Johann Christoph Arnold
Are you afraid of dying? Do you know someone who is? Have you ever wondered how you would survive the loss of someone you love? Whether consciously or not, every life is sooner or later touched by death, and thus every person must deal with these questions at one point or another.
We cannot avoid death. It overshadows all our lives. We live longer than our grandparents; we are better fed; we lose fewer babies. Vaccines protect us from once feared epidemics; hi-tech hospitals save tiny preemies and patients in need of a new kidney or heart. But we are still mortal. And even if we have been successful in warding off plagues that decimated earlier generations, we have no lack of our own – from suicide, abortion, divorce, and addiction, to racism, poverty, violence, and militarism. We live, as Pope John Paul II used to say, in a culture of death.
It is also a culture of fear. Fearing old age, we hide our elderly in nursing homes. Fearing crime, we protect ourselves with guns and locked doors. Fearing people who don’t look like us or earn as much, we move into segregated or “gated” neighborhoods. Fearing other nations, we impose sanctions and drop bombs. We are even afraid of our own offspring, turning our schools into virtual prisons, and our prisons into holding pens and morgues. One could add to all these anxieties the fear of terrorism and biological warfare.
I have seen the peace that radiates from those who have found strength to overcome their fears.
With eight children, and many grandchildren, I know what it is like to ponder the future and be scared. Having stood at the bedside of dying friends and relatives – and having fought alongside them – I also have an inkling of what it means to face death. More important, I have seen the peace that radiates from those who have not only battled their fears but found strength to overcome them. That peace gives me courage and hope, and in telling you their stories, I hope it will do the same for you.
Ordinary men and women, the people in this book had their share of bad days, struggles, obstacles, and low moments. They cried; they were scared; they needed reassurance. Most would have gone under without support. But to me their significance lies not so much in the way they died, but in the way they prepared for death, whether aware of it or not: by living life to the full, and not for themselves, but for others. None of them were anywhere near perfect, but in serving a cause greater than themselves, they were given eyes to see beyond their own needs, and courage to bear suffering without being defeated by it.
One person I knew who exemplified this was Father Mychal Judge. A Franciscan priest and a fire department chaplain, Father Mike was going about his daily business in New York City’s Church of St. Francis when a fellow friar rushed into his room to tell him that he was needed right away at the scene of a fire. The date was September 11, 2001; the place, the World Trade Center, which had just been hit by two hijacked planes and was engulfed in flames.
One person I knew who exemplified this courageous service was Father Mychal Judge.
Donning his uniform and rushing downtown, Father Mike was soon at the base of the Twin Towers, where he joined hundreds of others – mostly rescue teams – converging on the scene. The details of what transpired next are unclear: some say he administered last rites to a dying firefighter; others remember him standing alone in silent prayer. Whatever happened amid all the chaos, it was his final hour. Shortly before Tower One collapsed, his lifeless body was discovered in the lobby and carried to a nearby church. Aside from his chaplaincy work for the Fire Department of New York, Father Mike was an outspoken advocate for people dying of AIDS; he was also known throughout the city for his love of the downtrodden. With a pocketful of dollar bills “rescued” from friends who could afford to give them away, he always had something to give a needy person on the street.
Father Mychal Judge, NYPD Detective Steven McDonald, and the author in Ireland, 1999.
In 1999 Father Mike and I traveled through Northern Ireland with a mutual friend, NYPD Detective Steven McDonald, promoting dialogue and reconciliation. We made a second trip to Ireland in 2000, and at the time of his death, we were in the final stages of planning a similar one to Israel and the West Bank.
Father Mike spent his last hour on earth encouraging others by turning to God; and that is the purpose of my book, Be Not Afraid: to encourage you by pointing you toward God. In him, as these stories show, there is comfort and strength for even the most anxious soul.