Friday, December 19, 2008

Ave Atque Vale, Avery

At a time that sees Doubt in the midst of the “Christmas season,” a special man gave one last gift to the people at large whom he served: the beauty of his own Mass of Christian Burial. Some lives are replete with gifts from cradle to grave—-such was the life of Avery Cardinal Dulles.

As the weekday tourists “doing” Christmas in New York entered St. Patrick’s, which sits across from Rockefeller Center and Saks, they found the Gothic cathedral alive with one of the most important rites of the Church: the repose of a soul of the recently departed.

The choir sang a choral prelude of Lacrymosa from the Mozart Requiem, and the lovely Protestant hymn, “Abide with Me.”

Then the organ sounded the powerful D minor downbeat of the great Faure Requiem as the line of over 100 priests, bishops, and cardinals began the solemn, two column procession down the side aisle and up the grand main aisle, passing the white-draped coffin of the remains of their brother priest.

The Mass was all the more poignant for the presence of Cardinal Dulles’s family, the living members of generations of one of the country’s great Protestant families of service. Dulles’s father was Secretary of State to Eisenhower (a great-grandfather was Secretary of State to Benjamin Harrison, and great uncle Robert Lansing was same to Woodrow Wilson); his uncle Allen Walsh Dulles was director of the CIA from 1953 to 1961. In another type of service, his grandfather was a Presbyterian minister.

Cardinal Egan’s homily touched on the reality that the Presbyterian-raised, agnostic young man who converted to Catholicism, then entered the Society of Jesus and was ordained ten years later, was not easy for this family to accept. But clearly this Dulles scion had a destiny not formed by human lineage, as echoed in the second reading from Romans: “None of us lives as his own master and none of us dies as his own master. While we live we are responsible to the Lord, and when we die we die as his servants.”

At the end of Mass came the prayer of commendation for the soul of Avery Cardinal Dulles. Cardinal Egan invoked the cathedral’s tradition of singing the chant Salve Regina a capella before the final prayer. Then the procession began down the main aisle, to the enormous bronze 5th avenue doors that were opened wide, framing Rockefeller Center’s Atlas with the world on his shoulders across the street. The hymn was a funeral text to the tune Melita, which is the Navy Hymn, in honor of Dulles’s naval service in World War 11

The pallbearers raised the casket to their shoulders, and walked down the aisle to the open doors, with the family walking behind them. In one of the finer moments in Catholic/Protestant relations, the church broke into applause.

As the coffin passed me, I was filled with admiration for this life that started in August of 1918, just days after the Battle of Amiens, and gave what he had—an exceptional intellect and generosity—to the service of God. He contracted polio when in his 20s, which came back to cripple him in old age, finally taking away his ability to speak, but a writer he was to the end, writing a farewell to his brother Jesuits on his 90th birthday.

The pews emptied out behind the family, as the coffin made its way to the hearse on 5th avenue, amid the Christmas wreaths and garland and colored lights of the season.


Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

I've come back to this every day since posting, wondering what the secret is behind your serenely elegiac tone and the dignity you add to what was a very moving occasion. Sometimes I think you must read what you've written out loud, so that you can hear the rhythms you create, and at other times I think, no, she just has a gift of sincerity and conviction. Then at other times I think come off it, this just laying it on with a trowel, better to say I'm no further forward. But thank you for such a moving post!

M.A.Peel said...

CCH, I'd say we share a sensibility, which is why you hear so much in my words. Many people don't hear it, believe me.

Interesting question about do I read it aloud. The answer is no. I have a good friend who is a composer. People ask him if he composes at the piano, and he doesn't. He hears it in his head, and then he writes the notes down. That's pretty much the same for me. I think about something, and it comes together in my head, and then I write down the notes, I mean words.

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