In the South Bronx
AFTER ORDINATION, I studied for two years at Fordham University School of Social Service before returning to the Philippines. I was advised to stay in a poor parish for the experience. I found a South Bronx parish that was 60-percent Afro-American and 40-percent Hispanic. The Fort Apache police station in the movie of the same name starring Paul Newman was in the Hispanic part of the parish.
As the youngest priest in the parish, I was in charge of the juvenile delinquents. We received a notice from the cardinal’s office whenever one of our young men was arrested, and a priest was asked to visit him. I visited a prison for young men that was near Yankee Stadium almost every month. I met William Hunt (not his real name) there. After talking to him, I thought he had better do something to calm his bad temper or he’d never get out of prison.
After a number of visits we found it easy to talk to each other, and one day he asked me if Catholic priests really didn’t marry. When I said they didn’t marry, he said, “You guys are smart and should get a woman. How come you don’t see that?”
The parish priest was a dynamic person. He knew the lightweight champion of the world, Carlos Ortiz, and took me to his fights. One night Ortiz fought Flash Elorde at Madison Square Garden; he knocked out Elorde with such thunderous finality that even his bloodthirsty fans grew silent when they saw that Elorde was not moving for several minutes. The parish priest also loved the opera and took me to see Birgit Nilsson in “Aida.” The police had to come on stage after her first aria to keep the more excitable fans away. They were climbing up the stage and the police were pushing them off.
William’s worst critic was his mother. The poor woman had kept her husband’s ashes in a jar on top of her fireplace, but one night William became so angry that he grabbed the jar, rushed downstairs, and threw his father’s ashes all over Prospect Avenue, one of the busiest streets in the Bronx.
I met William by chance one afternoon shortly before I was to return to Manila. I asked him how he was doing, and he said he was in a special court-monitored education program. He asked me how I was, and I told him I was soon to fly to Manila. He wanted to know how far that was and how long the plane ride took. I told him I was going to the subway and he offered to walk with me.
He asked me again why priests don’t marry. “Maybe in Manila,” he offered. No, I told him, it’s the same rules. Then I had to explain to him in as simple a way as I could: “It’s like joining a special military unit, the Seals or the Marines. In them you have time only for the mission.”
William nodded. Many young men in the South Bronx joined the Marines. In a few years some young men would be fighting one another for the prestige of controlling one or two city blocks. We walked along together. We had started a parish housing clinic. He saw it and told me that the people liked it.
I climbed the long flight of stairs to the platform and I heard him yell up to me, “Don’t forget the advice I gave you about women.” People in the street and on the platform were looking at us. I shouted down at him: “I’ll always remember you, William. Take care, think things over.”
When I left the Jesuits some years later and married my wife, Alice, I had forgotten William and his man-to-man advice. I hope he is well or that God has taken him home. One of the most dramatic words in the Gospel are those spoken to the Good Thief: “This day you will be with me in paradise.”
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (firstname.lastname@example.org).