December 4, 2003

The First Christmas Card

Holy Cross parish (La Parrocchia della Santa Croce) on the west side of Rome is immense. Indeed, it is so immense that scattered about the parish are several chapels and churches smaller than the main parish church which serve rather large congregations of the faithful. One of the chapels is dedicated to St. Angeline, seats around 400, and is attached to a day-care center conducted by a community of dedicated women religious. Until I left Rome in 1985 to come to New York to be an auxiliary bishop to Cardinal O’Connor, it was my privilege and joy to attend to the Masses and confessions on weekends in this little-known sector of the Lord’s Roman vineyard.

One Sunday, early in December of 1984, I was standing on the front steps of the chapel chatting with families leaving the 11 o’clock Mass. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a man in his early 30s who had stationed himself just inside the chapel door. I suspected that he was waiting for me, and my suspicion proved to be correct.

"Father," he whispered as I approached him, "I need to speak with you. It’s urgent."

We went into a parlor in the convent of the sisters and sat down, each in an overstuffed chair. The introductions were brief. He was anxious to get right to the point.

Ten years before, he and his wife had married. They had been engaged but advanced the date of their wedding because she was pregnant. Shortly thereafter he was offered an excellent position overseas. They left their families, moved to a land in which neither spoke the native language, rented an apartment, and within six months were forced to return home because the company that had hired him was in financial trouble.

Back in Italy, she had their child "discreetly" in the home of relatives south of Rome and finally, after an extended stay with friends, returned to the Eternal City where he found a job. The job, however, paid poorly; and the family was living in what my anguished friend described as "a very humble home."

"We’re ashamed to have our relatives see it," he told me, his face turning red with hurt and resentment. "So last night my wife and I agreed to put an end to our marriage. She is going back to her father’s house to get a divorce, and I don’t care. I can’t believe it, Father; but frankly, I don’t care."

A knock came at the door. It was one of the sisters inquiring as to whether we would like some coffee. I replied that we would and nervously cleared my throat.

"Forgive me," I said in a hushed and somewhat awkward tone, "but I believe that you do care. Your trembling voice and angry eyes give you away. Permit me, please, to tell you why you care."

The movies, the nighttime "soap operas" from America, the popular magazines, and a good deal of the press, I observed, are striving to convince us that marriage is a passing and trivial thing. However, I added, they are happily facing an uphill battle with people who have even a rudimentary understanding of what life is all about.

Marriage, I continued, is a truly wondrous reality. On their wedding day a man and a woman give to and receive from each other the permanent and exclusive right to do something of unique value and grandeur, namely, to perform together that act from which can result a human being, an image and likeness of the Almighty, a creature for whom the Son of God gave his life on the cross.

Nor can we make little of marriage, its true meaning, and its sublime dignity for long without greatly damaging ourselves in the process, I went on. It is a fact of life that children need parents – mothers and fathers – not only physically but also spiritually and psychologically as well. Make it acceptable or even stylish to walk away from marriage with casual divorce, and await incalculable harm to both individuals and society as a whole. The women will find themselves without security and protection. The men will find themselves without stability and respect for self. And children and society will find themselves not at all.

No thinking persons may rightly "not care" about the tragic ending of a marriage, I concluded. There is simply too much at stake.

The coffee arrived. We thanked the sister and slowly sipped it in silence. Suddenly my friend spoke up. "I am not going to argue with any of that," he announced with a tinge of bitterness in his voice. "But what about marriages like mine, marriages that start badly and never find their way? All the theory, theology, or whatever get lost when you go down the aisle before you plan to because your fiancee is pregnant, when you have to live the beginning of your married life in a foreign country, when after 10 years you cannot give your family anything better than a very humble home, a home so humble that you don’t want your parents or your wife’s parents even to come for a visit." He put his head in his hands. His shoulders were shaking, and he was digging his heels into the legs of the overstuffed chair.

It was no time for preaching. The occasion seemed rather to call for a story. Hence, I told him of a teenage girl engaged to a young man, of her being found with child, and of his confusion and embarrassment. I told of the birth of their son in a shed meant for animals and of years of exile in Egypt, a land whose language and customs were totally unknown to both of them. And I finished by observing that the head of the household, Joseph by name, was not – as some would have you believe – a carpenter, but rather a "joiner of wood," that is to say, a construction laborer who very likely gave his spouse, Mary, and her Son a home far more humble than any to be found in Holy Cross parish.

My interlocutor rose, shook my hand unenthusiastically, murmured a few words that I did not understand, and left me alone in the parlor.

The next Sunday, and for many Sundays thereafter, I observed the man with whom I had spoken in the convent parlor attending Mass in the Chapel of St. Angeline, accompanied by a woman and a boy of 10 years or so. He never failed to wave at me when leaving the chapel. Still, it was clear that he wanted no further contact. If I happened to catch his eye before Mass or during the homily, he would nod politely and turn away immediately. All of this perplexed me at first but in time became lost in other concerns.

The following May I was appointed an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of New York. Letters and cards of good wishes arrived in surprising numbers. To help me handle the correspondence and details of the ordination ceremony, an English lady who lived in Rome came each morning to my office, opened the mail, set aside what needed a reply, and generally kept things in order. Blessed with a delightful sense of humor, she had a quip for every occasion.

"Well, fancy this," she cried one day as I was working at my desk. "You just received the first Christmas card of 1985. Merry Christmas, and in case I might have forgotten, Happy Fourth of July, too."

With that she handed me a sheet of paper that had been folded into the form of a greeting card. On the front cover there was pasted a picture of the Nativity of Our Lord with the stable smirched with black ink to make it look even more desolate than the artist had intended. The message inside the card read as follows: "Best wishes, dear Bishop. Before you leave us, there is something you should know. Like that other family in their humble home, we are staying together. Thank you for caring, and God bless you."

The loyal subject of the British queen had left my office as I was reading the card. I breathed a prayer of thanks. She would have had too much fun teasing me about the tears that I was unsuccessfully fighting back.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York