Editor’s note: The following homily preached on June 15, 2018 by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., at the Requiem Mass of suffrage for the soul of Joyce Kilmer on the occasion of the centenary of his death at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.
It is a privilege, pleasure and honor to celebrate this Requiem Mass commemorating the centennial of the death of Joyce Kilmer – and for many reasons.
First, because praying for the dead, as the Second Book of Maccabees teaches us, is “a good and pious thing” to do. About which, more later.
Second, because I was introduced to Joyce Kilmer as a boy in St. Rose of Lima Grammar School in Newark. The Sisters of Charity of Convent Station had an extensive poetry program for their students, whereby we learned to appreciate poetry at an early age and had to memorize a poem a week. Since Kilmer was not only a Catholic but a “Jersey Boy,” his “Trees” was de rigeur a part of the curriculum.
Third, because Kilmer’s conversion is intimately connected to this Church of the Holy Innocents.1
So, prayer for the dead. Catholics have a genuine affection for prayers and Masses for the dead – or at least they should. My personal devotion began as an altar boy, perhaps not for the noblest of reasons. We servers reaped a couple of bonuses. When a Funeral Mass occurred during the school day, we were called out from class to serve. To avoid having the same boys miss class repeatedly, the Sisters insisted on rotating teams. In seventh grade, as president of the Knights of the Altar, I made myself the captain of every team, which not only ensured near-daily missing of math but also accompanying the priest to the cemetery, followed by lunch with him! Half-way through seventh grade, I could chant the entire Requiem Mass, including the texts for the Gospel and preface.
Needless to say, there is a serious theological rationale for suffrage for the dead. The Second Book of Maccabees relates the story of Judas Maccabeus, who took up a collection among his soldiers to make an offering for those who had fallen in battle. The sacred author comments that “if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (12:45-46). Once Martin Luther challenged the efficacy of such prayer, he forged a plan to jettison that book, along with the other Deutero-canonical works.
While getting rid of a troublesome text, from his point of view, he didn’t realize that far more sturdy evidence existed for the practice, in the very example of Our Lord Himself. The Gospels inform us that Jesus frequented the Temple for all the major pilgrimage feasts. At those liturgical celebrations, prayers and sacrifices for the dead formed an integral part of the services. In other words, Christ prayed for the dead – and thus so should we.
A few weeks ago, looking toward this evening’s Mass, a parishioner asked an interesting question: “Father, after a hundred years, don’t you think Joyce Kilmer’s final destiny has been sealed?” St. Peter’s second epistle would seem to offer an intelligent reply: “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (3:8). Of course, we should also note that Kilmer’s “final destiny” was “sealed” at his particular judgment. If that judgment included Purgatory, his “final destiny” was already Heaven. If, in fact, he had temporal punishment due to sin for which to atone, and that atonement is now complete, the Church’s doctrine of the “treasury of merit” reminds us that what would have redounded to his benefit will be applied to others in need – an oft-forgotten aspect of the consoling doctrine of the communion of saints.
I cannot move on without observing, however, that due to some very shallow and presumptuous notions of divine mercy and eternal life, not a few priests fail to encourage the faithful to offer prayers for their beloved departed, thus depriving them of the assistance they need on that other shore. Even more sadly, how many of us have heard funeral homilies which sound more like decrees of canonization! While we take comfort in the communion of saints, we are also challenged by Our Lord’s stern warning that “the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt 7:13-14). The Catholic attitude is neither despairing nor presumptuous; it is hopeful. We hope – and we pray – for the salvation of all.
That said, what do we know about this man for whom we are praying today? Joyce Kilmer was born in 1886 into an Episcopalian family in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He studied at Rutgers and Columbia, subsequently marrying Aline Murray, with whom he had five children. He began his professional career by teaching Latin in Morristown, contributed to the Funk and Wagnalls Dictionary, and eventually became a writer for The New York Times. The couple’s third child suffered from infantile paralysis, which became the impetus for his conversion to the Catholic Faith. Writing in 1914 to his priestly mentor, the Jesuit Father James Daly, he explains:
Of course you understand my conversion. I am beginning to understand it. I believed in the Catholic position, the Catholic view of ethics and aesthetics, for a long time. But I wanted something not intellectual, some conviction not mental – in fact I wanted Faith. Just off Broadway, on the way from the Hudson Tube Station to the Times Building, there is a Church, called the Church of the Holy Innocents. Since it is in the heart of the Tenderloin, this name is strangely appropriate – for there surely is need of youth and innocence. Well, every morning for months I stopped on my way to the office and prayed in this Church for faith. When faith did come, it came, I think, by way of my little paralyzed daughter. Her lifeless hands led me; I think her tiny feet know beautiful paths. You understand this and it gives me a selfish pleasure to write it down.2
We shall have more to say about Holy Innocents in a bit. For the moment, let us continue our consideration of our poet’s life.
Kilmer published “Trees” in 1914, to critical acclaim, thus launching him onto the public stage. It is significant that he saw his role as a poet to be a vocation, never separating his professional status from his love for his Catholic Faith. Proof positive of that was his Anthology of Catholic Poetry, which will serve as our guide for our reflections after Holy Mass this evening.
