Last night, I received a long email from a very old friend, a wonderful man and exemplary priest. He had been Monsignor of his parish just outside New York City for more than 30 years until a stroke slowed him down considerably. But he's not the retiring type, and stays involved with all the activities and needs of his parish, its school and other charitable programs.
Although the population of the parish's community has changed over the years and is now much poorer, he has remained a beloved figure who is truly a friend to all. Or, so he thought.
On Sunday night, he was told that the Sister who normally runs the parish's daycare center had taken ill, and her assistant was not available. Typically, and happily, he stepped in and said he'd manage the center and take care of the 25 children who are dropped off every day, mostly by their working moms. In fact, he hobbled right over the kitchen and began putting together the breakfast trays the children would be given the next morning.
I have seen him in action, and to say that he welcomed the kids and their mothers with open arms would be an understatement. He would have had hugs, kisses and blessings for all, even those faces who were new to him, or whose memory his stroke might have taken away.
Many of the moms of course knew their old friend very well, and were delighted to see him, with his twinkling blue eyes and eternal Irish smile.
But there were some who were newer to the parish, and only recognized him as the old man with a slightly stroke-contorted face who walks through the neighborhood and couldn't always speak without slurring some words. They held tight to their kids, huddled with some of the other mothers, and soon, there were only 15 children left.
A longtime parishioner who had come by to help with the program came up to my old friend with tears streaming down her face, and explained what had happened.
"I tried to tell them," she told my friend, "that you're okay with kids."
"Okay with kids?" he asked, puzzled. "Of course I am!" he exclaimed with a laugh. "I'm not that old!"
He soon realized that being old wasn't the problem. Being a priest was. "It's just the way things are right now," the kindly woman said. "It's not you."
Now, I understand that it is a dangerous world, and mothers have an unstoppable, God-given instinct and duty to protect their children from all harm, real or imagined. I cannot bring myself to blame them.
I simply feel very sad.
For them, for my dear friend, and for "the way things are right now."
Because of the vicious power of fear, they all lost. The mothers missed a chance to entrust their blessed children's care to a true man of God, and to come to know him and see him for the kind, gentle and wonderful man he is. The kids missed a chance to have a wonderful day and experience the specialness that can only come from those who have lived many years and seen many things.
And unknowingly, they missed the chance to make an old man very happy.
My dear friends, as I give you God's Blessing, I implore you: Do not let hatred enter your hearts. It will make its home there.