The Catholic Thing


Uncle Bobby was an usher at Saint Sebastian’s Church on President Avenue for 40 years. His father’s family built that Church exactly 100 years ago. With the exception of World War II, sporadic vacations, and Cape Cod summers, he appeared at Saint Sebastian’s every Sunday morning of his life until his mobility began to limit him at 87.  I would, in intervals of my life, occasionally attend that 9 a.m. mass, and loved to watch him slip quietly out of the pew following the Prayers of the Faithful to take his station as an usher.  The ushers start at the first row with a long-armed wicker basket and collect donations solemnly before the serious business of Mass begins: the consecration. A bean pole of man, he did his job with grace and humility.  He made me proud.  He is a devout Roman Catholic, the kind bred to it; the sort never to question it. I marvel at the stamina of that commitment.

At 50, I chose to leave my husband.  It was early November when the decision was made, and December when I left my home in a legal separation.  It was not until February that I finally screwed up my courage and did a rather old-fashioned thing.  I pulled out some writing paper and wrote a letter to Uncle Bobby.  He was my Godfather and my remaining family underpinning when I wrote to him that thing I had been too cowardly to tell him.  It was a confessional of my personal failure. That is how I felt about the end of my marriage.  I did not measure up in stamina and commitment.  I made a promise in a Catholic Church before God and my family,  and in the end, I broke it.  When I wrote that letter to Uncle Bobby, and finally confessed my failure, I slid it into an envelope and put it in the mailbox, and I wept.  I was sure I would be his greatest disappointment.

It was not a surprise that five days later an envelope with Uncle Bobby’s perfect parochial cursive penmanship appeared in my mailbox.  I opened it anxiously, sitting at my small kitchen table, and carefully smoothed out the tri-folded yellow legal pad paper.  It was two pages long and started this way:

“It is no surprise to me that in consideration of all the personal challenges you have faced in the last 8 years that your marriage would be strained.  

It is no surprise that you are fatigued and ‘stressed out’.“

I was already relieved.  “Stressed out” is the sort of colloquialism he loved to sneak in with a wink and a smile.  It allowed me to breathe.

He went on to advise me carefully: take care of your health, take a deep breath, don’t make rash decisions and, above all else,  “I am only a car ride away for anything you need.”   He went on, in a way that only Irish Catholics can, to point out that “The Kennedy’s” had great struggles too and do not forget that the Good Lord is there for you always.

At the conclusion of that remarkable letter, which I keep in a special place to this day, I sobbed. Not in sadness and self-loathing, but rather in thankfulness.  I was so relieved and grateful for a very Catholic tenant: grace.  This man’s grace surprises me at every turn.

I was reminded of that beautiful letter yesterday.  The stress of the past several weeks has been impossible to cloak from him. I have not worn it well. Today, we were able to quickly work through some “business”  in part because I recently introduced him to online banking.  He marvels at online banking. The efficiency of it allows for more real conversation and on this day his complaints are few.  He did what he often does when it appears we have a swath of time; he waxes on about his agenda of choice.  Today it was me.  

My bachelor uncle, a medical “house of cards”, confined to a wheelchair and dependent on the varying levels of kindness in care from the staff at his assisted living center, wanted me to know something.  

“Now, listen.  Life is complicated and we can only do our best.  You are doing a great job. I know you have heartbreak, and the good Lord and time are the two things that will take care of that.  Until then, you just keep doing your best”.

His long-fingered, elegant hands are moving  throughout today’s lecture.  A finger pointed here, a touch of his chest for emphasis there, and finally two palms down on his lap to indicate he is done.  

Long gone are the days of passing that wicker basket down the aisle.  The old-fashioned art of letter writing in perfect cursive is over as well.  Strength has left his body, but not his heart, and I can’t help but think that his Catholicism underpins it all.  It is the cornerstone of his inner structure, built over time, based on consistent commitment and unwavering faith.  I have long been a “fallen” Catholic and I envy the sureness with which he wears his belief.  He calls on it often in the final struggle of his life. When he refers to the “Good Lord”  it sounds like a mantra to me.  When he senses I am feeling a bit cornered, he shares his mantra to great effect and it soothes me.

Saint Sebastian’s Church, built from stone in 1915, served Uncle Bobby well.

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