This reflection was shared at the vigil service in memory of Rev. Tony Azzarto, S.J. on April 20, 2023.
Good evening, Saint Peter’s Prep.
Joy to the world. Joy to the world.
The title of a Christmas song is not a phrase normally used to begin a reflection at a wake, and admittedly, in one sense, we’re probably not feeling very joyful right now, the evening before we bury our teacher, our counselor, our consoler, our chaplain, our photographer, and our friend. But isn’t that a great phrase to describe Fr. Tony Azzarto, a true joy to the world—the joy he brought to us, the joy he brought out in us. A true life-changing, school-changing, world-changing gift to us. And Tony as a gift to us almost did not happen. Tony tells the story of how, as a young scholastic, he had hoped to be assigned to Xavier High School. Thank God he was disappointed, and was assigned to 144 Grand Street, our Saint Peter’s Prep. I know this to be true: Tony would have been life-changing, school-changing, world-changing at any Jesuit high school, or any place he was assigned. But for some reason, the Good Lord’s plan was to send him here for most of the past sixty years. A gift.
Tony, as we all know, was an outstanding homilist—whether it be with the soccer team at camp, the freshman baseball team to start the season, with a small group of alumni before a reunion, or with our entire student body for the Mass of the Holy Spirit. Whether it be at a baptism or a funeral, in the foyer, in the courtyard, in your backyard, at the old chapel, or at Sea Bright, he was just outstanding. I know I speak for a lot of us when I say Tony’s homilies always felt like he was speaking directly to me. He made God and the love of God, more understandable and real—like it was something I could reach out and touch—because he connected it to everyday life and current events.
But he also, figuratively and literally, loved sharing the microphone during some of his homilies. He did that as not just a reminder for us to reflect and pray, but as a way of teaching us how to pray. Come as you are, reflect on the places God is present in the people and things you already know, and from there begin to understand you can give glory to God in everything you do. He also just wanted to continue to get to know us, even if he had known some of us for over 40 years.
And he was so joyful, so proud to know you and be your friend, your Jesuit. And he showed us off. It was almost as if he were bragging about us through the tens of thousands of pictures that he would take. He would send them to us three days after as a reminder of the joy in our lives. But then he would also stick them up on the walls and ceilings and every conceivable surface in his office and his classroom and his room in the residence. And that’s not to mention the hallways and the bulletin boards all over Prep’s campus, with tape, pushpins, staples, whatever he could find. It was almost the pure distillation of how Tony lived: a pure, simple expression of joy, so perfect in its imperfection that attempting to refine it beyond its unapologetic authenticity would only take away from it.
When you looked at all of them together on the walls, those pictures made you feel like you were a part of the Prep family, something greater than yourself. But they also reminded you that you could, and did, add to it. Maybe you didn’t think much about this, but the pictures were never of one person. It was always a group, in some way, shape, or form, walking the road together. Maybe these pictures all together were Tony’s work of art–creating a majestic tapestry entitled “Christ plays in ten thousand places.”
On evenings like this, when I look around and see all of you, all of us, this holy and sacred and beautiful family called Saint Peter’s Prep, it’s comforting to know that we are united as Prep brothers—and Prep sisters. We are united in the belief that we are truly sub umbra Petri, under the shadow of Peter. Of course we aren’t about to change the Prep seal, where the phrase sub umbra Petri appears all over campus. But I know every once in a while, I’m going to stop and think that maybe we are also sub umbra Azzarto, under the shadow of Tony Azzarto, and that’s pretty comforting as well.
Prep for life. Prep forever.
Michael Gomez, Ed.D., ’91