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Faith, ‘The Man’ and ‘The Mayor’

April 18, 2013

Faith, 'The Man' and 'The Mayor'

Earlier this year, we lost two “giants” in their fields: Stan “the Man” Musial, one of the greatest baseball players ever, and “the Mayor,” Ed Koch, hailed for his political leadership in this city.

Both were close in age; both had enjoyed a long life with family and legions of friends and admirers; both were men of faith who were not embarrassed to let it be a “light to the world.”

I was among the thousands who gathered in the majestic St. Louis Cathedral for the Funeral Mass of “the Man,” honored to have been invited by his family.

All basked in the stories of his legendary skills in baseball. But all equally relished the depth, simplicity, and sincerity of his Catholic faith.

While Stan hardly “wore his religion on his sleeve,” everyone knew he took his Catholic faith seriously. Bob Costas, in his masterful eulogy, recalled how a crusty old sports writer back in the ‘50’s had sat all Saturday night in the lobby of the New York hotel where the St. Louis Cardinals were staying, there hoping to catch some of the players coming back late after a “night on the town.” He was surprised to see Stan sneak into the lobby about 6:45 a.m., and thought he had caught him after a long night out partying. When he approached “the Man” to ask him how his night out had been, No. 6 replied, “I’m just coming back from morning Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.” Sunday Mass was something Stan never missed.

When asked if he approved of players making the sign of the cross as they approached the batter’s box, and, if so, why, as a Catholic, he didn’t do it, Stan answered, “I was taught to make a morning offering first thing each day as I get out of bed, dedicating the day to God. That should do it.”

Yes, he enjoyed the jokes, the cards, a good steak and a drink or two, but guys knew he was uncomfortable with vulgar language, carousing, or heavy drinking. And then there was his love and fidelity to Lil, his boyhood sweetheart, his wife of seventy-one years!

There was more. His Catholic faith gave him a decency and sense of justice. Bob Costas recalled an All Star Game in the early ‘50s where Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, and Hank Aaron, all spectacular black players, sat in the corner by themselves playing cards. The other players left them by themselves. “The Man” walked up to them and simply said, “Deal me in.” The black players recalled how that had meant the world to them.

When a number of parishioners at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in St. Louis, the old Polish parish where Stan and Lil sometimes went for Sunday Mass—they usually prayed at their own parish, or after the afternoon game, “caught the 5,” as he would say, at Immacolata, where I was assigned as a young priest—decided sadly to defy the archbishop and go independent from the Church, they thought for sure they could count on Stan. “Nope,” he let them know. “I stick with the archbishop.”

Stan was hardly an über-Catholic. His faith was deep, sincere, and simple, part of his fiber. He rarely spoke of it, argued about it, or hit people over the head with it. He lived it. He radiated it.

And Ed Koch? He’d be the first to tell you that he might not be at the synagogue as often as he should, and that he was imperfect, but a proud and loyal Jew he was. No doubt in his mind: there was indeed a God who had revealed Himself to Israel. To trust this God, and to try to live the Law given us by this faithful God, was the driving force in the Mayor’s life. It animated his sense of justice, public service, fairness, toleration, patriotism, honesty, and expansive embrace of all God’s children. He turned to his God in childlike prayer, he often told me, in times of crisis and struggle, and there were many.

Cardinal Egan recalls seeing him in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, lighting a candle, crying on 9/11, and I sure miss him there at Midnight Mass, St. Patrick’s Day, and Easter morning. He once said to me, “I don’t know too much about the Catholic Church, but I know a lot about your God...because He’s mine, too.”

No surprise when his loyal friend, Jim Gill, a wonderful Catholic, recently asked me to have a memorial Mass for “the Mayor” at the Cathedral, telling me that “Ed would love it.”

And, just in case anyone doubted the depth of his Jewish faith and identity, he gave us a final reminder with the inscription on his tombstone, “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.” Those were the last words of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was imprisoned and ultimately beheaded by terrorists.

There they are: two giants, two great gentlemen...two men of faith.

Today we hear that religion is private, that it should be reserved for the Sabbath, that we can hardly “impose” our beliefs on others, that religion has nothing much to do with public life. It’s a quaint hobby at best, a destructive, oppressive force at worst. “Enlightened” folks might dabble in “spirituality,” but, no “Church” for them!

Not “the Man”; not “the Mayor.”

Two final memories, and I’ll let you go...

After Stan’s Funeral Mass, a prominent baseball Cardinal of today chatted with me for a while.

“You know, I used to be a Catholic,” he began, a statement that usually means the person is going to tell me how “liberated” he or she is now as a “thinking adult” to be free from the shackles of childhood faith. Not this time...

“But I left the Church because I ‘found Jesus’ in another one. I always knew Stan was a lifelong Catholic that he took his faith seriously. I couldn’t figure out how he stuck with the Church and didn’t go elsewhere to find the Lord. Now I know: He knew Jesus, he found Jesus, in the Church! I think I’ll come back...”

Stan would blush at being called “an evangelist.” But his example won this guy back!

And “the Mayor.” I asked him once what one word would describe him: Democrat? Mayor? Liberal? Progressive? New Yorker?

“Easy!” he came back. “I’m a Jew!”

As a Jewish Rabbi from Nazareth once preached, “Let your light shine before all!”

Thanks, Stan the Man! Thanks, Mayor Koch! We need more faithful public figures like you!

May you both rest in peace!