In the fall of 1958 I was assigned, fresh from the seminary, to Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, as the ninth curate. Among my duties were assisting with the convert classes four nights a week and serving as chaplain for the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth floors of Wesley Memorial Hospital, a splendid facility four blocks east of the Cathedral.
The eighth floor of Wesley was dedicated to broken bones, and especially broken hips. The patients were mostly women and mostly up in years.
On a cold day a few weeks before Christmas I walked into one of the double rooms on the eighth floor of the hospital to greet the two ladies who were lodged there. My eyes were tearing from the frigid air outside; but my spirits were high, as spirits often are when one comes inside on a wintry day.
In my hand was a card issued by the hospital concerning the lady in Bed B. She was a Catholic of Slovak background who was evidently in a good deal of pain. There was no card for the lady in Bed A, and from this I concluded that she was probably not Catholic.
"How are you, ladies, this nice freezing day?" I asked in a less than successful attempt at cheeriness. The lady in Bed B responded, "Not so good, Father. Not so good at all." The lady in Bed A was silent.
"Is it the hip?" I asked the lady in Bed B.
"It's the hip, Father," she replied. "And I broke it in my own kitchen. Mary, Mother of the Lord, I broke it in my own kitchen!"
I inquired if the lady in Bed B would like to receive Holy Communion the next morning. She said that she would. I drew the white canvas curtain around her bed and heard her Confession.
As the curtain was being put back in place, the lady in Bed B presented me to the lady in Bed A. "This is the Father, the priest," she said. "He will be bringing me Holy Communion tomorrow morning."
"I don't believe in priests," the lady in Bed A retorted. "And I don't believe in all the Christmas decorations they have put up in this hospital either," she added. "They're an offense to those of us who think differently, or perhaps I should say, `to those of us who think'".
The visit ended on that note, and the next visit a few days later was not much of an improvement. After I had indicated to the lady in Bed B that I would be bringing her Communion the next morning, the lady in Bed A demanded, "Do you really believe, sir, in all of these Christmas goings-on? Or are you just taking advantage of simple people?
The lady in Bed B squirmed but said nothing.
"Yes, I believe in it all," I responded.
"And so do I," the lady in Bed B noted in a more than usually assertive tone.
"I even believe," I went on, "that the Almighty sent His only Son to become one of us in order to save us from our sinfulness. I believe He was born of a young Jewish girl in Bethlehem almost 2,000 years ago, that He spent His life doing good and preaching the truth, and that He died on a cross to make it possible for all of us to live eternally in heaven with Him and His Father."
"And with His Mother, too," the lady in Bed B interjected in an ever more peremptory style.
The lady in Bed A was clearly prepared for something of the sort. "Well, I will tell you what I believe," she announced. "I believe that you people are foisting all of this on the rest of us and that you are doing it in a thousand insidious ways. Christmas tress in the hospital corridors. Christmas carols over the hospital radio. Gifts wrapped in red and green on everyone's bed table. Red and green. It's brainwashing. That's what it is. And it ought to be stopped."
In a black leatherette case which I carried with me on visits to the hospital, I had a few rosaries, some paper-bound prayerbooks for hospital patients, and a copy of Catechism for Adults, a book which was regularly distributed to those who attended our convert classes. Some what hesitantly I laid the catechism on the table next to Bed A, observing that it was a gift from me, that it was not wrapped in red and green, and that it should therefore give no offense. Stony silence greeted my gesture.
The lady in Bed B, bolder than I had ever seen her before, beckoned me to her side. "Give her my rosary, too, Father," she directed. "It's not wrapped in red and green either."
I set the rosary in its blue plastic case on the table next to Bed A and with eyes cast down took my leave.
The next week I came to visit the eighth floor of Wesley Hospital with some apprehension. There was, however, no reason to be concerned. The lady in Bed B was still there, but the lady in Bed A had gone home.
"My room-mate asked to be remembered to you," the lady in Bed B proclaimed.
"I bet," I replied ruefully. "What did she do with my catechism?"
"Well, she said she did not think it was as adult as the title promised," the lady in Bed B reported. "However, she and I went over the 15 decades of my rosary every day since you were here last. I explained the story of each Mystery; and the day before she went home, we recited all 15 decades together. She was really a very nice lady. She told me she would finish reading your catechism sometime and maybe even come to one of your classes at the Cathedral."
I had no comment.
"Oh yes, Father," the lady in Bed B continued. "She asked me to give this to you."
With that she handed me a large white envelope on which was written: "FATHER, from the lady in Bed A." I opened it. Inside was a black leather pocket agenda in a cardboard box. And it was wrapped in bright green paper and topped with a red silk bow.
I thought I spied tears in the eyes of the lady in Bed B but could not be sure. There were, you see, tears in my own eyes, perhaps because of the cold outside, perhaps because of the red and green wrappings I held in my hands.