Twenty-seven years ago a little boy gave me such a hug that i can still feel it, and it still brings tears to my eyes. It happened in a confessional where he and i found ourselves wrapped in the arms of God. That day that boy bonded with another little boy who twenty-seven years earlier had felt the very same hug of God.
i shall always be grateful beyond words for so many years of sharing in the Grace and Ministry of the Catholic Priesthood. And i’ll never deny a bit of longing during these years of raising six children for THOSE MUCH QUIETER TIMES.
The Season of Lent, which we are in once more, is always a time of special memories in that regard, as many of the best things that happen in a priest’s life happen then.
One of the most sacred seasons of the Church year, Lent, was also – to me – one of the most comical. This page about ashes, recently sent to me, gave me a good chuckle. i can still see the faces of many, especially children, as they cringed and hoped that i’d show mercy to their foreheads. Oh, the things we do to please God, and, as so many think, to work some magic spell. Some of the saddest moments of my priesthood were when on those holier Wednesdays Catholics – otherwise UNFAMILIAR with that Church – came up on my Holy Communion line, and when i said, “This is the Body of Christ,” (this is the One Who loves you, even if no one else does) only to hear a big, “WHAT!?” “The Body of Christ,” i’d say again, to their “I Don’t Want THAT!! Where’s the ashes?” as if those ashes had some power other than to say, “HEY! You are going to DIE! Let’s live accordingly.” IF i DIDN’T LAUGH, i’d CRY!
But, by far the most wonderful and rewarding experiences of my priesthood happened in the Confessional, and though they were a year-long thing, Lent is their “High Season.” Yes, i heard confessions EVERYWHERE, in churches, prisons, convents, bars, during strolls on the beach or camp-outs on mountains. Every age, every kind…My very first customer was a bishop. Wow, here i was brand spanking new and still looking like a kid with long, hippie hair, then a knock at the door, and Holy Cow! So scared was i that i almost lied and said, “i’m Brother Mike, let me find you a priest.” When i lived in Rome, the word among priests was to “Watch Out! If the Pope, John Paul II at the time, came walking by, chances are he’ll pull you aside and ask you to forgive his sins.” TRUE STORY! i guess that’s one of the reasons he’s now called Saint John Paul. Thank God i never got the tug, though, look, i did shake hands with the Saint.
Over the 26 years since the same Pope permitted me to leave the priesthood, i can’t count how many people have marveled at the fact that i can walk around carrying a million secrets, some monster-big, but not even get weighed down or made into a hunchback. Easily i had a million do-do’s dumped on me, but i do DO BELIEVE, as i often told those sinners,that anything said to me went into my ear and my heart just like pails of ocean into a hole in the beach. As kids we tried to dump it there, but alas! whatever went in, it was gone! Every tiny drop, and every single sin, simply disappeared. And just the opposite of weighing us down, the experiences invigorated us!
And i was sworn to secrecy forever, and never would i think of repeating any sin, even if i could remember any – which by God’s Grace i never could. i would never betray anyone’s trust.
There is, however, a little dilemma of one, no – two, OUTSTANDING CONFESSIONS, which i have never been able to hold in my heart alone. And 30+ years later i believe that i am safe from lightning bolt or from excommunication by Pope Francis (WHO WOULD LOVE these true stories more than anyone!!) As long as i hold names, times and places to myself, if i am wrong, God will show me mercy. One was a woman who made a good confession and received my absolution, but minutes later i heard her voice again, repeating everything. i stopped her, “Excuse me, but weren’t you just here?” To which she then confessed with chuckles and tears, “Yes, but the Mercy felt soooooo good, I just wanted to feel it again.” My fellow priests and i were often BLOWN AWAY by that joyful gift of tears that God allowed us to share.
