An ‘Advent Catholic’
I my first months as a priest in the Cathedral parish of the Archdiocese of Chicago, I had three principal duties. The first was to care for the patients on four floors of a local hospital. The second was to assist in the "inquiry classes" for persons interested in becoming Catholic. And the third was to take a "census" of all individuals and families in three large apartment buildings a short distance from the Cathedral rectory. In mid-November of that first year of my priesthood, I knocked one morning at the apartment door of a man who was well known to the priests of the Cathedral but unknown to me. He was a widower, and I was therefore surprised when a woman opened the door. She informed me that the man I had come to see was not feeling well, and she suggested that I come back some other time. (I will call her Valerie, and I will call him Charlie, though these were not their real names.) From the bedroom, a voice was heard. "Who is that, Valerie?" it thundered. "A priest," she answered. "Bring him in, bring him in," the voice commanded. And in I went.
Well, Father, what brings you here?" Charlie asked. "I am making my regular parish census calls," I replied. "If you’re not up to it, I can come back some other time." "No, sit down," Charlie responded. "I am glad to see you. Of late, I have been a bit under the weather. So I have Valerie from the hospital staying with me from nine in the morning until nine at night, and she has agreed to come on weekends too. The doctor is having tests done, and I am hoping for the best. With Valerie’s care and your prayers, I’m sure all will be well."
I fidgeted a bit in my chair, not knowing what to say or do. It seemed out of place to pull out my census card and start asking questions. Charlie intuited my discomfiture and out of nowhere asked me, "What are you going to do for Advent, Father?" Somewhat caught off base, I began to fumble for an answer when Valerie interrupted to inquire what Advent was. She noted that, while she was not a Catholic, she was "a believing Christian." Charlie broke into a long explanation of Advent the details of which took me by surprise. He knew that there were four Sundays in Advent. He knew that the priest at Mass wore purple vestments on three of the Sundays and rose vestments on a fourth, which, he observed, "is actually the third of the four." He even knew that "Advent" is from the Latin word for "coming" and has to do not only with the coming of the Lord in Bethlehem but also with His coming again at the end of time.
‘Ad so, Father, what are you going to do for Advent?" he repeated. "Well," I stuttered, "in the seminary the spiritual director told us that we should read the four Gospels during Advent and recommended that we read a passage from one of them each day for five minutes and then meditate on what we have read for 10 minutes. I’m going to do that." The answer was accurate as far as the suggestion of the spiritual director was concerned but not as regards my decision. The decision was taken right there on the spot so as to make the best of a rather awkward situation.
‘Great!" Charlie cried. "The next time you come to see this sick old man, bring me a book with the four Gospels in it from the Cathedral bookstore. I’ll follow the program laid out by your spiritual director. What is it again?" Like a medical doctor who had just written a prescription and was telling his patient how to use the recommended medicine, I repeated the formula: "Read from the Gospels each day for five minutes and meditate on what you read each day for 10 minutes." (I was tempted to add, "And call me in the morning," but decided that joking might be out of place.) "Sounds good," Charlie proclaimed. "If you could come to see me again on Sunday afternoon, it would be great. I think I am going to be laid up for quite a while. And another thing," he went on, "maybe you could bring me Communion and bring me the book of the Gospels too. It will be the first Sunday of Advent, won’t it?" I acknowledged that it would, gave him my blessing, and went on my way.
A few days later, I purchased two copies of a book containing just the four Gospels. They were sturdy, bound in imitation leather, and rather inexpensive. Hence, I also bought one for myself. On Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, I arrived at Charlie’s apartment with the two books in a bag from the bookstore, gave Charlie Communion and set the bag on a table next to his bed. Unfortunately, when Charlie reached for the bag, it fell to the floor and the two books slipped out. "Look, Valerie," Charlie announced with glee. "Father got you a book too. We will do Advent together." Valerie thanked me with a certain hesitation in her voice, and I accepted the expression of her gratitude as though I deserved it. "Five minutes reading the Gospels each day, and 10 minutes thinking about it: Is that the ticket, Father?" Charlie asked. "Yes, that’s it exactly," I agreed with the air of a seasoned practitioner of the medical profession.
The next Sunday, when I arrived with the Eucharist, I was struck by how poorly Charlie looked. The following Sunday, when I knocked at the door, Valerie appeared, pushed me out into the hallway, and told me that Charlie did not have long to live. "He’s full of cancer," she said. When we moved into Charlie’s room, Valerie put a smile on her face and reported that they had been doing their "five minutes of reading and 10 minutes of thinking" every day, adding that Charlie had been considering changing the formula to "10 minutes of reading and 15 of thinking." I was about to say that that might be too much, but thought better of it. Sometimes the patient knows more than the doctor, I told myself.
The Fourth and last Sunday of Advent found Charlie in the hospital. I went to see him after the last Mass at the Cathedral. His book of the Gospels was open on the bed, and Valerie’s was open on her lap. She told me that the end was near. I absolved him, anointed him, gave him Communion, and concluded with the Apostolic Blessing at the Hour of Death. Three days later I saw my name on the bulletin board of the Cathedral sacristy as deacon for Charlie’s Funeral Mass, which was to have the Rector of the Cathedral as celebrant. (In those days, the celebrant was often accompanied at Funeral Masses by priests fulfilling the roles of deacon and subdeacon.) The Rector in his sermon stated that he was sure that Charlie was well prepared to go to His Lord, and his statement meant a great deal to me. For deep down I knew how truly and thoroughly prepared he was.
At Eastertime I saw Valerie after Mass in the Cathedral. She had joined the Cathedral’s inquiry class shortly after Charlie died, she told me, and become a Catholic. She confided to me how much she had come to admire Charlie during their Advent together; and she added, "Reading the Gospels every day was something I will never forget. I am going to do it every Advent as long as the Lord keeps me on this planet." With that, she gave me a kiss on the cheek and whispered, "That’s from an Advent Catholic."
For over a half-century, whenever anyone has asked me what to do for Advent, I have always had a ready answer. And in the interest of full disclosure, perhaps I should confess that it is also my "prescription" for Lent.
Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York