As soon as everyone had gathered in St. Ignatius Church at Chestnut Hill Wednesday for the funeral Mass, a full company of Jesuits marched silently down the center aisle of the handsome stone edifice to bury a brother, Rev. Ray Callahan, S.J., who fell dead at his desk last week at 59. Until his death, Father Callahan had been president of Nativity Prep in Roxbury, a miracle of the city, where children are given the gift of a future.
It was 10 a.m. when the Jesuits took their seats directly across the aisle from Marie Callahan, the deceased priest’s mother, who sat sadly with her daughters. She wore a black dress and held a single white rose.
Outside the church, the sun stood sentry in a cloudless sky and a wonderful breeze danced across the day. Inside, people stood shoulder to shoulder singing “Here I am, Lord” as five Jesuits began the beautiful ceremony.
There were no TV cameras or any reporters clammering for participants to discuss the quiet, noble life of Ray Callahan, who never sought a headline. He was born in Framingham, son of a newspaperman, and he went to Fairfield University until God tapped him on the chest with such ferocity that he chose the Marine Corps of Catholicism - the Jesuits - as a life.
He taught at Boston College as well as at BC High, but for the past several years he had run Nativity Prep. It is a small, private school - 15 students in 4 grades, 5 through 8 - where boys from places like Mattapan, Roxbury and Dorchester get just about the finest free education around.
“Anybody can learn math,” Ray Callahan used to say, “but our job is to help these boys gain pride and dignity, too. They are wonderful, strong children.”
All this week, the town has witnessed a flood of publicity concerning the future of William Weld. And as the funeral began, a new governor, Paul Cellucci, was in the State House discussing tax cuts and judgeships. All of it is considered news because these people and their policies affect so many.
However, Ray Callahan was a single man who touched a thousand lives. He was a Jesuit priest who had a hand on someone’s shoulder every single day, pushing or prodding them toward heights once thought to be unattainable.
As Rev. William Russell, S.J., delivered the homily, one of the many Nativity Prep students at Mass bowed his head in grief. His name was Adrian Rosello. He is a 13-year-old from Mattapan who will be in eighth grade this September.
“I never expected him to die,” Rosello said quietly. “I loved him. He always made me laugh and told me I could do better. He believed in me. How could he die in the summer?”
Now, at Communion, Mike Burgo came from the sacristry holding a guitar. He began to sing the infectious hymn “Be Not Afraid” and soon the huge congregation joined Burgo, the sound of their grateful voices filling the church and spilling out toward the trolley tracks and the campus of Boston College.
“You shall cross the barren desert, but you shall not die of thirst. You shall wander far in safety, though you do not know the way. You shall speak your words in foreign lands, and all will understand. You shall see the face of God and live.
“Be not afraid. I go before you always.”
Both song and service are part of the constant comfort of Catholicism, a religion that blankets the start and conclusion of life with splendid ritual. But Ray Callahan represented the finest aspects of his faith every single day. He led by example, a humble man dedicated to God and to education.
And Wednesday his legacy filled St. Ignatius: former students; young people like Amy Shields, who went straight from Duke to teaching at Nativity Prep because providing a child with the excitement of ideas is far more rewarding than making money; hundreds of friends; and his fellow priests.
Then the Mass ended and the Jesuits filed out to the front of the church where they stood in a circle on the sidewalk, resplendent in white cassocks, as six Nativity Prep boys carried a black casket down gray cement steps. They were followed by Marie Callahan, who walked slowly out of the church into the bright sun of a day, comforted by the knowledge that while others elsewhere celebrated temporal rewards of prosperity or politics, the crowd around her had gathered to celebrate the rich and marvelous life of Raymond J. Callahan, S.J.
“Thank you for your son,” Rev. William Leahy, the president of Boston College, said to Marie Callahan.
“Thank God for my son,” his mother replied.