My other unforgettable story was that of a little boy, no older than 8, who, having the option of sitting on a comfy chair in front of me or going into “the dark side” the old-fashioned way chose the latter. So frightened, so ashamed of the absolute gravity of his sin, as if unforgivable, he hemmed and hawed, the kneeler squeaking as he shifted and shook, until finally he laid it on me. He had done the unthinkable. He had said “Alleluia” during Lent!!! “So, there it is, Father Mike.” Now i was GLAD that he’d chosen the dark side, so he couldn’t see me fighting back a laugh…as i did try and try to think how such a thought could have taken over such a sweet and sensitive soul??? He had one more thing to say, and it burst out of him like the ANGST of ALL HUMANITY. i often wonder if it was the source of my present tinnitus, as he SCREAMED in my ear, “Do you THINK God can ever forgive me?”
It is our ancient custom to make Lent a time of sorrow for sin, a time to focus on our weaknesses and faults and endless need for God (and so to refrain from that word til its crescendo on Easter.) Yes, but our ponderings and penance should never be without the GREATER SENSE, the deeper knowledge, that God is and has always been there – to hold us and lift us up NO MATTER WHAT. Lent is most of all a Season of Joy, the Joy of realizing that nothing we can ever do can make God stop loving us. The word “LENT” means, in fact, “SPRING,” and what in the world is happier than that? after a long cold gloomy winter. Down the hill from my home in Beacon, New York, the church bells of Beacon First Presbyterian ring at certain hours of the day. The hymns are already set, by computer, and they are indiscriminate of season. How Sweet It Is to hear – yes, throughout the Lenten period, this reminder that the Battle is Already WON: “Jesus Christ is Risen Today, Alleluia!”
i tried to tell this to the boy – and how he should whisper alleluias all the time, maybe even SHOUT A FEW FROM HIS ROOFTOP, yes even during Lent. i don’t recall just how i put it to him. i only remember that when he got up from the dark side and opened the door, he suddenly opened mine, came into the Light Side and gave me a hug i shall never forget. Sins i forget (and his wasn’t one), but MERCY NEVER!
One of the masterpieces of our literature by our once Poet Laureate, Robert Frost:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, And spills the upper boulders in the sun; And makes gaps even two can pass abreast. The work of hunters is another thing: I have come after them and made repair Where they have left not one stone on a stone, But they would have the rabbit out of hiding, To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean, No one has seen them made or heard them made, But at spring mending-time we find them there. I let my neighbor know beyond the hill; And on a day we meet to walk the line And set the wall between us once again. We keep the wall between us as we go. To each the boulders that have fallen to each. And some are loaves and some so nearly balls We have to use a spell to make them balance: ‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!' We wear our fingers rough with handling them. Oh, just another kind of outdoor game, One on a side. It comes to little more: There where it is we do not need the wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.' Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder If I could put a notion in his head: 'Why do they make good neighbors?'.... GOD IT IS Who doesn't like walls. But walls, unfortunately, will always be necessary AS LONG AS HUMANS ARE HUMAN. It is the "Masonry of our Mamas and our Papas" to figure out just how strong the walls should be. The other day i declared my pride in my Pope for making a masterful "Jesus Move," on the matter of "the Wall," giving his whole wise yet simple take : "A person who thinks only about building walls and not bridges is not Christian; this is not the Gospel." What i failed to mention in my happy excitement - THE MOST IMPORTANT THING OF ALL - was my much greater PRIDE in him for saving that now famous sentence until the end of all of his strong prophetic words throughout Mexico and the whole world. Donald Trump has rightly mentioned that the Vatican has quite the wall!!!! But before we can chant "hypocrisy," my point is that Pope Francis already unleashed his usual criticism, a hundred times as many words with far more fire, on his