(Homily delivered at the funeral Mass for Fr. Anselm Martin at St. John the Evangelist Church in Center City Philadelphia on January 14, 2012.)
Last evening at the wake service for Fr. Anselm, Fr. Ben Rigotti focused on the Paschal Candle and the “Light of Christ” that was given to Anselm and that he in turn gave to so many people in his 93 years, 66 of which were as a priest (Anselm was ordained six months before I was born).
Two men who were the most influential “lights” in my life were Father Thomas More Janeck, Capuchin who died on June 8, 2008, and our beloved Father Anselm Martin. Both of them were tremendous leaders, great examples, and Capuchins whom I deeply loved and admired. It is a grace for me that I am able to participate in both of their passings to new life – two men who did so much to bring light and life to me and to my vocation. Both of these men, too, bridged our two provinces. Anselm, of course, remained in this province, while Thomas More joined the Mid-America Province and lived for many years in Denver.
Father Simon Conrad reminded me that he – Father Simon – is now the last remaining member of the class, a class that included Fidelis and Christian, Don Nally and Jude, and Cajetan and several diocesan priests. It is a grace, and an honor, to speak about Anselm at this funeral Mass and in the context of the Gospel which was his chosen and vowed way of life. So many friars who are now passing into new life make up the foundation of our two provinces and continue to be inspirations to so many friars and people from Baltimore and Washington to Denver – people and friars who have been touched by them, their leadership, and by their goodness and holiness.
When I came to St. Joseph’s Military Academy in 1959 as a skinny geeky freshman with a flat top haircut, using “Butch Wax” to keep it straight up, Father Anselm Martin was the president of the school. Thirteen years later when I came back to the school in 1972 after seminary training, profession, and ordination, the name of the school was changed, but Anselm Martin was still there as president. In working alongside him as one of his faculty members, I was confirmed in what I experienced of him when I was a student. I found that he was a man admired by college professors, by educational administrators throughout the state of Kansas, by the leaders in the National Catholic Educational Association, and by both state and local government leaders. He was a man with connections. He was a man with credibility. He was a leader with integrity.
“His pronounced jaw,” Fr. Simon once told me when we discussing classmates, “reminded me of the prow of a ship moving steadily across the sea.” In other words, he “looked” like a leader. Fr. Ben said last night that Anselm always appeared “manly and austere.” I would add that he appeared as a “manly and austere leader.”
His leadership showed itself in the dedication he had to the school and to education of young people, in his steadfast love for and adherence to the Catholic Church, in his faithfulness to his Capuchin way of living, as well as in his fabulous memory of names and faces, and his wholesome sense of humor.
I stand here as one who was formed, who was “brought to life” so to speak, by Anselm Martin. And I know that I cannot claim that for myself alone. There were literally thousands of young people brought to life by Anselm in his 26 years in high school teaching and administration, 22 of which were as president of St. Joseph’s Military Academy and its successor school, Thomas More Prep. That is why I felt drawn to the Gospel that was proclaimed to you at this funeral Mass for Anselm.
When Jesus saw the young man being carried to his burial (Lk. 7:11-17), followed by a grieving mother who was undoubtedly crying over a promising life now ended, Jesus felt compassion. Jesus was an only son, too. Perhaps he saw his own mother in that mother who was following the coffin. Jesus saw a potential for life in that young man. So he touched the coffin, the dead man’s stretcher. Those who were ready to bury the lifeless young man stopped. Jesus called the young man to live. He called him to life. To rise up. And the young man heard, sat up, and began to speak.
The son of the widow of Nain, coincidentally, was an only son. Anselm was an only son, named “George” by his mother and father. What is this “life” that Jesus gave to the dead young man? It is much like the life, I believe, that Anselm gave to so many young people who were in need of someone to challenge them to speak, of someone to challenge them to get up and get on with life and to lead as Christian leaders should. I remember, in my early days on the “prefect” team at Thomas More Prep when the director of student life (chief disciplinarian at the school) would meet with Anselm to inform him about a decision that a certain student must be dismissed. So often, after hearing out the decision and the reasons, Anselm would say, “Oh, give him a wee bit more time and that there….” When Anselm wanted to stretch a rule or disagree with a decision, he would always use that phrase: “…a wee little bit and that there.” Give the kid another chance.
Certainly, this compassion and this continual offer of new life was not limited to Anselm’s years of working with young people. When he ministered at St. Mary of the Point in Pittsburgh, when he was the chaplain at the VA Hospital in Oakland; and when he came here to St. John’s in Philadelphia, at an age (72) when most people are either retired or seriously thinking about retiring, Anselm continued to give new life as he celebrated the Eucharist, as he reconciled penitents, and as he preached and encouraged – again, thousands over his twenty years here – to rise up and live, to find new life in Jesus Christ, to try again.
Those of us who had the pleasure of living with Anselm knew a side of him that often didn’t get beyond the walls of his life in Capuchin community…although I assure you that it sometimes did, and it caused lots of smiles and chuckles. Anselm had a “wholesome” sense of humor. He had a wonderful talent of putting excitement into friars’ lives and making them laugh, mostly at themselves. Last night, when Father Ben Rigotti asked us, during the wake service, to share a story and a word that we would use to remember Anselm, I was sitting next to Fr. Bob McCreary. I used the word, “leader.” Fr. Bob used the word, “iconoclast.” “What do you mean?” I asked. Bob told me, “Well, Anselm knocked people off their pedestals by making them laugh themselves.”
How true! Anselm loved practical jokes. And I have to admit that he was my own prime mentor and – I must say – encourager of my own penchant for these kinds of things. In fact, Anselm, when he found out I liked to engage in those activities, even came up with ideas that he would encourage me to carry out. Oh, he was the master – without doubt – but I will cherish some of the ideas he gave me – whether it was secretly substituting a basketball film for a psychology film to be viewed by a teacher; or connecting telephones to wrong intercom lines. Together with the “victim” we laughed and enjoyed the moments. Of course, he took the credit if the joke went well; if not, I got the blame. God only knows what would have transpired if Anselm had remained in Mid-America after the split of our provinces. But, I assure you, I did carry out his tradition of practical jokes long after he left Mid-America. I also know that Anselm continued these activities all through his life. “Nemo Tutus,” (no one is safe) was a motto Father Blaine Burkey bestowed on me. Perhaps it fit Anselm even better.
I will remember Anselm as a friar who gave life and light to me and to so many people – to young and old, rich and poor, people of all cultures and races. In our memories of him he still gives us that light and life. He still brings a chuckle to my heart. But now Jesus has touched this only son of his mother and father, Eleanor and Philip, and has given him new light and life. He has been called to speak a new language, to walk in a new way, to rise up and live life as he never lived it before. May God generously give this new life to Anselm, as Anselm was so generous in giving life to so many in his 93 years.
Eternal Rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine on him. May he rest in peace.
Fr. Charles J. Polifka, OFM Cap.
January 14, 2012