Tuesday, February 07, 2012

In Grateful, Loving Remembrance

Before anything else, a word of heartfelt thanks to those of you who've been so kind to write or call over these last days. It's been a humbling surprise -- and an uplifting one, too -- but above all, just know how your thoughtfulness and closeness mean the world.

As anyone who's been around here a while and knows the tale would understand, the last almost 21 years of my life have been running on a mental loop since late last Tuesday night. I've dreaded this moment for years and wasn't prepared for it in the least, and the combination of the shock and emotion of it all have left me more rattled than I would've thought.

After 51 weeks of jolting stories that've hit very close to home, so it is that the most personal one of all would be kept for last. Yet for all the places he would guide me through the decade of his prime and into the years of his decline, my first and greatest teacher in the ways of this church called me always to discern the design of Providence: to find the hand and plan of God in every moment, to draw strength even from its sudden turns, above all to see and trust that -- however strange or hard it might sometimes feel -- a path that isn't our own guides our steps and brings us right where we're called to be.

On one side, admittedly, I'm having a hard time with that right now. Maybe that means I didn't learn his lessons as well as I could've. But having seen the signs of great hope and newness of life spring up amid the tumult of this last year's many earthquakes, there is a peace I wouldn't have otherwise known at this news, and something’s telling me that's anything but a coincidental gift.

For most looking on, you see the headlines and clip-reels of the Death of A Cardinal -- a man of light and shadows; a particularly complex, controversial, even polarizing figure whose legacy will take much more time than this week, or even this year, to fairly and fully assess. For me, though, personally, this is the sudden loss of a cherished mentor, a faithful and ever-caring friend... indeed, my spiritual father -- the priest who gave me the gift of the church, and in that would give me my life, this work, and the gift of knowing each of you.

These pages are a fruit of "yes" he didn't have to give, one some would even resent him for giving. But for the better part of two decades, he gave it regardless. No sin or scandal can diminish that, nor any descent into illness and the torment of a gilded cage ever take it away.

I never could’ve expected nor dreamt of the goodness, devotion, lessons and love with which Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua lavished me from my boyhood, through high school, college, then to this desk and the greatest job in the world. I will never be able to repay everything he gave and did for me through the years, and from Day One onward, anyone who’s gotten anything out of Whispers is likewise in his debt.

At the same time, it bears recalling that two of the symbols on the cardinal’s coat of arms would prove a tragic prophecy of the final stage of his life: the scales of justice... and, in a particular way, a heart pierced by arrows.

A decade of depositions, lawsuits, grand juries and a looming trial suffice to explain the first. As for the latter, in ways that would’ve seemed unconscionable not all that long ago, it would unknowingly foreshadow a degree of suffering that would render his last years a “living hell,” but even more, a wound felt among his people that would spread as if it rippled across the bars of flowing water atop which, on the shield, that first pierced heart was placed.

For these last six years, I have lived, grieved, raged over and struggled mightily with this. Even now, I remain at a loss to reconcile the claims and portrayals with everything I saw and knew. Much more remains to emerge and no lack of healing for a broken Body is still to be done, but if the many pierced and shattered hearts among us are again to be made whole, a true love for the church, our mother requires above all her childrens’ constant renewal of ourselves, and a constant renewal of our commitment to listen, to seek truth and beg forgiveness, to embrace the weakened, protect the innocent, and to work wholeheartedly and always on every front to make God’s house a welcoming and worthy temple of his presence.

All this is very tough to write -- there is the pain of these last years... and now, there is the rough, uncharted sea of losing, for the first time, one of the foundational people in my life: someone whose presence changed everything for me, whose legacy I now carry, and whose love and fruit will live in me forever. And at the end of a year whose occurrences remain surreal -- and, yes, Providential, in exactly the sense he taught it -- when those Crypt gates swing open late this afternoon, into the niche next to Cardinal Dougherty will go a part of me.

Twenty-one years ago, on a brilliant summer’s day, this story began in the same place. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine how a fleeting few seconds would make all the difference in a life... then again, for one Tony Bevilacqua from Brooklyn, that was the magic of the priesthood, and for the overwhelming bulk of 63 years -- soul by sudden soul, moment by hidden moment -- nobody knew how to work that magic better.

I could go on -- probably for another 21 years -- recounting stories and notes, meetings and memories (a good three weeks just on the eyebrows that were the windows to his soul). But maybe the freshest of these serves to sum it all up.

Last night, as this latest brutal week and this epic, tumultuous year began to reach its close, there we were again in the Cathedral for one last time.

Whether on account of the scandals, the passage of the years, or both, the crowd was light. So, for several minutes at the front of the house, we were alone again... a final unexpected gift.

As laid out and looking up at Constantino Brumidi’s darkened dome is not the last memory I want to have of my mentor, my eyes admittedly went past his body for most of the time, focusing instead on the reason that space would become so special to me, the reason he was sent here to begin with, and thus how he came into my life.

I probably watched the cardinal celebrate Mass from The Chair around a hundred times over the years -- Chrism Masses and Christmases, funerals and great feasts, ordinations and anniversaries of every stripe. Yet whatever the nature of the occasion, always in that same, somewhat theatrical Brooklynese, I was reminded that he would begin every last one of those liturgies with the same constant formula, its full resonance only to reveal itself with time....
Coming together as God’s family,
with confidence let us ask the Father’s forgiveness,
for he is full of gentleness and compassion.
To be sure, the printed words don’t do justice to the way he prayed it. And pray it he did.

Perhaps it’s fitting that those words, too, now belong to history. Yet once again on this difficult day, an already hurting family, its confidence almost beyond shaken, will come together to raise up that prayer one last time, not with our beloved, fallen father, but for him in our own pierced hearts.

Rest well, Eminence, and thank you for every grace and blessing that, because of you, I’ve ever come to know.

Ci vediamo un altro giorno, caro... until then, and always, you know how much I love you.