Auxiliary Bishop Patrick V. Ahern was known throughout the archdiocese for his joy and his ever-present smile. So it was fitting that his Funeral Mass, too, had a spirit of holy joy.
Archbishop Dolan was the celebrant of the Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral March 24, and he welcomed the congregation with a smile.
“We thank almighty God for the life of our beloved Bishop Ahern,” he said. He invoked the mercy of Jesus “through the intercession of the two special women” in Bishop Ahern’s life, the Virgin Mary and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Cardinal Egan presided.
The homilist was Msgr. Thomas P. Leonard, administrator and former pastor of Holy Trinity parish in Manhattan. He said that it was not contradictory to say that “this is a joyful funeral” for Bishop Ahern.
“The enthusiasm, the love of life, his positive approach to all things diminishes our grief,” Msgr. Leonard said. Then, quoting Scripture: “ ‘Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and so enter into his glory?’ ”
Hundreds filled the pews, including children, parents and teachers from the Seton Foundation for Learning, the educational organization that the bishop founded to serve special-needs children and their families. It comprises four schools.
Also attending were members of the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm, who operate the Mary Manning Walsh Home in Manhattan, where the bishop had resided and where he died on March 19. Many of the Sisters of Life participated; Bishop Ahern was outspoken in defense of the dignity of life and had been active for decades in the pro-life cause.
Msgr. Leonard said in his homily, “Death is ambiguous in itself. It takes its meaning from our lives.” He then spoke of Bishop Ahern’s assignments through the years: giving parish missions with the archdiocesan Mission Band; traveling around the world as secretary to Cardinal Spellman; defending the poor in the Bronx as vicar there in the turbulent 1960s; establishing the Seton Foundation on Staten Island.
He mentioned Bishop Ahern’s deep love of St. Thérèse and his friendship with a Sparkill Dominican, Sister Purissima, who served for 33 years as a medical missionary in Pakistan.
“In all of this,” Msgr. Leonard said, “there was unbounded goodness, love, laughter—our ‘Most Happy Fella’—that smile.”
Msgr. Leonard spoke of the serenity and self-sacrifice with which Bishop Ahern faced his death.
“For the past two weeks, it was the silent gift of self, with intermittent flashing of that smile assuring us that all was right,” he said. “He had accepted death and was prepared for the union, begun in baptism, to reach completion. His final act of choice was compassion: a suffering with his Lord. It was a gift to all who kept his vigil.”
Ten bishops and more than 100 priests concelebrated, including former New Yorkers Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien of Baltimore, Archbishop Henry J. Mansell of Hartford and Bishop Timothy McDonnell of Springfield, Mass.
Archbishop Dolan, in remarks before the final commendation, paid tribute to the priesthood of the bishop and also the concelebrants.
“I realize he symbolized everything I have come to know and love and admire in you,” Archbishop Dolan said. “I see you in him. I see him in you.”
Recalling Bishop Ahern’s sense of humor, he told a story from his early days in New York, when Cardinal Egan brought him to visit Bishop Ahern. Archbishop Dolan told the bishop, “I want to visit you often. I want to confide in you” about confidential matters.
“That’s a good idea,” Bishop Ahern replied. “I’ll forget them five seconds later.”
Archbishop Dolan then said that the last time he saw Bishop Ahern, the bishop was sitting up in bed. They had “a beautiful visit,” and before leaving, “I gave him my blessing, and I asked for his blessing.” The blessings were exchanged, and “he pulled me closer,” Archbishop Dolan said. “I thought he was going to tell me something, give me a spiritual nugget that I could keep forever.
“He said, ‘Watch what you eat,’ ” he concluded. Laughing along with the congregation, Archbishop Dolan added, “He was a very perceptive man.”
Brianna Gaglia, 15, a student at the Seton Foundation’s Bishop Ahern High School, was an altar server at the Mass. Asked what she’ll remember about Bishop Ahern, she replied, “He helped me. He liked me.”
At the end of the Mass, the pallbearers solemnly lifted the coffin to their shoulders and carried it out through the cathedral’s massive front doors as the organ resounded with “Sing With All the Saints in Glory.”