I just received word that a dear, dear man has died: Monsignor Ignace Sadek, a Maronite Catholic priest who once served as the rector of Our Lady of Lebanon cathedral in Brooklyn. He was my pastor once. Julie and I loved him so much that we named our second-born son after him (Lucas Joseph Ignace). I write this through tears, but they are tears of gratitude, for Monsignor Sadek lived a very long life, and was a blessing to all.
He was a holy man, though he was so modest it was hard to see it. We were in his parish from 1999 until 2003, when we left New York. Julie was a young mother then, our firstborn child having come to us in 1999. She struggled, as all young moms do. Julie said at the time that Msgr Sadek had an uncanny way of crossing her path exactly when she was feeling pinned down, and needing to talk to him for advice and encouragement. She told me once back then that if she would think to herself that she really needed to go by the cathedral and speak to him, often he would cross her path the next day. After it happened more than a few times, she began to wonder if the old Lebanese priest with the raspy voice and the twinkly eyes had a special gift.
A parishioner at the cathedral once told me that Monsignor was a saint of some kind. He said that back in Lebanon, when the parish Monsignor pastored came under bombardment during the civil war, he opened the doors of the church during the bombing and knelt all night at the altar, praying. Bombs fell all around the church, but not a single bomb touched the church itself. He ought to have taken shelter somewhere, but that wasn’t Monsignor Sadek’s way. He stayed. He prayed.
On the morning of 9/11, when news reached Monsignor Sadek at the cathedral that the World Trade Center was on fire, he rushed the two blocks down Montague Street to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which gave him a clear view of
the burning towers across the harbor. He raised his hands and began to pray, absolving the sins of the dying. Witnesses told me later that when the first tower collapsed, and the massive cloud of dust blew across the East River toward the Brooklyn waterfront, Monsignor Sadek remained there, sobbing, his arms raised in prayer. Someone told me he saw a man rush up to the elderly priest, fall to his knees, and beg for absolution, both of them enveloped by the dust. Monsignor heard his confession, absolved him, and turned back to face the apocalypse, now obscured by the cloud, and continued to pray for the dead and dying.
This is the kind of man who has just left us.
I feared this day would come, and I’ll tell you why. Some years back, after we had left Brooklyn and were living in Dallas, my family and I were traveling in Washington, DC. We learned that Monsignor was living at the time somewhere in the city, perhaps at a seminary, I’m not sure. I found him online, and told him we would come to see him. He was eager to see us all, especially the little boy who was his namesake.
Something happened, and we didn’t get out to see him on that trip. I can’t remember what the problem was, but it must have been something relatively minor, because I have felt guilty ever since about not making the extra effort to visit that dear old soul. And now he’s gone.
Don’t put it off, reader. There is someone in your life today, a person you’ve been meaning to visit, but you keep delaying. Don’t let another day pass without visiting him or her.
In my Dante book, I talk about how my friend Jack Cutrer died suddenly last year, in his early forties. Though we knew Jack had been suffering from severe kidney problems, his passing came as a shock to us all. I write in the book, in a chapter about the sin of Sloth, about how I went with our priest to prepare Jack’s body for an Orthodox burial. Then:
At Jack’s wake, his mother told me how much he had enjoyed spending time with his friends from church. He had been in a lot of emotional and physical pain in the last year of his life and needed friends around him. It occurred to me later that the most time I had spent with Jack outside of church in the last year was the Saturday morning I washed his body.
I was so ashamed. Many were the times when Jack had been so down about the end of his marriage that I’d thought, I should invite him over for a beer. I bet he could use some company. But I never had. There would be time, I had thought, once I got this project out of the way, or once I finished this other thing.
And then there was no more time. I had lost time with Jack because I failed to love him as I ought to have done. That memory is a bitter fruit of my slothfulness.
Time is love. If I had loved Jack more than I loved myself, and if I had loved Monsignor Sadek more than I loved myself, I would have made time for these good men. I regret it so much today. So much. It is a terrible thing to have this kind of regret, to know that you ought to have shown love but did not because you were too lazy to have been bothered with a little inconvenience. One thing I can do in memory of Monsignor Sadek is tell you not to be like me. Go see your family member or friend, today, or as soon as you reasonably can. We are not promised tomorrow.
I am in South Bend, Indiana, today, at Notre Dame University. I’m going to vespers tonight in the basilica to light a candle for Monsignor Sadek — “Monsey” as our little Matthew called him — and praise God for his life, and what he meant to our family. I rejoice in the firm conviction that my family, especially Lucas Joseph Ignace, has now gained a powerful intercessor in Paradise. And so will anybody who calls on Monsignor Sadek’s name, because that was the kind of priest he was, and that was the kind of priest he will be forever and ever, unto ages of ages.
He will be buried in Lebanon. May his memory be eternal. I can still hear him chanting the Trisagion Prayer in Syriac:
UPDATE: If you knew and loved Monsignor Sadek — and he had friends all over — I’d like to suggest that you do something in his memory: give to the GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Niki Rogan, a Catholic widow, and her eight children. The Rogan family was on its way to the hospital where the mom was due to give birth to her eighth child when they were hit by a deer that had been struck by another car. The father died; the baby was born shortly thereafter. Now the widow and her children are left husbandless, fatherless, and poor. News story here. I did not know them, but I knew Msgr. Sadek, and loved him. Because of the kind of priest he was, I know he would want us to be charitable. We are all connected. My family has given in memory of Monsignor Sadek, who gave so much to us.