There are not that many people you meet, in real life, whose personality is so incandescent they light of the world. Father John Flynn, pastor of St Martin of Tours Church in Bronx who passed away yesterday, was one of those people.
I met him at the height of the crack epidemic when gun battles and beefs were taking an incredible toll on young people in the Bronx. I was part of a group of religious leaders, an community activists who met as his church to try to do something about the violence, which was making normal activity impossible for many people in Bronx because they literally feared to leave their homes and apartments. Father Flynn’s parish, only 8 blocks from Fordham, was in the heart of that zone.
He had officiated at more than 20 funerals of young men between 17 and 25 in a single year. Father Flynn, white haired and in his 60’s, walked the streets without fear, talking to those young men. He knew their pain and desperation. And he asked those of us present to work with him in developing a program for out of work, out of school young people, that would rescue them from the street economy. If you had a heart and a conscience, you could not help but respond to his plea and his example. So we came together to form the Save a Generation program. I spent the next year with Father Flynn and several other great Bronx leaders, among them Sister Barbara Leniger of Thorpe Family Residence, and Dr Lee Stuart of South Bronx Churches, writing proposals, giving talks, walking the streets, even going to Washington to lobby Congress.
During that time, I never saw Father Flynn lose his composure, his optimism, his ability to inspire people with quiet eloquence, whether it was talking to the Borough President, or throwing footballs with local youngsters in the street outside his church. And he was as kind and thoughtful when he was alone, in his parish house as he was in his group. He had been in Latin America before he was in the Bronx and he had a deep empathy for the poor along with an equal level of respect. Working with them was his life’s mission and he did it with joy and a wonder at life’s ironies and life’s mysteries.
I spent nearly four years working with Father Flynn helping to get Save a Generation off the ground, and watched it become a life changing program that offered 35 Bronx youngsters a new chance at life. When the crack epidemic eased, I moved on, but kept in touch until he retired.
Greatness takes many forms. It is not always associated with wealth and power and fame. In Bronx, it may have reached its highest point in the person of a parish priest who walked the street with the lost boys of the community while bullets were flying. And who those boys learned to love as much as everyone else who knew him.
R.I.P., Father Flynn. You will always live in the hearts of everyone who knew you.
– Mark Naison