April 3, 2003

Walking the Stations

The senior judge of the Vatican’s highest judicial tribunal, the Sacred Roman Rota, was greatly concerned. One of our fellow judges, a Scot who was a close friend of mine, was in a hospital in London with a brain tumor. The senior judge felt that I should go to see him to assure him of the prayers and best wishes of all the judges and staff of the tribunal.

It was April, and I was more than willing to accept the assignment. Thus, reservations were quickly made at a hotel in Russell Square, a short distance from Queen’s Hospital where my colleague was confined; and I was on my way.

London in the early Spring can, of course, be cold and rainy; but this first week of April it was marvelously warm and sunny. Never had I found the city more alive and welcoming.

I arrived at Heathrow Airport late in the morning, checked into my hotel around noon, and hurried over to the hospital for afternoon visiting hours. My friend was in a ward. His head had been shaved for an operation that was scheduled for the next day, and he wore a kind of nightcap about which the two of us did much joking. I brought him greetings from the senior judge and all the others at the Rota, and we chatted non-stop until a rather severe nurse invited me to leave.

The next day was as splendid as the day before. Early in the morning I made my way to the local Catholic church. It was a small, English-Gothic edifice with two saints as patrons whose names have slipped from my memory. To enter, one crossed a broad, flagstone porch on either side of which large wooden benches had been installed. At the end of the porch were black, wrought-iron gates which stood wide open and led into the vestibule. I entered; and as I moved up the aisle, a tall man in a smock that reached down to his knees approached to introduce himself as the sexton of the church.

Did I wish to celebrate Mass, he inquired. I replied that I did. Accordingly, he directed me to a tiny sacristy, laid out a set of vestments, and served at the altar with the air of a seasoned professional.

After the Mass I made my way to the aisle seat in the last pew on the left, knelt for a brief prayer of thanksgiving, and finally sat to recite the office of the day from my Breviary. The sun pierced through the stained-glass windows. The church was silent, and my prayers were for the judge in the nearby hospital.

As I was about to conclude the section of the Office that is called "Matins," there was a good deal of noise first on the porch of the church and then in the vestibule. An elderly gentleman in an overcoat that seemed a bit much for a warm day lumbered in, leaning heavily on two metal canes. Though there was no one in the church apart from myself, he motioned me to move further into my pew and sank into the aisle seat with a thump.

"I always sit here," he said. "No handles."

At first, I did not understand what he meant. Soon, however, I realized that all of the pews except this one had rather elaborate brass fittings on the arm-rests closest to the aisle, fittings that would render a disabled person’s entry somewhat precarious. I smiled and returned to my Office.

After a few minutes, the man extracted from his coat a small, tattered pamphlet, fixed his eyes on something in the front of the church, and began to recite words from the pamphlet under his breath. "We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee," he whispered, "because by Thy holy cross Thou has redeemed the world."

Line by line, he read the familiar meditations on the Stations of the Cross composed by St. Alphonsus Liguori; and before each new station, he again fixed his eyes on something ahead.

I pretended not to notice what was happening. All the same, after the Third Station my pew companion evidently decided that an explanation was in order.

"I cannot walk very well anymore," he observed, "but I love the Stations of the Cross and make them as best I can. I look hard at each station on the wall, I recite the prayers of St. Alphonsus sitting there, and I ask the crucified Savior to do the walking for me."

He paused for a moment and added in a voice that I could scarcely hear, "He walked the Stations for all of us the first time, Father. I’m sure he doesn’t mind doing it again for me."

I was so touched by his words that I closed my Breviary to ponder them with genuine delight even after the man had stumbled out of the pew and out of the church as well.

Inspired and uplifted, I returned to the hospital for morning visiting hours. My colleague from Rome had been informed that his operation was being postponed. He did not know why, but neither did he seem concerned. We chatted for about a half hour until another nurse, very much more cordial, brought our conversation to an end.

I walked out into the sun. The British Museum was just a few blocks away. It had been my plan to go there to spend the remainder of the morning admiring the Gutenberg Bible, the Magna Carta, the Elgin Marbles, and such. Something, however, drew me back to the little parish church with the two saintly patrons.

The wrought-iron gates were locked. Hence, I sat down on the bench on the left side of the porch and peered into the building through the open vestibule doors. Thanks to the bright sunlight streaming in through the stained-glass windows, I could see all the way to the First Station. Thus, moved by some unknown grace, I began to pray, "We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee"; and sitting there, first on the bench on the left and then on the one on the right, I traveled with my eyes from station to station, reciting all I could remember of the meditations of St. Alphonsus and trusting that the Lord would be willing to do the walking for me too.

The next morning I returned for Mass well ahead of the hour the sexton had stipulated. My spirits were quite low. For at the conclusion of my hospital visit the afternoon before, two doctors had advised me that the operation on my friend had been definitively canceled. "There is no hope," one of them explained. "The tumor is too large."

I hurried up the aisle to the First Station and genuflected. The church was empty except for myself and one other – the Redeemer who had walked the Stations for me the day before, and 1,900 years before that as well. I told Him of my hurt. I commended my friend to His loving care. And the two of us walked the Stations again, this time together.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York