by the Most Rev. Edward M. Egan
The old passport case had been a gift of a friend in 1954 when I was leaving for Rome to complete my seminary studies. I found it a few weeks ago in a tattered box along with two well-worn wallets and a badly torn coin purse. Inside the passport case were vaccination certificates of the kind that were required years ago for travel in certain countries of Europe, a miniature map of Scotland, and in the innermost pocket a copy of a letter to the Cardinal Archbishop of Glasgow. The letter was from the Dean of the Sacred Roman Rota, the highest tribunal of appeal in the Catholic Church. It introduced me as a judge of the Rota who would be representing his fellow judges at the funeral in Scotland of Monsignor Gerard Rogers.
When I was appointed to the Rota by Pope Paul VI in 1972, Monsignor Rogers was the only other English-speaking judge. He was a Scot twenty years my senior who had been serving in Rome for over a decade. Before becoming a priest, he had been a civil lawyer, well on his way toward a successful legal career. Among his Roman friends, however, he was best known as an avid golfer who prided himself on the fact that his father had been for many years the sports editor of the largest daily newspaper in Glasgow.
* * * * * *
Shortly after my arrival in the Eternal City, Monsignor Rogers suggested that we have dinner together on Wednesday evenings. Ordinarily we would meet at his apartment on the Via Aurelia and walk to a nearby trattoria where, in his words, we could enjoy a "healthy plate of pasta."
Early on, I brought to one of these Wednesday evening meals two decisions I had written regarding cases assigned to me at the Rota. One concerned the nullity of a marriage in Australia, and the other had to do with unpaid debts of a monastery in North Africa. I asked Monsignor Rogers if he would be kind enough to read them so that I might know whether I was handling my new responsibilities properly.
He put on his glasses, leaned forward in his chair, and slowly perused the decisions. When finished, he passed them over to me and poured some wine from the carafe on our table into each of our glasses.
"Jolly good," he said. "Don't bother to show me any more. They read smoothly, and the Latin is top-drawer."
* * * * * *
I was not quite certain whether I was being warmly praised or gently ridiculed. Hence, I folded the pages, slipped them into my coat pocket and endeavored to change the subject of our conversation. Monsignor Rogers, however, interrupted me.
"We judges," he announced with unusual intensity, "have to be careful about how we do our work. Final written decisions should, of course, be well-crafted. Still, what goes on before the writing of them is what truly counts. Our first duty is to study the evidence of each case thoroughly, skipping nothing, missing nothing, considering and reconsidering everything. A brilliantly written final judgment based on a less than complete understanding of the evidence is a failure. Worse yet, it is a betrayal of the office to which the Church has called us. Write your decisions with all the flair you like, but master the evidence with all the determination the Lord expects."
He paused, apologized for being "so preachy," but went on unabashed.
"The same holds true for all judgments in life. We are constantly tempted to make decisions, some private but many public, about persons and institutions without knowing all the facts, indeed, without even trying to know them. And when we give in to such temptations, the damage we do to individuals, to groups, even to the Church, is immense. The old moral theologians had it right when they warned us against the sin of `rash judgment.' Issue your decisions only after you are sure you have learned all the facts, or keep them to yourself. The justice and charity of Jesus Christ will settle for nothing less."
The waiter arrived with the pasta. The proprietor of the trattoria and his wife came out of the kitchen to say hello. The spell was broken.
* * * * * *
A year or so later I was in London visiting Queen's Hospital near Russell Square. I had come to see Monsignor Rogers who was recovering from the removal of a brain tumor. He was in a ward of about twenty, his head shaved and bound in gauze.
We exchanged the usual pleasantries and before long were chatting about Rome and the Rota.
"I have been invited to teach the course on judicial practice at the Studium Rotale (the law school attached to the Rota) beginning next Fall," I reported.
"You're not going to get yourself into that, are you?" he asked.
"I think I am," I replied. "I like teaching, and there is something which I believe needs to be added to that course."
"What on earth might that be?" my friend inquired, his voice betraying the fear that I might be taking myself too seriously.
"Never issue a public judgment about anything unless you are sure that you have mastered all the facts of the case," I responded with a twinkle in my eye. "I learned this from a distinguished Scottish jurist who got it from a number of `old moral theologians' and the Lord Himself."
Monsignor Rogers broke into a broad smile. "I will be more careful in the future when I do my preaching," he remarked. "I had always assumed that the Wednesday evening congregation was sound asleep."
* * * * * *
The rain was falling steadily as I emerged from the terminal of the Glasgow airport. Waiting under the marquee for a priest from the Archdiocese of Glasgow who was to drive me to the cathedral of the nearby Diocese of Motherwell where Monsignor Rogers' funeral was to be held, I rummaged somewhat anxiously through my "carry-on" luggage, looking for a copy of a letter of introduction from the Dean of the Rota to the Archbishop of Glasgow. It was nowhere to be found.
The Glasgow priest and the clergy of the Motherwell cathedral nonetheless received me with great warmth. I was shown to a room in the cathedral rectory and given a program for the funeral and interment the next day.
That night at supper one of the officials of the Diocese told all at table that "Gerry" Rogers was a man of "uncanny good judgment."
"People just naturally came to him when they had important and difficult decisions to make," he recalled.
"And he rarely disappointed," another observed. "It's a shame that we never learned his secret."
I felt I had, and for the next dozen years I shared it with hundreds of students in my classes. "Whether in court or in everyday life, render your decisions only after you are certain that you have garnered and understood all the facts," I used to say, appealing in my lecture to Canon 1869 of the Code of Canon Law and in my heart to a wonderfully wise and Christ-like Scot.