Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

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Location: 3103 Arlington Avenue,, Bronx, NY 10463, United States

September 6, 2008


Alfred Lord Tennyson compared the voyage of life to that of a ship crossing the sandbar between the harbour of life and the mysterious ocean of death in his poem, "Crossing the Bar". He wrote it in 1889 after experiencing a serious illness while on a sea voyage. The rhythm of his words capture the serenity of his vision. The third verse:

Twilight and evening bell
and after that the dark
and may there be no sadness
of farewell when I embark!

Priests encounter a variety of scenes on the occasion of death, quiet scenes: individuals in bed at home, in the hospital, on the street after an accident. Many scenes have been dramatic. Here are a few:

*St. Jerome's, East 138th Street, the Bronx. An NYPD patrol car rolled up to the rectory. I was waiting after the officer's call. Two blocks to the south were a cluster of cops and working men. Ushered up a ladder, I climbed to the railroad track level of the bridge. The Third Avenue El then went all the way to the Bronx. Between the tracks lay a little boy, eleven or twelve. He was dead. Apparently he had been swimming in the Harlem River and was going home across the bridge. His wet body had touched the third rail. In paradisum deducant te angeli! May the angels lead you into heaven, little boy! The mourners were the cops, the priest, and the passengers staring from the El trains as they slowly moved by on either side.

*St. Thomas More, East 89th Street. Middle of the night, bitter cold. Sirens, bells, crashing glass. I quickly dressed. Young priest! Some years later, I would have rolled over and gone back to sleep. "If there is need for a priest, they will be in touch." Around the corner, the apartment house was dark. Power gone. Water that had extinguished the roaring blaze was still cascading down the outside steps, freezing in an instant. A fireman said, "Come this way, Father. Third floor". Shadows danced on the dark walls from the torches of the firemen. The middle-aged man was a grim sight. Words of absolution were murmured, oil, from which the freshness of the olives was long gone but, nevertheless, imparted the sacramental symbolism and power deriving from Jesus, was gently applied. The mourners, the priest and three firemen, kneeling with their helmets in their hands.

*St. Joseph's of Yorkville, East 87th Street. Just before the noon Sunday Mass. An usher comes to the sacristy. "Father, there is a man in one of the rear pews with his wife. Doesn't look too good. We called 911." I went back. He didn't look good at all. He was dead. Kneeling upright, dead! The two medics from the ambulance were Hispanic, like the deceased. "Sorry, father. we can't do anything. You have to wait for the morgue wagon." After a little discussion, they realized the delicacy of the situation, put the deceased in a wheel chair and out to the ambulance and the last rites. His wife came out. "How's he doing, father?" It took a moment or two to find the right words! One of the ambulance men kept repeating, "What a way to die! Kneeling up in church!"I offered the Mass, started a little late, for Raphael Hernandez.

*Epiphany, East 22nd Street. Sunday, during Masses. Our receptionist reports a call from 120 E. 22nd Street. "They would like a priest. A young man is dying." I gathered up my book, the oils, and the Sacrament for Viaticum. Young man, probably AIDS. The apartment door was open. Soft rock was playing. There were twenty or twenty-five people in the apartment. Someone inside the door said, "I don't know who would have called for a priest." The lady from the apartment across the hall had followed me. "I called the church," she said. Inside, the young man, barely conscious, was surrounded. A little boy and girl were sprawled on the bed covers, trying to talk to Uncle Charlie. A young woman lay on one side, her arm around his shoulders; on his other side, his companion. Soft rock still playing. I asked Charles, "Would you like to receive the sacraments of Jesus?" He was barely conscious. His mother behind him said, "Say yes, Charles." And he did.

How do I hear Charlie's confession with all these people here? I looked around. I said, "As your friend is about to receive the sacraments that bring the presence of Jesus and His grace to Charles, it is appropriate to have so many of his friends and relatives here to participate in something so meaningful to him. First, we have the confession of sins, expression of sorrow, absolution, then the sacrament of the sick and then Holy Communion. All those who would like to participate will please join me in an expression of sorrow for how we each may offended God. Have we sorrow for these offenses?" Looking around the sea of faces, everyone nodded. I continued, "Through the ministry of the Church, I absolve you from your sins. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!" Then from the pyx, I took the host and broke off a tiny piece. As I reached, it slipped and fell to the sheet. His companion looked at me. "Can I give him Communion?" I nodded, and he gave Charlie his last Communion. The soft rock, still playing, seemed so appropriate, so reverent.