Mass at battleship dedicated
to armed forces,
police and firefighters

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

CAMDEN – Crosses take many forms.

Father Gregory Hickey, preaching at an annual Communion breakfast (though on this day a dinner)alongside the battleship USS New Jersey on Sunday, Sept. 14, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, reminded the 400 men, women and families assembled of this fact.

The Mass itself was dedicated to members of the armed forces, police and firefighters who lost their lives in service to their country and community.

“I hope today they are smiling down on us from heaven because they recognize the full impact of the Cross,” said Father Hickey, chaplain for the Men of Malvern at Malvern Retreat House. “The Cross of Jesus was an instrument of death that became an instrument of our salvation. That’s a beautiful thought as we gather here today.”

The annual Mass, celebrated next to the great battleship moored on the Camden, N.J. side of the Delaware River with the permission of Camden’s Bishop Joseph A. Galante, was significant on several levels.

Rear Admiral John J. Sweeney, USNR, the featured speaker at the meal that followed on the battleship’s fantail, took note of the many military references in the Gospels. “It is interesting,” he said. “Christ preached so many times along the water.”

Admiral Sweeney, who was raised in Our Lady of Lourdes Parish and now worships at St. Margaret Parish in Narberth, made special mention of heroes in the military services who were not men at arms, notably the chaplains who laid down their lives in service to their country by ministering to soldiers, sailors and Marines in combat situations.

Many of the men in the congregation came of age in time of war or threat of war and were themselves either drafted or volunteered to serve their country.

Robert Sabo, a retreatant in the October Christus Rex group, attended wearing the cap and jacket of the Catholic War Veterans.

“I served in Germany in the Vietnam War era,” he said. “I consider it a privilege to be here today. I owe it to God and country. The Men of Malvern are terrific and I look forward to my retreat every year.”

“It’s a great legacy of faith,” said Malvern president James Fitzsimmons. “It is only fitting that we honor men and women who served our country and fought for our people. We also added the police and firefighters this year, especially the police officers who lost their lives in the past year. They protected our freedoms.”

But Men of Malvern, as a title, is no longer strictly accurate. Today, America’s oldest lay-owned and operated retreat house, which is looking to its centennial in four years, also serves women and families.

“Last year we served over 21,000 people,” Father Hickey said. He added that number included people from 49 states and Canada. “We haven’t got Hawaii yet,” he admitted.

This year’s annual Communion breakfast could probably have had more than the 400 in attendance, but was limited to the maximum feeding capacity for the ship’s facilities.

Holding the event beyond the borders of the Philadelphia Archdiocese this year was a way to emphasize the global reach of Malvern. All of this may be a departure from the past, but Father Hickey is certain the founding laymen would have approved.

“I always say we are standing on the shoulders of giants,” he said.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.