Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

At Boston's bombing scene: Catholic priests need not apply

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 26, 2013

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Jennifer Graham tells me something that I hadn’t heard about Boston Marathon bombing. As dozens of victims were sprawled across Boylston Street, many of them in danger of death, Catholic priests came running to the scene—and were turned away.

Doctors and nurses were welcome at the bombing scene. Firefighters and police officers were welcome. But Catholic priests, who might have offered the solace of the sacraments, were not.

”Catholics need not apply.” That slogan was familiar in Boston years ago, before Irish and Italian immigrants took over control of the city. Now, after decades of decline in Catholic influence , the attitude has returned. One priest who was barred from Boylston Street remarked that in the past a priest was admitted anywhere. “That’s changed,” he said. “Priests are no longer considered to be emergency responders.”

Unless police officers in Boston are uniquely hostile to priests (a distinct possibility), the tide has turned very quickly on this question. On September 11, 2001, there were Catholic priests at the staging areas near the World Trade Center, giving absolution to firefighters before they rushed into the doomed building: mass-producing saints!

Unable to provide spiritual help to those whose lives were endangered, the priests in Boston retreated to a nearby church, were they “set up a table with water and oranges and bananas to serve people.” Doesn’t that nicely capture what a once-Catholic, now-secular culture expects from the Church? It’s not essential for priests to administer the sacraments; in fact it’s unwelcome. But if they could just stay out of the way, and give people something to eat, that would be fine.

Jennifer Graham captures the problem well:

But it is a poignant irony that Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who died on Boylston Street, was a Catholic who had received his first Communion just last year. As Martin lay dying, priests were only yards away, beyond the police tape, unable to reach him to administer last rites…

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Apr. 30, 2013 9:56 PM ET USA

    I want to mention the heroic priest Fr Mychal Judge, OFM, FDNY chaplain, who was consoling the dying and administering the last rites to Catholics in the hours after the planes struck the WTC. Not knowing that the building itself was at risk of collapse the triage was at the foot of the building itself and he died in its collapse.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Apr. 28, 2013 10:25 AM ET USA

    I have a problem with attempted "justification." If people are dying or injured a priest has the rightto be there. When will Christiians finally say enough is enough and accept the consequences of confrontation?

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Apr. 26, 2013 11:52 PM ET USA

    Phil, if you go to this link: and go about 3/4 of the way through, Drew Mariani on Relevant Radio interviewed one of those priests. Father Tom Corzan's impression was that it was mostly a misunderstanding because of the serious confusion caused by the bombs. Still, they should have been let through the perimeter to do their absolutely necessary work.

  • Posted by: MatJohn - Apr. 26, 2013 9:23 PM ET USA

    Faithful Departed is a particularly significant term in the Boston area

  • Posted by: lauriem5377 - Apr. 26, 2013 7:51 PM ET USA

    What has the Bishop of boston done about this? What has the USCCB done about this? What has anyone in a Catholic leadership position done about this? Here is a moment to speak up for the Faith and to let everyone know what Catholics need at the hour of death so that this travesty won't be repeated.

  • Posted by: lucinda.seago2595 - Apr. 26, 2013 7:22 PM ET USA

    I don't know why they would do that. But my heart breaks for that little boy that didn't get last rites.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Apr. 26, 2013 7:12 PM ET USA

    One priest happened to be traveling down an interstate in the city when he witnessed a terrible accident. He had the Holy Oils and his stole with him and identified himself. The EMT told him to stay away if he wanted to be helpful. He took it with equanimity but wondered what are the odds of having a priest right on the scene such as this.

  • Posted by: Defender - Apr. 26, 2013 10:46 AM ET USA

    Sad as it is, put in the larger context it is consistent with what has been happening for years. Extreme Unction is no longer a term used and even "I am Catholic, please call a priest" is a rarely seen phrase on Catholic medals. The opportunity for confession and a blessing before encountering the Four Last Things was withheld by the State that is probably unaware of its importance and, in all likelihood, doesn't care.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Apr. 26, 2013 9:58 AM ET USA

    The faithful departed. There you have it.