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Baptism and a Tradition in the Great Tradition

April 10, 2023


A version of these remarks was delivered on the occasion of Arthur Crisfield’s baptism.

When baby Arthur was getting baptized today, he was wearing a long white baptismal gown. That same gown was worn by Arthur’s mother Elizabeth when she was baptized in 1992. That same gown was worn by me, Elizabeth’s father, when I was baptized in 1969. That same gown was worn by my mother Sheila when she was baptized in . . . (I’m not at liberty to reveal that classified information). And that same gown was worn by her father Henry DeLaney when he was baptized in 1899.

In 1899, eye witnesses could exchange stories about how they felt when they heard shots ringing out in Ford’s theater when President Lincoln was assassinated. War veterans still hobbled around from injuries received at the Battle of Gettysburg. And you could buy tickets to a live reading from the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn read by the author himself, Mark Twain. 

Born January 4, 1899 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Henry lived through the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. As a young man, he worked on a ranch just south of the Canadian border using a wagon to bring feed to cattle, even when it was 50 degrees below zero. He fell deeply in love, but the woman he wanted to marry was thrown from a horse and died. Decades later, despite many prayers for healing—and even a visit to Lourdes hoping for a miracle—his wife died of cancer, leaving him to raise their four children. Offering up his suffering, Henry himself died of a painful cancer just over fifty years ago on March 29, 1973. 

Throughout all these difficulties of life, my grandfather loved the vulnerable and those in need. He served for more than thirty years as President of the St. Vincent DePaul Society, whose “members establish personal relationships with our neighbors in need, not only providing material assistance such as rent, utilities, food, or clothing, but also offering friendship, understanding, and prayer.” He helped alcoholics in trouble with the law, aided Cuban refugees fleeing communism under Castro, and operated a day camp for migrant workers. He set up a St. Anne’s Home to help women with crisis pregnancies, arranged summer camp tuition for poor children, and gave Christmas baskets for poor families. Henry ran the House of Charity of Spokane which served an average of 10,000 meals per year and housed about 1,900 homeless men. For many years, on Sunday, he would visit the county jail. There he befriended a Korean war veteran who had lost his teeth because an enemy soldier had knocked them out with the butt of a rifle. My grandpa arranged for the veteran to get a set of false teeth so the man could eat properly. This jail was later turned into The Delaney Apartments in Spokane, named after him, which provides low cost housing for those in need.

What fueled his intense love for those in need? It was Henry’s even more intense love for God. He nourished his love by each day attending Mass, saying fifteen decades of the rosary, and praying the Stations of the Cross. Indeed, the work my grandpa Henry felt was most important was establishing perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the local seminary. He spent countless hours, sometimes in the middle of the night, praying in front of Jesus hidden under the appearance of a Host. In these holy hours, Henry nourished his love for Jesus. As a result, he could better see Jesus in the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned. On December 28, 1969, Pope St. Paul VI made Henry Louis DeLaney a Knight of St. Gregory the Great. Msgr. Frank Bach in the funeral homily for Henry Delaney said of him, “I feel he is the greatest, the most distinguished, and the holiest layman with whom I have ever had the privilege to work or associate.” 

“We cannot understand who we are and what we are made for without understanding where we come from.”

Why am I telling you all about Arthur’s great, great grandfather? What does 1899 have to do with 2023? Abigail Favale noted, “We cannot understand who we are and what we are made for without understanding where we come from.” Our lives are inextricably entwined with the lives of others, for as the poet John Donne said, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” 

Henry DeLaney touched many lives, loved his family and loved strangers in need with a sacrificial love, and he made an enormous difference for the good. In particular, he made an enormous difference for my mother, who made an enormous difference for me, who made a difference for Elizabeth, who is making a difference for Arthur. We are interlocking links in a long chain. As St. John Henry Newman said,

God has created me to do him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission; I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I have a part in a great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.

This beautiful chain, this beautiful bond of connection between persons, did not begin in 1899. The faith and love into which Henry was baptized was passed on from father to daughter, mother to son, from friend to friend, from spouse to spouse in an unbroken chain through St. Katharine Drexel during the Industrial Revolution, St. Thomas More in the renaissance, St. Catherine of Siena in the middle ages, and St. Augustine in the patristic era. Jesus began this beautiful transmission of faith and love. He said to his disciples after his Resurrection, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). 

So, in his baptism, Arthur joins not just my family tradition, but a much older and more important Tradition. He became a child of God. As a part of the family of God, Arthur has Jesus as a brother, all the saints of ages past as sisters and brothers in Christ, Mary as his mother, and God as his Father.

My hope and prayer for little Arthur is this: Like his great, great grandfather Henry, may Arthur, too, be a man of true courage so that he can face the challenges of his day and grow despite and through the inevitable difficulties of life. May he too be heroically generous so that he can help people in their physical and spiritual needs, serving Jesus in them and showing them the love of God. May he too be a man of prayer so that he is filled with an ardent faith and a deep love for God and for neighbor. And one day—maybe one hundred years from now—may he too join the angels and the saints in that place where faith is no longer needed, where hope is fulfilled, and where perfect love brings complete joy.