Monday, November 3, 2014

Naming our Holy Souls

So what's the cast of characters look like on your All Souls Day prayer list?  And are you able to "connect the dots"--in retrospect, of course--regarding how they helped reveal the face of Christ in your life?

Without having to canonize every family member and friend who has gone before us marked with the sign of the faith, the Church's celebration of All Souls Day invites us to commemorate and intercede on behalf of all those who are being purified on their way to full communion with Almighty God.  To pray for such holy souls is a spiritual work of mercy, and the Catechism reminds us that, "Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective" (CCC, n. 958). 
This year my thoughts have returned to a pivotal time and a most memorable group of people.  It was the late '80s in a blighted neighborhood of North Philadelphia.  During a year of service in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I was assigned to work in a day center for adults from the neighborhood who lived in nearby boarding houses and who had a variety of mental and emotional needs.  Many of them were also killer UNO players :)
The Center was housed in the rectory basement of Our Lady of Holy Souls parish.  Little did I know how aptly named the parish was!  It also took me a while to realize that the fun-loving, Philadelphia Philly fanatic, Religious Sister of Mercy named Sr. Mary Agnes (a.k.a. "Sr. Freddy" to her friends) was creating an environment of hospitality and love which reflected our Lord's recommendation.  "When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" (Lk 14:14).
Poor they were.  Most had been de-institutionalized at some point, and their monthly SSI checks went directly to their boarding home landlords, who provided various degrees of suitable housing and regular meals.  During the daytime, most of them were not allowed simply to hang out at their "home," so they wandered the neighborhood looking for a place to socialize or just pass the time.  "Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head" (Lk 9:58).
Crippled they were.  Whether it was a wobbly and affectionate Stella, who assured me that I reminded her of her old boyfriend named Brandelino--or whether it was the hobbled bag lady named Mary Ann--, they may have had some proverbial luggage, but their perseverance was remarkable.  When Jesus says, "Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money" (Lk 9:3), they may have fudged a bit on the sack issue but were certainly on track with the rest.  More to the point, how many of us could literally pick up all of our worldly possessions and go at a moment's notice?
Lame they were as well.  I had no idea what a "Depends" was until I met Bernard.  At the mercy of others to make sure that he was relatively unsoiled, Bernard wandered the neighborhood looking to bum a smoke.  His triumphant moments came when we discovered his talent on the Nerf basketball court.  After I dubbed him Bernard Barkley in honor of the 76ers all-star power forward, our local hero would light up the room with his smile each time he knocked down a three.  "Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 18:3).
And blind too.  A classy and sagacious gentleman named Spencer couldn't see with his physical eyes, but sure seemed to grasp a lot of what was going on!  "Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed" (Jn 20:29).  His faithful side-kick, Sue, used to walk blocks to his boarding house to escort him over to the parish. 
Paul the wandering Scripture scholar ("Hey, Daaaaavid, Did you know that something like scales fell from Saul's eyes on the road to Damascus?!"), or Charlie, the alleged ex-professional boxer, were storytellers and entertainers par excellence.  "For this reason I speak to them in parables" (Mt 13:3).
The single best lesson I learned, however, came from a delivery man who knocked on the door of the used clothes room looking for the pastor.  Knowing that Fr. Vance was not around, I offered to sign for the package.  But it turned out that my habit of wearing some of the second-hand clothes made it hard to convince him that I was actually a parish employee and not one of the clients :)  This was my first realization that we are all only a step-and-a-half away from a soup kitchen.  "Many who are first will be last, and the last shall be first" (Mt 19:30).
Speaking of Fr. Vance, the now erstwhile Monsignor was the behind-the-scenes ringleader of this grace-filled little circus.  His epic two- to two-and-a-half hour Sunday liturgies always featured a great joke to lead into his homily, lots of "Amens," plenty of Spirit-filled music, and an extended sign of peace--not to mention great clarity about proclaiming the Risen Lord Jesus in a neighborhood filled with much brokenness.  "In my father's house, there are many dwelling places" (Jn 14:2). 

Our Lady of Holy Souls, pray for us--