own, his fellow priests and shepherds,in both the past and the present, for building walls between them and God's people, especially the poor. It has been his passionate cry from day one of his pontificate, that the selfish seeking of power and of comforts over compassion must be wiped out throughout the earth. This is CLEARLY A MAN WHO DETESTS WALLS - and wholoves bridges. i believe that he owns in his chest the HEART OF GOD, and i know that he has in his head a very wise and practical brain that is ready to acknowledge that - UNFORTUNATELY - walls are sometimes needed by humans. Right after the Holy Spirit of God swept up the bridge-builder of Argentina and planted him on the world stage, because he has that Heart of God, that same Spirit spoke through the special little Capuchin friar, Cantalamessa, who has been the Pope's Preacher for 36 years. It was on Good Friday, 2013,that Fr. Raniero stepped up to the pulpit at the Vatican and delivered the profound message that this amazing Pope Francis' election reminded us Pope John XXIII, who "opened the window of the Church to let in some fresh air."It was wonderful, but it wasn't enough! NOW through this New Man of God theSpirit needed to do some major Spring Cleaning and to knock down partitionsand closets, unnecessary trappings - WALLS - that had been built over many centuries and taken the Church from the Simplicity of the Gospel. Later on, i heard from my Capuchin friends that it did not strike well with many of the upper echelon. BUT POPE FRANCIS SURE DIDN'T FIRE HIM!! Rather, this hasbeen the chief work of the Holy Father all along, to return to the purity, to the simplicity of the Gospel of Christ,in whom humanity came to see and to know that Heart of God. Pope Francis' constant wish and cry is that all leaders of Churches and Governments start there before heading to the field to fix the walls. He has certainly reserved his strongest judgment for his own!!! A dear friend of mine puts it this way, "The Reign of the Good Old Boys is Over!!"
When people ask me what was my own favorite blog, it’s hard, but i always end up with my FRANCOBOLLI with the ROLLING R, about my miraculous experience in a post-office in Rome, Italy.
But i think it’s time for a FRANCOBOLLI II, this one about my precious Mother. My mom is the easiest person to please. Whenever it’s time to get her a gift for some occasion, she’ll beat me to it. In anticipation she’ll call and say, “All I Want, All I Need is Francobolli!” Of course, she can really wreck Italian!! Ha Ha! And that one, my favorite Italian word, means Postage Stamps! She may not be able to roll her r’s, but this little lady knows what she wants. She’ll even add, “Fancy stamps, preferably flowers or birds!”
And my Mother is the Master of the Ancient, Long-Forgotten, Sacred Art of Letter-Writing!
She’ll say it loud n clear; she’ll say it over and over. “I don’t tweet, I don’t text, I don’t FB, I don’t E, and I sure don’t Insta!! No, I like to take my time and fill it with alot of Love and Tenderness, so Letters Are the Best!!!”
She has been writing them to me, almost every week, for almost 50 years. i tried and tried to keep up with her, but she’s a true marathoner. In time i surrendered to the easier sprints, and she left me, heck, she left us all in the dust…..but faithful “FOREVER,” as the American francobolli say it.
It would not surprise me if my mother still has every letter she ever received, so much does she treasure every note and every sender. She’s even got a few tucked away from some V.I.P.’s, but to my Mother – and this is the Number One reason why she writes – each and every person MUST KNOW and be REMINDED how VERY IMPORTANT he or she (and she’s even written to our pets!!!), ALL SO PRECIOUS TO HER. She especially adores the mailmen – as they do her. Walt Kruzienski, mailman of the century, is grateful for her revenue; not one of those confounded price hikes ever slowed her down. And her vision of mailmen as archangels never once faded.
She loved her dear husband from the day they met til the day God took him home (and loves him still). She watched eight little robins hatch and grow, then fly away (and she loves and cares for them still). But Letter-Writing, now that has been one of her Godly Missions in this world, for this whole world, throughout her life. There couldn’t possibly be a count of how many lives she has touched, boosted, bettered, made to know how VERY IMPORTANT they are.
If anyone deserves to have her face on a stamp, a francobollo, it is my dear Mother. Hey! i think i’ll make one for her. On the bottom, of course, the USPS will already write Forever. But over this picture, at the orchid-covered table where she’s written thousands, i would add one word. Interestingly, the great saint Mother Teresa always said that “In the end it will not matter how much money you had or how many cars or houses, how pretty your face remained or whether you were famous. All that matters is how FAITHFUL you were.”
So, my sweet momma, francobollist extraordinaire, FAITHFUL FOREVER.
Wow! He’s done it! Pope Francis has Out-Cooled Himself!! All this week people wondered if he’d say something??? And if so, WHAT WILL IT BE? Just when it seemed he’d decided to stay silent…up in the air he went. And, well, you know he gets on that plane. Something in the air up there sets his Spirit free…
The best of the Prophets are the simplest of men. So, he simply whips up a little deja vu…..just like the time they cornered Jesus, put him to a test?? “The Law says, Stone the adulteress.” He says, “Go ahead! Grab your stones! But, let the one who has no sin throw the first.”
And what does Francis say, “Go ahead, grab your bricks! and build a wall, but let the one who has never been shown mercy LAY THE FIRST BRICK of it.”
And as far as i know, there’s only one such man in the Americas! Let he who’s “made it all” himself make the wall himself.
How slick a Pope is that!? You know he’s learned from The Teacher!!!
Just like the other Papa, whose words ring in my left ear louder than the tinnitus in my right. i pray his prayer morning, noon and night, what my other Papa taught to me:
“Imprint on our hearts now a deep sense of our obligations for those Incomparable Mercies that have been shown to us as a nation, preserve us from the arrogance of prosperity, and render this country more and more a safe asylum for the unfortunate of this world. Dispose us all to love Mercy and do justice, and to dress ourselves with the same humility, charity, and pacific temper of Him without a humble imitation of whose example we can never hope to be a happy nation, Jesus my Lord!” – General George Washington, Newburgh, N.Y.
Go Figure! The coldest temperatures on record! Everything turned to ice! Slowly the wind makes a change, and the Great Artist brings back the white paint, but only for a few hours, and then Mother Nature changes her mind, or mood, again. Let’s just wipe that off, let’s rinse that away…turn on the water…!?!?! She can’t decide…
So much Confusion! The first Robin of the year appears in our yard, wandering about, as if lost, amid these traces of white and ice and the Great Mother’s whims. A mercury miracle move of 70 degrees in less than 48 hours will do that for sure. Look in her eyes; it’s downright confounding! After she wanders about the yard a while, it has become clear to me that she must be an Italian robin, as she settles on one fine solution to the dilemma, Perché non godere di un antipasto di primavera ?! Why not just enjoy the Antipasto of Spring!?
The quandary that is in dear Robin’s eyes ain’t nothin’ compared to what i see in so many persons’ during these confusing times. The winds of change have us whirling and scared. What will happen to my job? What will become of our home? What will be the future for my children, and for theirs? Who can I trust in this scary world around us? Who is going to lead us? Can I really listen to any of them? Believe anything they say? Each week, when i return to the market, the people appear to me more tired, more anxious, more afraid. My heart aches for them, as it did for the Robinson Robin.
Now i suppose that there are as many answers to these dilemmas as there are presidential aspirators, not to mention congressional ones (the ones who really call the shots.) There are as many solutions as there are religions or spiritualists, maybe as many as there are people. But, having lived most of my life with these good people, i would definitely hail the approach of the Italians. The two words in their word for Spring, Prima and Vera, mean “one, tried and true” or “first and surest”way, as sure as there will come another Spring and then another Summer…that is, that we who trust in God and who live TODAY as best we can will be taken care of. “Give us this day our daily bread…”
“For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?”Matt.6: 26-27
Though Jesus never met a robin in New York in February or March, or saw how much they do worry at times, bottom line, they deserve our imitation. Perciò, che mangiamo e beviamo. So, let’s eat and let’s drink. Let’s celebrate what we have today. It is the BEST that we can do, as it all that we have, all that we are certain of here on earth.