You may remember the somber event that occurred in the days prior to Holy Week, when Firefighter Michael Davidson died in the line of duty battling a blaze in Harlem. The entire city grieved, and embraced his young wife and four kids.
I immediately wanted to reach out to Commissioner Daniel Nigro at the FDNY, and of course to the family, with love and solidarity, and also to offer St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the funeral if they wished. However, at the time, I did not know Michael’s religion, so I asked the police officer who had just told me the sober news, “I wonder if he’s Catholic?”
“Odds are he was,” came the reply, “because he was a fireman.”
At first the answer surprised me, but then it made sense. Although our excellent FDNY has a laudable policy of ethnic and religious diversity, the fact remains that, if the stats I hear are accurate, close to 40 percent of our brave firefighters are Catholic.
That reminded me of a talk I attended some time ago when a Marine Corps general remarked, “While we in the Marines do not accept, reject, or prefer men and women because of religion, close to 40 percent of the Marine Corps came from Catholic background!”
Then came last Sunday, the 100th anniversary of the Police Officers’ Holy Name Society, a group bringing Catholic officers and families together for prayer, encouragement, and mutual assistance. I sure don’t know the statistic, and, for sure, our NYPD is aggressive in its diversity, but it’s still rather obvious that a more-than-average number of Catholic young men and women sense the call to service in the police department. The old caricature of the “Irish cop” may be thankfully over; but the fact that a lot of our police are Catholic remains true!
It really does not stop there. Not long ago, I was visiting a baby with cancer at a hospital. The head of the pediatric-oncology unit thoughtfully came over to welcome me. His remark stuck with me.
“You know, I’m not a Catholic, but I sure am glad that about half of my staff here is. To care for babies with cancer is one of the toughest duties a health care professional can undertake. We don’t have that many applying to work here. But, in my years here, I’ve noticed that people of faith, especially Catholics, seem to keep a strong sense of hope and serenity through it all.”
By now my buttons as your archbishop are popping—no smart-aleck remarks that there usually are anyway!—as I recall all these uplifting compliments about our Catholic people!
I’m not at all suggesting that people of other faiths, or of no creed at all, cannot be and are not equally passionate about selfless work on behalf of those in need or in danger. Not at all...
More than anything, I’m asking the reason for the fact that a radiant part of our Catholic tradition is that our young people are prepared for and encouraged to seek a life of service and care for others. Why so many Catholic nurses, physicians, police officers, firefighters, teachers, soldiers, and social workers?
The central reason, I propose, is because of Jesus, who taught and modeled a life of selfless service. At Firefighter Davidson’s funeral, I quoted the gospel, “Greater love than this no one has than to give his or her life for another.” When you grow up seeing the crucifix at home, in the classroom, at church, that lesson of sacrificial love sinks in.
A second reason would be the tradition of the Church. These days, our first reading from the Bible at Mass often comes from the Acts of the Apostles, the inspired drama of the earliest days of the Church. It’s so obvious: service of another, using our talents, time, and treasure to help the community, has been a constant of Christian life since those first years.
Thirdly, we have a sense of vocation about us. There’s a big difference between a job and a vocation, isn’t there? Yes, we all need jobs. It’s how we look at it, though. A vocation is a calling, a way we spend our lives in service of others; there’s more to a vocation than punching a time card and getting out of the place we work. Our heart is in it. We believe that everyone has a calling, a vocation, a way God wants us to spend our lives. A job is something we do. Fair enough. We do it well, with pride. A vocation is something we are, with duties attached.
Commentators today sometimes dismiss today’s generation as “in it for themselves.” Don’t tell that to Firefighter Davidson or the FDNY; don’t tell that to our NYPD and their families at Sunday’s Holy Name breakfast; don’t tell that to those in pediatric oncology or the Marine Corps.
Don’t tell that to the 5,000 seniors graduating from our Catholic high schools who will come to Mass this week at St. Patrick’s. They’ve been formed to be a man, a woman, for others! That’s Catholic!