By Tony DeGol
Bishop Mark remembers his first ride in a police car.
He was in second grade.
“I sat in the front seat – never in the back,” he assured.
The Bishop’s uncle, a career police officer, invited his young nephew to ride with him in a Memorial Day parade.
During Bishop Mark’s teenage years, one of the most influential people in his life was his next door neighbor – a township police department chief.
Among the Bishop’s valued friends is a retired fire captain in Erie.
“We were college classmates,” Bishop Mark explained. “When I was appointed Bishop of Altoona-Johnstown, he called to congratulate me and at the same time announce he was retiring. I said I don’t get to retire until I’m 75.”
Indeed, the Bishop’s personal connection to first responders runs deep.
With great respect for their dedication and service, Bishop Mark proudly celebrated the annual Blue Mass at Saint John Gualbert Cathedral in Johnstown on September 27 at the invitation of the Very Reverend James Crookston, Rector.
The Cathedral parish sponsors the liturgy each year to salute police officers, firefighters, emergency medical workers and others on the front lines of serving the community.
The Blue Mass is always meaningful, but this year, amid a pandemic and societal unrest, the tribute seemed especially powerful.
Among the first responders in attendance were Johnstown Police Captain Chad Miller and John Michael Fetcik of the Conemaugh Volunteer Fire Company.
During his homily, Bishop Mark recalled the many times he rode in police cars or ambulances during his time as a priest in the Diocese of Erie. He often accompanied authorities to crime scenes or serious car crashes.
“Sometimes I held a flashlight or an IV bag and other times I held a prayer book in one hand and the Holy Oil in another to anoint the seriously injured and give last rites to the dying,” he said. “And I can’t tell you how many times I would stay around after things would settle down and say a prayer with the first responders. More than once it would turn into one of them asking me to hear their Confession.”
The Bishop lauded all emergency workers for their selfless service.
“Thanks be to God for men and women among us who are dedicated to keeping the peace and keeping people safe even in the midst of the worst tragedies,” he stressed. “They often see the weak moments of human nature that result in the most difficult consequences.”
The Gospel reminds us to always strive to do the right thing, he continued.
“We are reminded that there is help nearby from one another, from the men and women in blue for whom we pray today, and there is help available always from the Lord Jesus who is always waiting for us to call upon Him,” the Bishop added. “It’s the same Jesus whose Body and Blood we share from this Altar. He is the reason why all human life matters, because we are all made in His image and likeness.”
At the end of the Mass, Father Crookston echoed the Bishop’s words of praise for all first responders.
“We are profoundly grateful for your service,” he said amid applause.
[Photo: (left to right) John Michael Fetcik, Conemaugh Volunteer Fire Company; Very Reverend James Crookston, Rector of Saint John Gualbert Cathedral; Bishop Mark; and Chad Miller, Johnstown Police Captain, gather following the Blue Mass at the Cathedral on September 27.]