Faith at the Finish Line in Boston

JENNIFER GRAHAM

Conspicuously absent from photographs of the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings are any clerical collars or images of pastoral care.

The heart-wrenching photographs taken in the moments after the Boston Marathon bombings show the blue-and-yellow jackets of volunteers, police officers, fire fighters, emergency medical technicians, even a three-foot-high blue M&M. Conspicuously absent are any clerical collars or images of pastoral care.

This was not for lack of proximity.  Close to the bombing site are Trinity Episcopal Church, Old South Church and St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine, all on Boylston Street.  When the priests at St. Clement's, three blocks away, heard the explosions, they gathered sacramental oils and hurried to the scene in hopes of anointing the injured and, if necessary, administering last rites, the final of seven Catholic sacraments.  But the priests, who belong to the order Oblates of the Virgin Mary, weren't allowed at the scene.

The Rev. John Wykes, director of the St. Francis Chapel at Boston's soaring Prudential Center, and the Rev. Tom Carzon, rector of Our Lady of Grace Seminary, were among the priests who were turned away right after the bombings.  It was jarring for Father Wykes, who, as a hospital chaplain in Illinois a decade ago, was never denied access to crime or accident scenes. 

"I was allowed to go anywhere.  In Boston, I don't have that access," he says.

But Father Wykes says he has noticed a shift in the societal role of clergy over the past few decades: "In the Bing Crosby era — in the '40s, '50s, '60s — a priest with a collar could get in anywhere.  That's changed.  Priests are no longer considered to be emergency responders."

The Rev. Mychal Judge is a memorable exception.  The New York City priest died on 9/11, when the South Tower collapsed and its debris flew into the North Tower lobby, where Father Judge was praying after giving last rites to victims lying outside.  The image of the priest's body being carried from the rubble was one of the most vivid images to emerge from 9/11. 

But Father Judge had been the city's fire chaplain for nine years, knew the mayor, and was beloved by the firefighting force.


For police officers securing a crime scene, and trying to prevent further injuries and loss of life, the decision to admit clergy to a bombing site is fraught with risk.  Anyone can buy a clerical collar for just $10, and a modestly talented seventh-grader with a computer and printer can produce official-looking credentials.

Father Carzon, the seminary rector, said he was "disappointed" when he wasn't allowed at the scene of the bombing, but he understood the reasoning and left without protest.  "Once it was clear we couldn't get inside, we came back here to St. Clement's, set up a table with water and oranges and bananas to serve people, and helped people however we could."

As Martin lay dying, priests were only yards away, beyond the police tape, unable to reach him to administer last rites — a sacrament that, to Catholics, bears enormous significance.

By that point, spectators and runners who had been unable to finish the marathon were wandering around, "frightened, disoriented, confused and cold," he said.  Father Carzon was able to minister to a runner who wasn't injured but had assisted a bystander with catastrophic injuries.  Two hours later, the runner, a Protestant, was still walking around the area in shock and disbelief.

"He came over, and said, 'You're a priest, I need to talk to someone, I need to talk,' and he was able to pour out some of the story of what had happened," Father Carzon said.  "Then there was an off-duty firefighter who was there as a spectator, and he, too, got pushed out of the perimeter, and he ended up here to pray.  There was a feeling of helplessness we had when we couldn't get close.  But doing the little that we could — putting out a table with water and fruit, being there — I realize how much that 'little' was able to do."

In light of the devastation in Boston, the denial of access to clergy is a trifling thing, and it might even have been an individual's error.  (The Boston Police Department did not respond to a request for comment on its policy regarding clergy at the scenes of emergencies.)

But it is a poignant irony that Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who died on Boylston Street, was a Catholic who had received his first Communion just last year.  As Martin lay dying, priests were only yards away, beyond the police tape, unable to reach him to administer last rites — a sacrament that, to Catholics, bears enormous significance.

As the Rev. Richard Cannon, a priest in Hopkinton, Mass., where the marathon begins, said in a homily on the Sunday after the bombings, "When the world can seem very dark and confusing, the presence of a priest is a presence of hope."

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Jennifer Nicholson Graham.  "Faith at the Finish Line in Boston." The Wall Street Journal (April 26, 2013). 

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  All rights reserved. 

THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Nicholson Graham is a writer and editor based in Boston, MA. Formerly a religion columnist for Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, she is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe Magazine. Ms. Graham's essays have been published in magazines such as Runner's World, Parents, Newsweek and Family Circle. Her website is Jennifergraham.com.

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