November 22, 2007

And Now a Word From Our Mothers

The Bicentennial Mass for the Hispanic community was truly outstanding. The auditorium of Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx was filled to capacity with over 1,000 dedicated Latino Catholics who had spent the entire day attending lectures about the Catholic Faith, participating in discussions, and above all praying. I was honored to celebrate Mass for them in the late afternoon as their special day drew to an end. Their warmth, their enthusiasm and their devotion were an inspiration.

In a nearby hospital, one of our Archdiocesan priests had taken a turn for the worse in an illness that had kept him bedridden for weeks. He was on my mind throughout the Mass. At its conclusion, I thanked the priests who had joined me at the altar, congratulated the excellent choir, shook hands with the servers and made my way hastily to the hospital.

The man at the information desk directed me to the "ICU" (intensive care unit) on the fourth floor. As I emerged from the elevator, I spied a sign on the opposite wall telling me to go into a waiting room, dial a certain number on the telephone, indicate the patient I wanted to visit and be seated until someone came to get me. All of this I did, relieved to know that the priest was still among the living.

There was only one other person in the waiting room. She was an African-American of perhaps 35 years of age. Seated at a tiny table, she was eating her dinner from a cardboard container. A television set attached to the wall high over our heads was on. It was showing a situation comedy in which the parents of a housewife were having dinner with their daughter, their son-in-law, and if memory serves two children. An argument ensued, and the father-in-law leaned into the camera to call the son-in-law a name that was both blasphemous and unclean. The canned laughter was raised to an unusually high level. When it subsided, the woman in the room with me announced angrily: "They want to wreck our kids with all this ugliness and filth. That’s why they show this stuff at suppertime. But I won’t let them wreck mine. No, you can count on that. I won’t let them."

I had no chance to respond, if a response was desired. For the telephone rang; and before either of us could answer it, a nurse appeared at the waiting room door to signal the woman to follow her into the ICU. She rose, went over to a receptacle in the corner, deposited her cardboard container, and turned to me to repeat with a certain solemnity, "I won’t let them."

I due course, my time came to enter the ICU to look for the priest I had come to see. He was very sick indeed and did not respond to my greeting or questions. Thus, I leaned in toward him to recite prayers as loud as I dared over the blare of the six o’clock news that was being transmitted on a television set above his bed. After giving him my blessing, I went to look for the woman from the waiting room to offer a word of encouragement. She was nowhere to be found.

Still, she remained on my mind for several days afterwards. Indeed, one evening at a charity dinner, I told two couples sitting with me of my experience in the hospital, confessing that I was not sure what I would have said to the woman if I had found her.

One of my table partners, a mother of several and a grandmother of several more, cleared her throat, waited until she had the attention of us all, and enunciated her "five basic rules" for dealing with "bad TV, radio, movies, magazines and the songs the youngsters listen to with those little loops in their ears." Her "rules" struck me as marvelously wise. Here they are in my words. They were much more powerful in hers. Hence, I will fit hers in, to the extent that I can remember them.

First, be in charge with television. Have the set in a room where everyone can watch it, and have it turned off when what is being shown is "violent or off-color."

Second, when what was seen was unexpectedly unacceptable, sit down and discuss it openly and thoroughly. "Don’t be afraid. Children need to know you can handle this sort of thing calmly and courageously."

Third, as long as youngsters are in high school, make sure you know what movies they are going to see, what magazines they are buying and reading, and what they are hearing on "the newfangled radio devices." "And again, don’t be afraid. Deep down, children want boundaries, reasonable boundaries, boundaries that show you really and truly care about them."

Fourth, eat together and see to it that everyone has a chance to "say his or her piece." The dinner table is the best classroom for those lessons a family needs to teach. Nothing will ever take its place.

Fifth and last, pray. The recitation of even one decade of the Rosary by parents and children together after dinner is the most powerful defense against whatever damage may be done by communications media of whatever kind. Prayer puts life into focus, and family prayer will always be remembered with gratitude and love.

A voice came over the loudspeaker calling us to order so that the persons to be honored at the dinner might come forward to receive their awards. The husband of the "rule-giver" patted her on the hand. "Well put," he said.

She smiled and winked at me. "He usually doesn’t like my sermons," she said. "I like that one," he retorted. "Some of the others, Cardinal, still need some work. But not that one."

At home after the dinner, I scanned the morning newspapers before turning in. One of them featured an article about contract negotiations that writers for television, motion pictures and radio had just entered with movie producers and stations owners.

According to the article, preliminary statements by both sides were "tough and hard-hitting." What a great idea it would be, I mused to myself, if two mothers of my recent acquaintance could join the talks. They would have something of inestimable value to add about what the writers and their employers are doing to our youth and to all of us, for that matter. "Tough and hard-hitting" might be ennobled by "strong and wise." And if all were listening in good faith, the result could be "human and decent."

Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York