When I first met him, he was seventy-five years of age and retired. I had just arrived in Rome of 1972 to begin my new duties as a judge of the Tribunal of the Sacred Roman Rota. The day after my arrival, he telephoned to ask if he might come to see me. I was both delighted and flattered. His name was famous among canon lawyers across the world. Before being named a judge of the Rota in 1948, he had been a celebrated professor at a law school in the Midwest; and while serving on the Rota, he had authored a dozen or more books on religious ethics, tribunal procedure, and marriage law as well as scores of judicial decisions that were quoted far and wide.
After retiring, he had continued to live in the Eternal City where, in the judgement of many, he was the most Roman of the Romans. He arrived at my apartment at five-thirty in the evening, the Roman visiting hour. He was wearing a black cassock, a black tasseled sash, and a broad-rimmed Roman hat. In a few minutes I felt as though I had known him all my life.
"Salve, Reverendissime Pater," he intoned in Latin with a chuckle and an embrace. "I welcome you and I assure you that I am anxious to be of help in any way I can."
With that he sat himself down on the sofa in my study and opened a huge briefcase from which he extracted about one hundred type-written pages containing what he described as "all you need to know, as far as procedure is concerned, to get a case started properly and to bring it to a wise and brisk conclusion." The pages having been consigned to a table next to the sofa, he then produced a shopping-bag and drew from it three packages that he had evidently wrapped himself. He beamed as I opened each. The first contained a pair of carpet-slippers; the second, a fountain pen; and the third, a two-volume Latin-Italian dictionary.
"Now," he inquired, settling back into the sofa, "how do you feel about your new assignment, and how can I give you a hand?"
The conversation lasted almost two hours. When my guest left, I could hardly believe how relaxed and encouraged I felt. He had given me his private telephone number. He had offered to lend me any of his books that I might need. He had even promised to remember me by name each and every day at Mass.
As the years passed, the visits continued. On several occasions I asked if I might not come to his residence, thus sparing him the trip through the Roman traffic. He always said "no" and finally one evening explained why.
"I have a list of people whom I visit regularly," he announced. "Some are ill. Some are alone. Some may one day need my help or counsel. All are my very special flock, and my visits to them are my very special prayers." He paused a moment and went on. "Before I leave my apartment, I make the Sign of the Cross and beg the Lord to lend me His lips and especially His ears during my visit. And when I get back home, I conclude my prayer with another Sign of the Cross."
He paused again. "You wouldn't want to deprive an old man of his very special prayers, would you?" he asked with a broad smile. "I never had the privilege of being a pastor who could visit his people week after week, year after year. So now I have put together my own parish with a rather impressive roster of parishioners."
I accompanied him to his car, returned to my apartment, and found on the floor next to where he had been sitting a package on which he had written my name. Evidently he had intended to give it to me but forgot in the course of the explanation of his visits.
The package contained four books, all translations of works on the spiritual life which, I learned from the "Prefaces," he had "revised, adapted, and modernized" and printed at his own expense "for private distribution." I telephoned to inquire about the books.
"Oh, I am glad you found them," he said. "They are my other very special prayers. I will tell you about them the next time we get together."
The "next time" came very soon. Indeed, within a week he telephoned to ask to come to see me and arrived with a package of books under his arm.
"I usually do not tell people about my very special prayers," he declared as he sipped an "expresso" I had prepared for him. "But since you know about the visits, you might just as well know about the books too."
He adjusted in his chair and continued. "Every day for four or five hours I translate or revise the translation of spiritual books that are either not in English or not in very good English. I send them to friends in the United States and Great Britain whom I cannot visit the way I visit you. That makes my parish even bigger than Rome."
He motioned for another "expresso," interrupting his discourse not at all. "Each day before I begin my translating or revising, I make the Sign of the Cross and beg the Lord for wisdom and patience; and when I finish, I make the Sign of the Cross again and my prayer is over. So now you know all of my very special prayers."
In my library there are today to be found seventeen spiritual books received from my guest during his visits. They range from well-known masterpieces by Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Frances de Sales, and Abbot Joseph Marmion to lesser-know works by Saint Jane Frances de Chantal, Abbot Vital Lehodey, and John Eusebius Nieremberg. All of them are treasured for what they are: very special prayers received on the occasion of very special prayers.
Toward the end of April in 1982, my guest's housekeeper telephoned to ask me to come to see him. I found him in bed with a high fever and little strength. He was admitted to the hospital the following day; and a week later, as I stood next to his bed reciting the "Memorare" of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, he went to His Lord quietly and with the hint of a smile on his face.
The nurse in attendance asked if I were the next of kin. Fighting back tears, I responded, "No, just one of his parishioners."