Thursday, July 26, 2007

"And, Yea, Though I Walk..."

Once upon a time, on my first night in Eternal City, on a bus with some friends to dinner, the dome of St Peter's came into view for the first time.

Across the aisle, as I was straining to catch a glimpse of it, between my eyes and Michelangelo's masterpiece -- illumined for the Jubilee Year -- one of my childhood mentors looked over and said, "I know you've waited a long time for this, and I'm not going to get in your way."

With that, he began to push his seat back, giving your narrator a clear shot of the dome.

It was Fr Ed Hallinan's first trip to Rome, too. But the selfless act was just another of the thousands he's racked up over his 24 years of an exemplary priesthood.

For the last 11 years, Fr Ed -- a deli-owner's son from suburban Drexel Hill -- has served as pastor of St Martin de Porres, a consolidated parish comprising the territory of what once was 16 parishes in the heart of poverty and crime-stricken North Philadelphia. A tireless worker, his priesthood's niche has been the survival of the church in the inner city for the people who need it the most -- a charge that goes well beyond the welfare of the parish plant, extending itself into massive fundraising efforts to keep his school running and its tuition accessible, and even doing what he can to aid parishioners in danger of losing their gas or electricity.

No one ever said that the Lord's mission -- "that they might have life, and to the full" -- was ever easy.

Keeping the church alive at 24th and Lehigh is a tall order, but the results speak for themselves. He would -- and does -- shirk the credit for it, but I've never known a more heroic, harder-working priest, and his example in life and ministry is the priesthood at its self-giving, life-giving best.

As if it wasn't already clear, it's the kind of work the rest of us can't ever encourage or support enough.

As the parish finds itself the midst of a resurgent murder wave here in the River City, an Inquirer columnist trailed Hallinan -- joined, as usual, by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph McFadden -- on one of his evening walks through his turf.
Girls playing on a broken sidewalk near trash broiling in the heat greet the priest warmly, in spite of their surroundings.

A young mother sitting on her front steps scowls, as if to say she long ago succumbed to hers.

On these steps, in this African American neighborhood, a white stranger bearing blessings had best keep walking.

That - the anger, suspicion, and resignation that no one, not even men claiming to be sent by God, can change anything - is why Hallinan keeps showing up uninvited.

Yes, some neighbors are dying in the gunfights in the 22d Police District, home of some of the highest shooting rates in the city.

But what about all the people who are alive, if not entirely well?

"We need to be present," says Hallinan, the longtime pastor at St. Martin de Porres Roman Catholic Church at 24th and Lehigh.

"It's easy to be overwhelmed by the problems and withdraw, but in withdrawing, you take away people's human dignity and worth," adds Bishop Joseph McFadden, who likes to join Hallinan for the weekly walks.

One priest and a bishop know they're powerless to stop the shooting and reverse decades of job loss, family dysfunction and poverty.

Men who pray for a living prefer to focus on the "deprivation of spirit" that cloaks their community.

"Laws can help. Police can help," McFadden says. "But peace only comes when you open your heart."

"Do you think young guys equate faith with weakness?"

Hallinan puts the question to his fellow walkers: McFadden; Msgr. Joe Shields, the archdiocese's vicar for Hispanics; a young deacon; a seminary student; and a parish employee.

The men nod as they pair off and fan out. St. Martin de Porres' boundaries are so wide as a result of controversial church closings in the 1990s, and Hallinan has 72,000 souls on his mind as he drives to the point where he'll begin walking.

Around the corner from the sweet girls and their sour mom, he and Dan Kredensor, the deacon preparing to be ordained, meet a middle-age homeowner tending a community garden bursting with collards and string beans.

"Watering's been a problem," the gardener tells his guests, "because they won't let us use the hydrant anymore."

They meaning the city. Another slight, amid all this blight....

Block after block, the encounters are brief and seemingly meaningless. Until one isn't.

"Would you come in and bless John?" Sally Hart asks the men she just met outside her house on Ringgold Street.

John is her big brother. He's dying of cancer in her living room.

"I know I smell a little bit of beer," she admits, looking away.

"We were up all night, and it's been a rough day. But then you all were just walking up the street out of nowhere. . . . It's like the Lord knew I needed it."

Hallinan smiles. "The Holy Spirit blew us over here tonight."

He asks the frail, heavily medicated 57-year-old man on the hospital bed if it's OK to touch him.

John nods. They pray.

Sally exhales. "We're just fighting this battle."

She isn't specific, and doesn't need to be. Outside, inside, struggle surrounds.

Up the street, a pair of preteen girls perk up when they see the men in Roman collars approach.

One wants to talk about exorcisms. The other has a more pressing personal question.

"If you have a lot of Jesus pictures in your house," she asks, urgently, "can the devil still come in?"

Hallinan answers them both.

"Sometimes," he says, "evil is one person. But evil is in a society, too.

"We're all a little evil. That's why you have to hold on to your faith."
SVILUPPO: Further underscoring that the epidemic of violence finds itself, literally, right off St Martin's doorstep, a shootout last night in front of the church left one victim dead, another wounded.

Pray for the pastor, pray for the parish, pray for peace.