I celebrated a Memorial Mass for one of my oldest friends, Gene Callahan, at St. Mary’s Church in Bayonne, NJ on Saturday, June 13, 2015 at 10 o’clock. We had been friends since the 1st grade at St. Mary’s Grammar School. Gene had a successful career as a banker at Citibank in New York until his retirement some years ago. He never married but he was devoted to his family. His 8 nephews and nieces were there for the Mass, with some of their children and spouses. Three classmates from high school days were there too and a few other friends.
After Mass we gathered for a meal at a restaurant on 2nd Street in Bayonne and told stories about him. There were plenty of them.
I preached this homily at the Mass:
A few weeks ago I went with a family after a funeral Mass to bury their loved one in a cemetery near Paramus, NJ. As we drove to the grave in the cemetery we couldn’t help but notice a large family– dressed like people from the Middle East–having a big picnic at one of the gravesites. It was a big party; they were eating and drinking and having a good time.
The people with me were taken aback by it all. I said, “I think I know what this is. It’s a funeral banquet.” It’s common in some older cultures to gather at the anniversary of death at the gravesite of your family and have a big meal and remember them. In the catacombs in Rome, for example, where the early Christians buried their dead, you can see frescoes of funeral banquets like that, which took place at the gravesites.
In his Confessions (Book 9, 8 fl ), St. Augustine says that his mother, St. Monica, used to go to funeral banquets all the time. Monica had a little drinking problem, according to Augustine, and the bishop Ambrose told her to stay away from funeral banquets. In fact, he tried to ban them altogether. Better to remember your dead at Mass, he said. That’s what Monica asked her son to do for her, as she was dying. “Bury this body anywhere; I don’ t care where. I only ask you this: Remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you may be.”
Now, I’m telling you this story because Gene loved stories like that. It would capture his imagination. More importantly, I’m telling you this story because we gather for this memorial Mass at an important place in Gene’s life. This church, St. Mary’s, was dear to him; it’s a place where we can call upon his presence and remember him.
There’s an Irish belief that there are “thin places” in the world. Thin places are where heaven and earth meet. Thin places are where the past, the present and the future are able to come together. This church is a thin place for many of us. Irish immigrants built it as you might guess from the number of statues and paintings of St. Patrick around it. It’s a place where we recall things of the past, where we look at the present and where we look to a world beyond.
So many of the important times of Gene’s life took place here. He was baptized here, he made his First Communion here, he buried his mother and father, his cousins Rose and Florence, many of his friends here. His sister Marie, his brother Joe were regulars in this church as youngsters, and so was I. As kids in St. Mary’s school we were here for the 9 o’clock Children’s Mass each Sunday, with the nuns patrolling the aisles. God help you if you weren’t here. I can still remember the glorious melodies of the chants we sang here, in latin.
A couple of years ago, Gene and I came over to Bayonne to see if it were still here. Bill Dundas met us at the new light rail station at 22nd Street and for the day drove us through Gene’s Bayonne. He had a remarkable memory and love for this place and its people, famous and infamous. The day was a feast of memories. He told us about driving his little nephews and nieces, the Carrol kids and the Callahan kids, through the streets in his little black Volkswagon with the skylight open and telling them to stick out their heads and yell to anyone he knew. He remembered telling them stories, some true some not, about the wonders of Bayonne, and waiting to see if they would bite. He loved to tease.
That day we couldn’t get into this church; it was locked, and that was a disappointment to him.
So where is he now? If we stay only with memories of the past we miss what this thin place wants to tell us. The windows here recall the mysteries of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They’re not about the past, the mysteries of Jesus are our mysteries too. At baptism we became one with him. He is our hope.
If we look further there’s the altar where the bread and the wine will be brought and the same Lord of life and death will be here with us. “Take and eat,” he says. The great window over the altar points to a heavenly world. Death is not the end, it says. The journey of our life leads us to another life, beyond what we expect or understand, and Gene has entered it.
We come to pray for him here.
O God, in whose presence the dead are alive,
and in whom your saints rejoice full of happiness,
grant that your servant, Gene,
for whom the light of this world shines no more,
may enjoy the comfort of your light for all eternity.
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
One God, forever and ever. Amen
A few days before he died, I visited Gene at New York Hospital. His nieces Mary Elllen and Ann were there. It was a wonderful visit. In spite of his weakness and difficulty in breathing and swallowing, Gene was at his best conjuring up his mix of memories, of family stories and Bayonne gangsters. It all had to be said.
When I was leaving, I said “Gene, I’ll be back to see you soon.” He said “Joe, when you come, bring me Holy Communion.” I wasn’t able to bring that to him before he died.
But today, here it is.
Lord God, whose Son left us
In the Sacrament of his Body,
Food for the journey,
Mercifully grant, that strengthened by it,
Our brother, Gene,
may come to the eternal table of Christ,
who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen