On May 7, 2019, the Franciscan Transitus Wake Service for +Fr. Firmin Finn, OFM Conv. (1928 – 2019), our fraternal gathering to celebrate and remember our confrere, was held in the Chapel of the Our Lady of the Angels Care Center, in Enfield, CT. The Care Center is home to nine of our friars, including Fr. Augustine Pilatowski, OFM Conv. The service afforded an opportunity for Friar Augustine to renew his friendship with two of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Assisi who were also in attendance: Sr. Mercedes, FMSA and Sr. Norbert Petrucci, FMSA, of the nearby Mother Angela Convent.
The Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Assisi (FMSA) were founded in Assisi in 1702 – home to their Motherhouse and General Curia. FMSA Sisters serve in Missions in North & South America, the Asian Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Australia, contemplating the face of the Glorious Crucified Christ, practicing works of mercy, restoring life to those threatened or wounded, and bringing hope to the oppressed, while embodying peace, dialog, communion and universal fraternity.
The community’s presence in the United States began in 1961. At the invitation of our Franciscan Friars Conventual, the Sisters were a living presence of the Works of Mercy, as they served the friars of our St. Joseph Cupertino Novitiate (Ellicott City, MD) – the current site of our Shrine of St. Anthony, Carrollton Hall Historic Site, Little Portion Farm, and Provincial House, as well as two friaries: St. Joseph Cupertino Friary and Portiuncula Friary.
Fr. Augustine, Sr. Mercedes and Sr. Norbert were all stationed in Ellicott City together over 50 years ago, while he was serving as Guardian of the Friary and Novice Director. Our Novitiate is now located in Arroyo Grande, CA and is shared by all of the Franciscan Friars Conventual Provinces serving in North America, as well as their Custodies and Delegations around the world.
For more information on life as a friar of Our Lady of the Angels Province, including our working relationships with many Religious Orders through our varied ministries, contact our province Vocation Director, Fr. Russell Governale, OFM Conv.
Today, our friars celebrated the Funeral Mass for +Friar Firmin.
The homilist was our Minister Provincial, the Very Reverend Fr. James McCurry, OFM Conv.
[Readings: Isaiah 25:6a,7-9 Acts 10:34-36,42-43 Matt. 25:31-36]
You may have noticed that +Fr. Firmin was wearing a special golden stole over his habit as he lay in his coffin. I brought it to him from Brazil three years ago after the Franciscan Order celebrated in Rio de Janeiro the 70th anniversary of its presence in Latin America. Fr. Firmin was one of our Province’s early and longtime missionaries in Brazil. He served there for 20 years. Two years ago I asked him to record a video message to our Brazilian friars. Despite his age and infirmity, he prepared a beautiful message – all in Portuguese – which I later presented to the Custodial Chapter of the Friars gathered at one of the sites near Rio where Firmin had been stationed during some of his missionary activities there. In that message Fr. Firmin stressed one thing above all – our Franciscan commitment to the poor. He was passionate about serving the poorest of the poor.
When St. Francis of Assisi wrote the Rule of Life for us Friars – a copy of which now rests today upon Fr. Firmin’s coffin, our Seraphic Father, known as the Poverello (“the little poor man”) exhorted in its final chapter: “If any of the friars is inspired by God to go among the Saracens or other unbelievers, he must ask permission from his Minister Provincial. The Ministers, for their part, are to give permission only to those whom they see are fit to be sent.” So it came be that, after his Ordination to the Holy Priesthood in 1955, Firmin Finn was “inspired by God” to ask permission of his religious superiors to become a missionary among the poor in Brazil.
Armed with a Master’s Degree (Licentiate) in Sacred Theology, he spent the early years of his missionary labors as a teacher in a school which our Province had established in the town of Sao Luiz Gonzaga. Three years later Firmin heard the “call within a call” to serve the very poorest of the poor in the hillside favelas (slums) of Rio – living in the most primitive of conditions, where the scorching heat was the least of his problems, as he and his people (the favelados) tried to cope with voodooism, drugs, vermin, and violence. Firmin’s legendary sense of humor and bedrock faith gave him the wherewithal to survive and flourish in Rio’s slums. Newsweek magazine would describe the Rio slums as “beyond doubt one of the places least touched by God’s mercy anywhere in the world.” Our Friar Firmin would bring God’s mercy into the darkness.
Of course, it was an incredibly difficult work which Firmin undertook. In a sense, it was a gamble, full of risks. Yet, Firmin’s faith was always willing to take those risks. As you all know well, Firmin liked to gamble. With God’s grace, Firmin had to learn to communicate in a different language, Portuguese. It did not come easy to him. On his first Ash Wednesday in the missions, he told the people to come forward so that he could put ashes on their heads. The only problem was that Portuguese word for “head” sounds very similar to the word for another part of the anatomy – under the chin, let us say. Firmin never stopped laughing about that malapropism for the next 60 years. He brought mercy into the darkness of the slums by his own humanness, and his humble ability to laugh at himself.
