Police and emergency vehicles, cars and school buses poured into the parking lot at Saint Agnes Church, Our Lady of Hope Parish, for the annual Blue Mass Sept. 27. Horses and service dogs (and their keepers) greeted the guests, and a large flag of the United States strung between two fire truck ladders waved high above a grand statue of Jesus, across a cloudless blue sky. The setting may have been mistaken for an outdoor festival, but the reverence inside the church told a different story.
The service started with a cadenced procession and posting of flags, followed by the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Pipes and drums reverberated throughout the full church. Attendees were asked to “uncover,” and a sea of hats were removed so Mass could begin.
Bishop Dennis Sullivan greeted the congregation, offering a special welcome to visitors of other faiths. “No matter your religion, thank you for being here,” he said to the men and women in uniform. He also thanked the nearly 500 uniformed students for their presence.
“It was a great experience,” said eighth grader Delaney Dougherty from Good Shepherd Regional School in Collingswood. We got to honor police and other officers. There was special music, like ‘Amazing Grace’ on bagpipes, and the deacon gave a great homily.”
She specifically referenced a point in Deacon Aaron Smith’s homily when he said, “No cop wakes up wanting to fire their weapon at another human being, but we also know that there may come a time our weapon is necessary to protect ourselves and others.”
An active law enforcement officer, husband and the father of two children, Deacon Smith is assigned to Saint Bridget University Parish in Glassboro. He was invited by Bishop Sullivan to deliver the homily.
Deacon Smith began by remembering Father Mychal Judge, the New York City Fire Department chaplain who was killed by falling debris as he tried to save others in the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11, 2001. Just a day before, Father Judge had preached about never knowing from one day to the next what you will be asked to do as a responder.
“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,” said Deacon Smith. To his fellow officers and responders he said, “God hears his people. Sometimes, God answers those prayers through your voice over the radio when you respond, ‘10-4, in 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.”
At the end of the service, a single bell tolled for each local police officer, fire fighter and emergency medical responder who died during the past year. Special tribute was paid to retired Sgt. Richard Desmond from the Camden County Police Department, who died in January 2019. A Blue Mass committee member, Desmond was founder and drum major for the Camden County Emerald Society, one of the pipe and drum bands represented at the Mass.
The joyful recessional included distribution of Rosary beads made for the occasion by members of Saint Simon Stock Parish, Berlin.
Blue Mass Committee chair Deputy Chief David Harkins from the Gloucester Township Police Department was thrilled with the day. “This year we had even more participation from schools, [community members], and our contingent of law enforcement and first responders,” he said.
Harkins attended his first Blue Mass as a young patrol officer and was taken aback by how beautiful it was. “As a Catholic it caught me and I said, ‘Wow this is a great intersection of my vocation as a police officer and my faith. … What a great way of celebrating both aspects.’” So Harkins asked to become involved about 13 years ago and has been integral to the growth of the event ever since.
“We really encourage our non-Catholic brothers and sisters to attend,” said Harkins, emphasizing that the event is an opportunity to praise God and honor men and women who serve. “It’s for everyone.”