In 1966, when I was 26 years old, I had my greatest success in terms of numbers of readers. The Catholic Diocese of New York City had at that time a membership of nearly three million(!) communicants who regularly attended Mass and received the sacraments. Such an amazingly huge collection of co-Catholics made it possible for the diocese to provide all sorts of extras, one of which was The Catholic News, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of nearly one million(!) copies per week.
In the early months of 1966 I discovered in Writer's Digest an announcement that The Catholic News was seeking an Easter poem. So I decided to give it a shot!
The point of view I adopted for the poem was that of an ordinary Roman soldier who served at the execution of the three "criminals" at Golgatha on "Easter Sunday, A.D. 33." The main idea of the poem is that Christ conducted himself in a manner that would impress a hard-bitten veteran of years with a Roman Legion.
My poem was accepted! It was printed above the headline of the Easter Sunday edition of The Catholic News on Easter Sunday, April 7, 1966. About fifteen years ago, I received a phone call from an official of the diocese. He asked me for permission to print the poem again in the 1989 or 1990 Easter edition of The Catholic News. I, of course, generously gave permission for the reprint. After all, how often do you get a chance to have one million copies of one of your poems reprinted and circulated to the general public?
Easter Sunday, A.D. 33
This sun-cursed, god-poor land
is a disturbing place:
it breeds prophets, zealots, fools,
and lunatics --
like the mad-man "king"
that we just crucified.
But -- by the gods of Rome! --
That man died nobly! Truly great!
Truly Roman, at the last.
Like a dying lion who, in his final hour,
Is nobler than the snarling boar
who rips his flesh with scornful tusks --
Why scorn the dying man?
Why gall his dying throat?
Perhaps it is the climate
Of this godforsaken land
That turns our soldiers into swine
It is a land of sudden storms:
I once saw a passing storm
Send such winds and waves as smash all boats
Against the rocky shores of Galilee
And leave all sailors quivering by the docks in fear.
The storm that day
Was such a storm:
My centurion was afraid.
The passing of a Jewish thunderstorm
Shipwrecked his soldier's soul.
He said, "That man is Son of God!"
Yet all the while the man hung dead
Upon a bloodstained cross.
Already they had thrust a lance
Into his heart "against the chance that he might live,"
Or so the orders were.
I saw him die.
I fear there was no god upon that cross,
But he was Roman at the last.
I've heard some say that he will rise --
Then he were a god indeed! --
But he's been dead two days.
No more soft-willed thoughts!
I will not think of him again.
But truly noble, truly great,
Truly Roman at the end --
I do not understand.
-- Warren F. O'Rourke, 1966 (revised in 2004)