In April of 1917, but a few days after the United States entered World War I, Kilmer joined the Seventh Regiment of the New York National Guard and eventually transferred to the Fighting 69th. The husband and father in him felt the pull to remain home, but he felt called to a yet higher responsibility, which he explains in a letter to another priestly mentor, the indomitable Father Francis Duffy, whose statue graces Times Square, but a five-minute walk north of here:
I feel the pain of my sacrifice is hard on both of us (me and Aline), but I realize also that God wills me to do my duty in this manner; and, therefore, I have every reason to believe that He will take better care of my wife and children than I should ever hope to do. I have considered this step I am taking from every side and I feel there is no doubt that I have an obligation to join the colors. I would be ashamed later on to look at the children if I don’t volunteer. However other married men feel about going, I consider my enlisting as a duty I owe to God and country.
That tug between patriotism and fatherhood hit him hard as his beloved daughter Rose died just a month before he put out for France, and his son Christopher was born but twelve days after the death of Rose. While in the service, he continued to produce both poems and essays. One of his most poignant poems was “Prayer of a Soldier in France,” in which he compares his sufferings to those of Christ, concluding that his are little more than a “millionth of Thy gift.” We shall give greater attention to this work later as well. He would share even more deeply in the Passion of his Lord on July 30 when he was brought down by a German sniper; he was 31 years of age (likewise close to his Lord, even chronologically). Yet more, he was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) by the French Republic.
Now, let’s connect all the dots by returning to the central place of Holy Innocents Church.
One of C. B. Chambers’ most famous pictures, “The Return,” also has its origins in this church. The story is recounted thus:
. . . one evening at dusk, just at the beginning of the World War, [Chambers’] attention was arrested by a man who knelt alone at the foot of a large crucifix. The contrition expressed in the kneeling figure was inspiring, and by the light of a few candles on the simple votive stand, the artist made a hasty sketch on an envelope. A conversation later on led to the man’s consenting to pose for the larger picture in Mr. Chambers’ studio, where comment on his unusual piety revealed a frank admission. That very evening he had experienced true sorrow for a dissolute life, and a return to the faith he had not practiced since his boyhood in Brittany. He was leaving in a few days to join the French Army.
The end of the story is contained in a letter received after peace was declared, in which he wrote that he had resigned command of his regiment to serve in the army of God in a monastery.3
Of course, that was the very same crucifix before which Joyce Kilmer had prayed so insistently.
Those miracles of grace did not cease a century ago. They continue to happen every day in this sacred place which the redoubtable Monsignor Aloysius Dineen dubbed “the little Roman Catholic church around the corner.” I can attest to this because I have been involved in the life of this parish, in varying degrees, since 1994. Father James Miara continues the legacy of Monsignor Dineen by seeing to it that this is a safe haven, a true “refuge of sinners,” with Holy Mass offered five times a day (and double that on holy days of obligation), daily Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and other traditional devotions, and the oh-so-important availability of the Sacrament of Penance for more than three hours every day.
This church also contains another important shrine, that of the modern Holy Innocents, the unborn. How many mothers have prayed at the Shrine of the Unborn and been moved to accept with courage and love the child they were carrying or to receive consolation for an infant lost before or during childbirth. Perhaps some parish in Dublin can duplicate our monument to the innocent unborn in atonement for the shameful and disgraceful vote against life last month by nearly two-thirds of the Irish population.
When people talk about New York being a “sin city” or a secular city, I always urge them to visit Holy Innocents, where sinners are welcomed and transformed by divine grace into healed, sanctified and joyful disciples who, so often, invite friends and strangers alike to step into this “little Roman Catholic church around the corner.” There is a vibrant lay movement in Denver called “Christ in the City,” consisting of young Catholic evangelists, who give powerful and convincing witness to their faith in the Mile-High City. A similar claim can be made here in the Big Apple as local workers and foreign visitors alike take advantage of the pastoral presence and outreach of Holy Innocents Church and so encounter “Christ in the City.”
Every Friday, the hearts and minds of the faithful assembled here are directed to that famed “Return Crucifix,” with these invocations:
Jesus Christ crucified, Son of the Virgin Mary, incline Thy sacred Head and listen to my prayers and sighs, as Thou didst listen to Thy eternal Father from Mount Tabor.
Jesus Christ crucified, Son of the Virgin Mary, open Thy sacred Eyes and look on me, as Thou didst look on Thy afflicted Mother from the Cross.
Jesus Christ crucified, Son of the Virgin Mary, open Thy sacred Lips and speak to my sad heart, as Thou didst to St. John when recommending to him Thy Blessed Mother.
Jesus Christ crucified, Son of the Virgin Mary, open Thy Sacred Heart, that seat of love and mercy; receive mine into it; make mine wholly Thine; hear my prayers and mercifully grant my petitions.
As beautiful and powerful as the “Return Crucifix” is, we have a yet more beautiful and powerful reality as we proceed in this Sacred Liturgy: We have the re-presentation on this altar of the saving Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Great High Priest, to whose unceasing pleading we commend the soul of Joyce Kilmer in gratitude for his faithful Catholic witness, likewise commending the work of conversion and reconciliation wrought in this church day after day. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16).
1For a succinct introduction to this church, I would suggest consulting Chapter 17 of Paul McGregor’s From the Lighthouse, “‘Come to Me All Ye Who Are Weary’ Just Three Blocks from Macy’s.”
2Donald R. McClarey has assembled much valuable information on Kilmer in “Joyce Kilmer and the ‘Fighting 69th,” found at catholicstand.com.
3From “Monograph on a Contemporary Spiritual Painter.”