God answers prayers, sometimes through you

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Bishop Dennis Sullivan celebrated the Blue Mass for local law enforcement, firefighters, first responders, as well as their families and supporters on Sept. 27 at Saint Agnes Church, Our Lady of Hope Parish, Blackwood. The homilist was Deacon Aaron Smith of Saint Bridget University Parish, Glassboro. Following is the slightly abridged text of his homily.

Deacon Aaron Smith of Saint Bridget University Parish, Glassboro, gives the homily during the Blue Mass at Saint Agnes Church, Our Lady of Hope Parish, Glassboro, on Sept. 27. Deacon Smith is a Sergeant with the NJ State Parole Board, currently assigned to the Gang Unit. Photo by Mary McCusker

“Good days, bad days, up days, down days, but never a boring day on the job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up, put one foot in front of the other, you go out and do the job, which is a mystery. You have no idea what you are being called to do, whether something that turns out to be a major critical incident or something that turns out to be less serious. God needs you, he needs me, he needs all of us to support our community and one another.”

These words were spoken by New York Fire Department chaplain and Catholic priest Father Mychal Judge on Sept. 10, 2001, during his homily at a Mass to celebrate the rededication of a fire house. By the next morning, Sept. 11th, 2001, Father Mychal found himself rushing to the World Trade Center Towers to help. Eventually, he ended up in the lobby of the World Trade Center North Tower after it had been hit by an airplane. Less than an hour later, Father Mychal was killed from fallen debris.

Father Mychal was eventually classified as death certificate #1 from the terrorist attacks that day.

It just so happened that this past Sept. 11, a few weeks ago, I was watching a news clip on Father Mychal’s actions that day. It wasn’t long after that I received a call advising me that Bishop Sullivan would like me to preach at this year’s Blue Mass.

Honestly, my first thought was that someone gave out the wrong phone number and they were actually looking for another deacon to preach. But it was explained to me that in my three current active vocations as an ordained Catholic deacon, as a husband and father of two children and as an active sworn law enforcement officer, perhaps I could provide some insight and inspiration to those gathered.

Bishop, I am honored and humbled to have been asked to assist at Mass and to preach today. Hopefully, you won’t regret your decision. Otherwise, as some of us in law enforcement know, the next time headquarters calls me, it won’t be for an invitation, but for a re-location.

Now, we are here today to honor those dedicated, deceased members of the first responder services. We also honor today their families and we also honor today our active, retired and our permanently injured first responders. For us as a church, there is no greater way we can honor you than by inviting you to be in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, truly present here today — body, blood, soul and divinity — in the Eucharist: bread that becomes true food and wine that becomes true drink.

Scripture tells us that many of those who initially followed Jesus found it too hard to accept Jesus’ call to eat his flesh and drink his blood and many of those initial followers walked away and returned to their former ways.

Perhaps present here today are some Catholics who may have started that journey away from Jesus and his church. Remember, something or someone nudged you to be here today. That nudge you felt to attend when you first heard about the Blue Mass or saw the flyer for the Blue Mass is the Holy Spirit in action — proving that gentle nudge to be closer to God.

And for those here today as recruits in the police or fire academy, that nudge you thought was your academy instructors telling you that you will be here today — that’s the Holy Spirit nudging your academy instructors.

For those here today on the job as law enforcement, we are often called to help nudge people into doing the right thing for their own benefit, for their family’s benefit and for their community. And we know there will always be, this side of heaven, those who don’t want to follow what is right and wrong in the eyes of society and of the church. There will always be those who resist what police are trying to tell them what they should do. It’s a tough job for sure, and a job that the community needs us to do well and a job God calls us to do well, one contact at a time.

Let me just say as our country continues to discuss the proper role of policing today: no cop wakes up wanting to fire their weapon at another human being, but we also know there may come a time our weapon is necessary to protect ourselves and others. And, let me also say, no honest and true cop wants to work alongside of anyone that wakes up every day hoping to use their weapon.

We protect and serve, regardless of race, color, creed, religion, their view of police or even if 10 seconds ago they tried to harm us, just as God created all human beings in his own image and likeness. To our firefighters, you show equal courage each and every time you go to a call not knowing whether you may get trapped, burned, injured or even possibly die. We also thank and honor today our EMS personnel. Those EMTs and paramedics that police and fire are always glad to see. You experience events that the average citizen would never want to see. A recent New York Times article said EMS personnel are three times as likely to be injured at work than civilians who go to work each day.

Police, fire and EMS truly live that famous Scripture passage, John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

God listens to his people. Always remember — when a child prays that Daddy will stop hitting her and Mommy, when a family is trapped on the third floor and prays that God will save them, when a teenager tells God they won’t text and drive again if he just saves them from their flipped over car — God hears his people. Sometimes God answers those prayers through your voice over the radio when you respond, “10-4, en route ETA two minutes.” Always honor that badge, whether it says Police, Fire or EMS. It represents the trust that both God and the community puts in your hands.

So many of our first responder brothers and sisters have made that ultimate sacrifice protecting others. So many of our first responders have died in other tragic ways as well. Regardless of how they died, God’s embrace is the same.

We will hear many names today of those members of the first responder services who have died this past year. Especially sad this year for the members of the Blue Mass Committee is that retried Camden PD Sgt. Rich Desmond’s name has made the list. For Blue Masses prior, Sgt. Desmond was the one to salute those who died and their families. This year, Rich, we salute you, your family and all those on this year’s list with their families.

Just as Nathaniel asked Jesus in today’s Gospel, “How do you know me?” Jesus answers all of our deceased first responders in heaven with the same gentle words, “Before anyone else called you, I saw you.”

To our Catholic school children here today, you are sitting among heroes. If you ask any individual here if they are a hero, you will get the same answer from each police, fire and EMS service member. They will say, “Oh no, I’m no hero, but I work with heroes around me all day long.”

Just one final point that I would never forgive myself if I didn’t mention. Our Holy Father Pope Francis provides a beautiful image of the church as a field hospital. So let me then offer a spiritual diagnosis and prescription to anyone here today and to all first responders and military throughout the nation. Too many suffer silently with PTSD and depression — and those sufferings aren’t always caused by one major incident but by years of adding the proverbial small rock after small rock into the equipment bags we carry during our career. Too many are finding suicide as the only way to relieve the heaviness and pain of those images and experiences. Let me say, it’s OK that you’re not OK. What’s not OK is that you keep the suffering to yourself without asking for help. It takes strength, not weakness, to ask for help.

To everyone here, just as Father Mychal Judge said the job will bring us good days and bad days, I pray that God sends you many good and safe days and very few, if any, bad days.

Saint Michael the Archangel, pray for us, defend us in battle and protect us from all evil.

May God be praised now and forever.