Friday, January 19, 2007

Tears Up North

At this hour, an overflow crowd at Kingston's St Mary's Cathedral is taking part in the Funeral Mass for Archbishop Anthony Meagher, who lost a four-year battle with cancer on Monday.

Last night, the late prelate's ecumenism was recalled at an interfaith service:
Right Rev. George R. Bruce, bishop of the Anglican diocese of Ontario, gave the homily at the vigil and praised Meagher for his “total integrity” and “humour in the face of disease.”

Bruce told the approximately 300 people in attendance of the first time he met Meagher, shortly after they both first came to Kingston.

“I met the archbishop at Fort Henry,” he said. “The first thing he said to me was ‘Call me Tony.’ There are some people in life you instinctively know you will get along with. Archbishop Tony was one of those people.”

When Pope John Paul II died, Meagher organized an interfaith memorial service, an event which came to define his work in bringing together various religions. He also convened a meeting last May that explored what each faith called its followers to do to help society’s poor.

Last night, a total of 14 faiths and denominations were represented at the vigil. Benjamin Dolansky, representing the Jewish faith, read a passage from the book of Ezekiel and Dr. Moustafa Fahmy, on behalf of the Islamic Society of Kingston, read from the Qur’an.

“I have lost a good friend, who I know would be delighted tonight,” said Bruce, in reference to the many faith groups in attendance.

Brown-Ratcliffe pledged in prayer to not let Meagher’s interfaith outreach fall by the wayside in the wake of his death.

“We will continue to build bridges of friendship and understanding,” he said.

Earlier in the day, St. Mary’s Cathedral opened its doors for a public viewing of Meagher’s body. His open casket lied in state at the foot of the altar and a slow but steady stream of parishioners filed down the church’s centre aisle to pay their respects.

Stacks of the latest edition of The Journey, the archdiocese’s bi-monthly newspaper, sat at the back of the church, with a front-page article written by the late archbishop.

“I still pray for a miracle, and, from my understanding in talking to the doctors, it would truly be a miracle if I were to recover now,” read Meagher’s words, which are set around a photo of the man smiling.

It’s the warmth evident from that photo that Ruby Dokhan will remember most about Meagher. An immigrant from Guyana and a parishioner at St. Mary’s, Dokhan got to know Meagher personally.

“Whenever I’d be out trying to get a taxi, he’d say to me, ‘What are you doing? Get in the car.’ He would offer me rides,” recalls Dokhan, who was dropped off at the church by a friend so she could visit his casket.
And in Wednesday's National Post, op-ed columnist Fr Raymond DeSouza -- a priest of Kingston -- offered his tribute:
So short was his tenure that he will be buried on Friday by his still-healthy predecessor, Archbishop Francis Spence. There was not time for any great adventures. The cold numbers themselves were unkind. The number of priests continued to decline, with the modest number of new ordinations erased by equivalent departures, over and above retirements. There were deficits to face, requiring trimming here and there. It was not a tenure of great import to the Church at large. But he was of great importance to us, for he was our archbishop....

I first met him in Rome in 2002, soon after his appointment to Kingston was announced. I was there studying, and he had come for meetings preparatory to the Toronto papal visit later that year. I attended to a few minor logistical matters for him, and we shared several leisurely Italian meals together. He was a man utterly without pretense. He confessed frankly that he was surprised to be a bishop at all, and that had his generation of priests not been so decimated by defections, he would likely have never been chosen. He outlined his lack of the traditional theological training or varied experience usually enjoyed by bishops. He inquired about the proper ecclesiastical attire for the ceremonies at Saint Peter's. He smiled at his own ignorance. He was, he said, a simple parish priest.

But the Holy Spirit saw what perhaps he himself didn't. A few months after those dinners, the cancer was diagnosed. Soon everyone saw that it was precisely his simplicity and pastoral heart that compensated for whatever he thought was lacking. He lived his illness openly and without bitterness, entrusting himself to the prayers of the people. And they prayed for him incessantly, even though most of them had never met him. They prayed for him because he was our archbishop, our shepherd. There are many ways for the shepherd to unite the flock; the late archbishop managed to do it through his own sickness and weakness. It has been done before: When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself (John 12:32).

In his first year as archbishop, Cardinal Francis Stafford, then the Vatican official responsible for World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, told me enigmatically, "God must love the Church of Kingston very much to send her a sick shepherd."

When I did not immediately grasp the blessing of a dying archbishop, the cardinal explained: "To receive an archbishop who is seriously sick before he really begins his work is to wonder about what Providence intends. We have to ask ourselves: What is the Lord's will for us in all this? And to contemplate the Lord's will is the most important question of all."