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The First Christmas Card

by the Most Rev. Edward M. Egan

Holy Cross Parish on the West Side of Rome is immense. Indeed, it is so immense that scattered about the parish there are several chapels and churches smaller than the main parish church which serve rather large congregations of the faithful. One of the chapels is dedicated to Saint Angeline, seats four hundred, and is attached to a day-care center conducted by a community of dedicated religious women. Until I left Rome in 1985, it was my privilege and joy to attend to the Masses and Confessions on weekends in this little known sector of the Lord's Roman vineyard.

Early in December of 1984 I was standing one Sunday in front of the chapel chatting with people leaving the eleven o'clock Mass. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a man of about thirty years of age who had stationed himself just inside the door of the chapel. I suspected that he was waiting for me, and my suspicion proved to be correct.

"Father," he whispered as I approached him. "I need to speak with you. It's urgent."

We went into a parlor attached to the sisters' convent and sat down, each in an overstuffed chair. The introductions were brief. He was anxious to get right to the point.

Ten years before, he and his wife had married. They had been engaged but advanced the date of their wedding because she was pregnant. Shortly thereafter he was offered an excellent position overseas. They left their families, moved to a land in which neither spoke the native language, rented an apartment, and within six months were forced to return home because the company that had hired him was in financial trouble.

Back in Italy she had their child "discreetly" in the home of relatives South of Rome and finally, after an extended stay with friends, returned to the Eternal City where he had found a job. The job, however, paid poorly; and the family was living in what my friend in the other overstuffed chair described as "a very humble home."

"We're ashamed to have our relatives see it," he told me, his face turning red with anger and hurt, "so last night my wife and I agreed to put an end to our marriage. She is going back to her father's house to get a divorce, and I don't care. I can hardly believe it, Father, but frankly, I don't care."

* * * * * * *

A knock came at the parlor door. It was one of the sisters inquiring as to whether we would like some coffee. I replied that we would and nervously cleared my throat.

"Forgive me," I said in a hushed and somewhat awkward tone, "but I believe that you do care. Your trembling voice and angry eyes give you away. Permit me, please, to tell you why you care."

The movies, the night-time "soap operas" from America, the popular magazines, and a good deal of the press, I observed, are striving to convince us all that marriage is a passing and trivial thing. However, I added, they are happily facing an uphill battle with people who have even a rudimentary understanding of what life is all about.

Marriage, I continued, is a truly wondrous reality. On their wedding day a man and a woman give to and receive from each other the exclusive and permanent right to do something of unique grandeur and beauty, namely, to perform together that act from which can result a person, an image and likeness of the Almighty, a creature for whom a God would die.

Nor can we human beings make little of marriage, its true meaning, and its sublime dignity for long without damaging ourselves in the process, I went on. It is a fact of life that children need parents - mothers and fathers - not only physically but also psychologically and spiritually as well. Make it acceptable or even stylish to walk away from marriage with casual divorce, and await incalculable harm to individuals and society. The women will find themselves without security. The men will find themselves without stability. And the children and society will find themselves not at all.

No thinking person may rightly "not care" about the tragic ending of a marriage, I concluded. There is simply too much at stake.

* * * * * * *

The coffee arrived. We thanked the sister and slowly sipped it in silence. Suddenly my friend spoke up, "I am not going to argue with any of that," he said with a tinge of bitterness in his voice. "But what about marriages like mine, marriages that start badly and never seem to find their way? All the theory, theology, or whatever get lost when you go down the aisle before you plan to because your fiancée is pregnant, when you live the first months of your married life in a foreign country, when your son is born away from home, and when after ten years you cannot give your family anything better than a very humble home, a home so humble that you don't want your parents or your wife's parents even to come for a visit." He put his head in his hands. His shoulders were shaking, and he was digging his heels into the legs of the overstuffed chair.

It was no time for preaching. The occasion rather seemed to call for a story. I told of a teenage girl engaged to a young man, of her being found with child, and of their being married under the most embarrassing of circumstances. I told of the birth of their son in a stable and of years of exile in Egypt, a land whose language and customs were completely unknown to both spouses. And I finished by observing that the head of the household, Joseph by name, was not, as some have surmised, a carpenter but rather a joiner of wood, that is to say, a construction laborer who very likely gave Mary and her Son a home far more humble than any to be found in Rome's Holy Cross Parish.

My friend rose, shook my hand unenthusiastically, murmured a few words that I did not understand, and left me alone in the parlor.

* * * * * * *

The next Sunday and for many Sundays thereafter I observed the man with whom I had spoken in the convent parlor attending Mass in the Chapel of Saint Angeline, accompanied by a woman and a boy of ten years or so. He never failed to wave at me when leaving the chapel. Still, it was clear that he wanted no further contact. If I happened to catch his eye before Mass or during the homily, he would nod politely and turn away immediately. All of this perplexed me at first, but in time became lost in other concerns.

The following May I was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of New York. Letters and cards of good wishes arrived in surprising numbers. To help me handle the correspondence and the details of the ordination ceremony, an English lady who lived in Rome came each morning to my office, opened the mail, set aside what needed a reply, and generally kept things in order. Blessed with a delightful sense of humor, she had a quip for every occasion.

"Well, fancy this," she cried one day as I was working at my desk. "You just received the first Christmas card of 1985. Merry Christmas and, in case I might have forgotten, a Happy Saint Patrick's Day too."

With that she handed me a sheet of paper that had been folded in the form of a greeting card. On the front cover there was pasted a picture of the Nativity of Our Lord with the stable marked in ink to make it look even more desolate than the artist had intended. The message inside the card read as follows: "Best wishes, dear Bishop. Before you leave there is something you should know. Like that other family in a humble home, we are staying together. Thank you for caring, and God bless you."

The loyal subject of the British queen left my office as I was reading the card. I breathed a prayer of thanks. She might have had too much fun teasing me about the tears I was fighting back.

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