We arrived at Our Lady of the Angels’ Cathedral about thirty minutes before the funeral began. Already the nave was beginning to fill with people coming to pay their last respects to, pray for the soul of, and receive a final benediction from Bishop John Ward.
I was standing in line to bid farewell to this holy shepherd and reading his memorial card when I felt a presence approach, a very tall presence. Looking up I saw his Eminence Cardinal Mahoney step into line and then move to the casket containing the remains of a brother bishop. Emotion welled up within me as I watched him pray silently, just a few feet from me. From behind, I could not tell when he concluded his prayer if he was blessing the deceased or blessing himself. That is when the phrase came to me: a final benediction.
Then it was my turn. I had visited Bishop Ward, who was an auxiliary bishop and Vicar for Religious for years, several times as a novice, a temporary professed sister, and most recently when I went to deliver a traditional enchilada birthday dinner as he celebrated his 90th. This last occasion was most memorable. The bishop seemed a bit tired, having visited with family all day, but as soon as I stepped into his line of vision his whole face lit up. I was stunned! His Irish eyes smiled and his greeting was warm and youthful. It was as if all the affection he had over the decades for my sisters was pouring out on me. Not because it was me, but because I was one of his beloved Carmelites.
So standing at the coffin I wanted to receive a final blessing from the man who had for so many decades been such a dear friend of my religious family. With profound respect, I gently slid my ring of perpetual vows from my left hand, the ring he had blessed just over two years ago. I touched it to that hand anointed to bless and forgive first as a priest, then in the fullness of the priesthood.
The funeral began a short while later and it seemed like the honor guard that the priests formed was endless. It spoke powerfully of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ in which they all shared. Cardinal Mahoney spoke eloquently of this “definitive churchman” whose love for life (and steaks and cigars) was well known to all present. His love for the priesthood and for priests was evident also in the Cardinal’s words and in the presence of so many priests.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass continued, and eventually it was time to bid our last farewell. Again though a sea of priests the bishops processed with the family and casket to the back of the Cathedral to enter the crypt where Bishop Ward was to be buried. A final hymn, the Salve Regina, was followed by prayerful silence broken only by the gentle tolling of the bells. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has witnessed the end of an era, and yet with the death of Bishop John Ward, we gain a heavenly intercessor.
Your Excellency, we humbly ask you to send from heaven an eternal final benediction.