbor.
My mother told me she met my father when she was washing the dishes after a baptism at the Olsens–maybe it was Jack’s baptism, or Fr. Tom’s, or Rita’s. My father was a friend of Jack’s uncle, Dinny, who probably invited him to the baptismal celebration that day.
“What’s your name?” my father said to her. “Rose O’Donnell,” she replied. “I’m Victor Hoagland,” he said. So my sister and I are here 80 or so years later. How connected our lives are by small things, like washing dishes or going to a baptism.
I mentioned at Jack’s funeral some of the small things that took place at his baptism 86 years ago. He was brought to church and signed with the sign of the Cross. That simple sign meant that he was blessed by the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, who would bless him through the course of his life, even the hard months that marked his final sickness.
At his baptism, the priest poured water, the source of life, on his forehead and said (in Latin then) “John, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Life was God’s gift to him, a life that begins at conception and continues beyond the years here on earth.
Jack was a strong believer in God, the Creator, who gives life and Jesus, our Redeemer, who saw life so precious that he gave his life that we might live. He was a firm believer in the Right to Life.
Baptism is a sacrament of family life, which means, first of all, that we’re members of the family we belong to in this world. Jack, a bachelor, played a big part in his large family of brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews and all their wives and husbands, never missing celebrations, births, deaths and holidays. He was proud of his family and loyal to his own.
Baptism calls us into other families too– the family that’s our neighborhood, our city, our country. Jack was a good neighbor who loved the place where he lived and the people who lived there.
Baptism also calls us into the family of the church. Jack was a true believer; he loved the church. No doubt about his loyalty; the church was his home. He belonged to its societies, like the Holy Name and the Knights of Columbus. He made retreats with the Passionists. The Mass and the sacraments were not formalities, they were real for him. He loved his church in good times and bad.
At Jack’s funeral the other day, it seemed right to remember his baptism. The sacrament is at the heart of our funeral rites, when you think about it. We blessed him with water, the sign of life and made the sign of the cross over him again as his remains were carried into the church and then carried out. A white cloth, a reminder of the white garment he received long ago, was placed over him. The great words of faith were proclaimed: “The souls of the just are in the hands of God.” We heard the account of Jesus’ death and the message of the angel, “He is risen.” We celebrated the mystery of the Bread and Wine, which Jesus said are the food of eternal life.
“Life is changed, not ended,” our prayer said. Rest in peace.