Newsweek magazine actually came to the Brazilian favelas in 1963 to do a full-page feature article about the missionary Firmin, whom they described as a “stocky, bespectacled, square-chinned priest.” Firmin used the occasion to teach the Newsweek reporters a powerful lesson. Said he: “You can’t look at the favelados as something in a zoo. They’re human as anybody, only their suffering is worse… What we lack [need] most is the time to give the favelados our friendship, to assure them that they’re not alone.” While even the secular press could marvel at this energetic missionary’s commitment to serving the poor, you and I know that Firmin had a supernatural secret that empowered his work. What was Firmin’s supernatural secret?
Firmin understood that his identity as a Franciscan missionary was rooted in the greatest mission story ever told. He and I always discussed this topic. Firmin understood that Jesus Christ was the first “missionary” – sent by the Eternal Father to planet earth on a divine mission of salvation through sacrifice. Firmin understood that the Holy Spirit was the second “missionary” – sent by the Father and the Son on a divine mission of sanctification through service. Firmin understood that the Blessed Virgin Mary was the third “missionary” – chosen and “sent” by God to cooperate with and help activate the two divine missions of the Son and the Spirit. Firmin also understood that the Apostles were collectively the fourth “missionary” reality – sent by God to the furthest reaches of the known world. Indeed, Firmin understood that all Christian missionaries ever afterwards – like Firmin Finn himself – are the fifth column of men and women sent to implant the Gospel and exemplify its mandate of supernatural charity. Firmin and all missionaries through the ages represent a continuation of the apostolate described in today’s second reading from the Acts of the Apostles: “He commissioned us to preach to the people and testify that He is the one”!
For today’s Requiem Mass we choose the classic Gospel text ingrained in the deepest fiber of every missionary’s being, Matthew 25, where Jesus defines the terms by which a true Christian will be judged: “Whatever you did for one of these least of mine [the poorest of the poor], you did it to me – I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was homeless, and you sheltered me; I was naked, and you clothed me; I was sick or in prison, and you visited me… When?” Firmin Finn heard Jesus prompt him: “When you did it for the favelados, you did it to me!
Yesterday in his brilliant eulogy at our Franciscan Transitus Wake Service, Brother Joe Freitag prefaced his remarks by reminding us that Firmin was the son of a barber (the famous Palatucci family of tonsorial specialty), and that Firmin was himself a barber – even here in Enfield – “Once a barber, always a barber.” I think it is fair to expand upon that characterization of Firmin by saying: “Once a missionary, always a missionary.” You can take the old friar out of the missions, but you can’t take the missions out of the friar!
Hence, when Fr. Firmin returned to the United States after two decades in Brazil, he simply looked for new types of “favelados,” whom he could serve. He found these new encounters with the poor especially in his chaplaincy ministries in Albany, Syracuse, and particularly in his 17 years at Our Lady of Hope Care Home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor in Latham, NY. [How blessed we are this morning that so many Little Sisters of the Poor, and even their Reverend Mother Provincial are here for Fr. Firmin’s funeral Mass!] Just as Firmin brought joy, light, and love into the favelas of Brazil, his mission continued in the same vein wherever he served – seeing in the sick and dying the same Jesus – the same hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, ill and imprisoned Jesus – whom he had met in the sacred favelas of distant Brazil. His final mission here in Enfield was no exception to this missionary pattern of his life: keep on spreading what Pope Francis calls the “joy of the Gospel” – Gaudium evangelii!
I cannot conclude without relating to you one final story about Fr. Firmin in his last years here at the Felician Sisters Care Center of Our Lady of the Angels. One morning, Firmin’s relatives came to visit him in Enfield, and they took him out for recreation to the local gambling casino – just for a couple of hours. He loved that place! Later that afternoon, Bro. Joe Freitag came along into Firmin’s room (unaware of what had already transpired that morning). Joe said: “Firmin, would you like to go to the casino this afternoon?” Without batting an eyelid – and absolutely mum about having already been to the casino that morning, Firmin replied “Yes of course!” Off they went, with Firmin not letting on that it was his second gambling trip of the day.
I suppose we can say that the cheeky side of Firmin Finn always looked at life as a “gamble.” Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The early Apostles had that same outlook. Indeed, the faith of missionaries is a confident “gamble” – grounded in an inspired conviction that the love of God impels us forward to climb every mountain, enter every favela, love every person. In the end, the great gamble of faith and love that Fr. Firmin Finn showed all of us points to Paradise. As we heard in today’s second reading: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples… Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us! This is the Lord for whom we looked; let us rejoice and be glad…”!
Praise God the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.