Husband and wife, they worked in a little Roman store that sold postcards, guidebooks, and inexpensive engraving of churches and monuments. I first met them in 1973 and occasionally joined them in their apartment for dinner and family celebrations.
In 1976 they made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, a town in Southwestern Frances where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared several times in 1858 to Bernadette Soubirous, a girl of fourteen who later became a religious sister and still later a canonized saint. A few days after their return to Rome, I was invited to their home. The husband suffered from chronic back pain, and the wife from occasional attacks of asthma. Both alleged that they were feeling better after their visit to Lourdes and with much faith and warmth presented me with a rosary they had purchased there.
It was a most unusual rosary, for in place of the medal that ordinarily joins the five sets of beads with the four beads that lead to the crucifix, this rosary was fitted with a plastic bubble inside which one could see a drop of water. "It's water from the grotto where Bernadette saw the Virgin," I was told. I thanked the couple profusely.
* * * * *
Later that same year a priest friend of mine and I decided to join a group that was making a brief tour of Hungary. Because of the religious persecution in that Communist country, we obtained new passports in which our occupation was "professor" rather than "clergyman" and our photographs showed us in open-collar shirts. We had agreed to be as discreet as possible, never saying anything negative about the local Communist regime and bringing with us absolutely nothing of a religious nature.
In the course of our exploring Budapest one afternoon, we passed by the American Embassy in which Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty, the Primate of Hungary, had found refuge in 1956 at the conclusion of the popular revolt. We stayed on the opposite side of the street, taking in the scene with as casual an air as we could manage. Fifty feet away two soldiers paced sullenly, large brown rifles in their hands. Across the street the sidewalk was strewn with flowers that courageous Hungarians continued to leave under the third-floor Embassy window behind which the Cardinal had lived in virtual imprisonment until 1971.
Almost by reflex I jammed my hand into my pocket in order to grasp the rosary I was accustomed to carry there. It was the one with the plastic bubble containing the water from Lourdes. Suddenly I realized that I had unwittingly brought with me a religious article I should have left in Rome.
* * * * *
As we walked away from the Embassy, I kept my hand in my pocket and began to recite the rosary in silence. Curiously, I could not decide for what I was praying. It was universally agreed that Hungary would not be free as long as the Soviet Union had "the bomb." Hence, there was little inclination to beg the Lord for a liberated Hungary. Likewise, it was commonly conceded that Cardinal Mindszenty's fate had been sealed. Indeed, a segment of the press in Europe had already initiated a campaign to soil his reputation by suggesting, for example, that he may have had "Fascist leanings." Accordingly, he too seemed to be beyond the pale of my prayers. Thus, as we made our way along the streets of Budapest, my petition to the Lord was simply that of Mary when she was invited to be the Mother of God -- "Fiat voluntas tua," which is to say, "Thy will be done."
Just as I was completing the final decade of my hidden rosary, a grey dreary church came into view, the side door of which was standing open. My friend and I went in and looked about after the manner of mildly interested tourists. In a dark corner of the edifice I extracted the rosary from my pocket and allowed it to slip into one of the pews. Once outside, my friend asked me if something were the matter. "Not any more," I replied. "Not any more."
* * * * *
During the first week of May this year, 1991, I had the honor of being chaplain for 162 pilgrims to Lourdes from Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. Throughout our stay, the weather was cold and rainy. Thus, one afternoon as I returned to the hotel from the Grotto of the Virgin, I decided to stop at a cafe for a hot cup of coffee. Before entering I bought a French newspaper we used to read regularly in the college where I lived in Rome in the 1960's. It was always well-written, but it was also always quite leftist in politics and anti-Catholic in matters of religion.
On the first page my eye was caught by an article about the transferring of the remains of Cardinal Mindszenty from Austria, where they had been since 1971 to Hungary. Its tone was frankly amazing. Now that "atheism has been expelled from Hungary," the writer observed, the body of the "martyred Cardinal" could rightly return home. And this event, he continued, signaled "the return of Hungary to Europe, to liberty, and to democracy." Indeed, the article even recalled that Cardinal Mindszenty was first arrested and imprisoned by "the Fascists" in 1944 shortly after his episcopal consecration, a fact which many similar publications had been careful not to share with their readers in the 1960's and 1970's.
I set the newspaper aside and sipped my coffee slowly. Fifteen years earlier I had had little hope for the freedom of the Hungarian people and the recognition of their Cardinal Primate for the authentic hero that he was. Hence, as I recited my "dangerous" rosary in the streets of Budapest, my prayer was simply that of Mary, Queen of the Rosary and Queen of Hungary, namely, that the Lord's will be done.
But this must always be my prayer even when I am not faced with what appears to be hopeless, I reminded myself sitting there in the French cafe. It is the will of the Lord that I am under all circumstances bound to desire, pursue, and embrace. Mary's "Fiat" is not to be on my lips by exception. It is ever to be there. It is the fundamental, the essential, the crucial prayer of all who strive to be holy, of all who struggle to live according to the mind and heart of the Lord.
* * * * *
I paid for my coffee, walked out into the rain, crossed the street, and entered one of the many religious goods stores of Lourdes. "I am looking for a rosary that contains water from the Grotto of the Virgin," I told the matronly clerk. She beckoned me to the back of the shop and drew from a large metal rack a rosary very much like the one I had left in the church in Budapest. "Thirty-two francs," she announced.
I gave her the money, left the store, and rosary in hand retraced my steps back to the Grotto of the Virgin, praying as I walked along in the rain for the laity, religious, and clergy of the Diocese of Bridgeport, for our parishes, our schools, our healthcare institutions, and our charitable agencies, for the Holy Father, for my family, and even for myself. At the conclusion of each decade of the newly acquired rosary, I added a prayer I shall always try to add in the future, a prayer that I prayed with apprehension in the streets of Budapest in 1976 and with joy in the streets of Lourdes in 1991, the prayer of Mary -- "O Lord, Thy will be done."