by the Most Rev. Edward M. Egan
The evening meal was over. It was the winter of 1956. Three hundred strong, we filed out of the refectory of the Pontifical North American College, a seminary in Rome for students from throughout the United States.
A faculty member was waiting at the end of the corridor. He beckoned to me. "The Rector is in his room," he said. "He would like to speak with you."
I made my way to the fifth-floor living quarters of His Excellency, The Most Reverend Martin J. O'Connor, Rector of the North American College from 1946. He had been an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Scranton and pastor of a parish in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, when he was named to the rectorship in his mid forties. Arriving in Rome, he found that the College building near the Trevi Fountain had been taken over by the Italian government during the war and turned into an orphanage. He won it back in court, made it a house of graduate studies for priests, restored the summer residence of the seminarians in Castel Gandolfo, and in 1952 completed construction of a splendid new College building on the Janiculum Hill, a short distance from the Vatican.
In later years, remaining as Rector, he became the first President of the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications, virtually the author of Inter mirifica, the first document issued by the Second Vatican Council, the Papal Nuncio to Malta, a titular archbishop, and much more. He was an impressive man, and we seminarians were all quite impressed.
* * * * * *
I knocked at the door. A voice from within responded with the familiar Italian "Avanti!" I entered and found Archbishop O'Connor kneeling before the altar in his tiny private chapel. The candles on the altar were lit; and the tabernacle door stood open, revealing a ciborium inside.
The Archbishop rose and motioned to me to be seated on a chair across from him just outside the chapel. "Tomorrow morning," he began in the low, solemn voice we seminarians loved to imitate, "I will be celebrating Mass and presiding at the profession of a religious sister. She was not well when her class was professed. This is a special arrangement just for her."
He sat silent for a while and then went on. "The organist of the mother-house will not be available. Hence, I would like you to come with me and the student master-of-ceremonies. It will be enough if you just play an accompaniment for the Gregorian `Mass of the Angels.' We will be leaving from the front door at 5:30."
I stood up to take my leave, but he signaled me to be seated again.
"Perhaps I should explain to you what I am doing now," he announced. "I am preparing for tomorrow morning. The preparation will continue until the ceremony begins. There will be a holy hour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament this evening, a meditation on the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience when I rise in the morning, and prayerful recollection right up until we go to the altar for Holy Mass. This is the program, Edward; and you should understand the reason for it."
He fixed his eyes on me intently. "Tomorrow," he said, "I am being granted the grace of witnessing the giving of an entire life to Christ and His Church. A religious is freely choosing the Lord above all else without condition or reservation. And the Lord in His gracious providence is allowing me to represent His Mystical Body in this marvelously holy event. For this I need prayer and recollection--first and foremost, prayer and recollection."
The repeating of words and phrases was another characteristic of the Archbishop's manner of speaking that his seminarians aped with much pleasure. It was his way of emphasizing key points, and it usually meant that a conference or interview had drawn to a close.
* * * * * *
An elderly gentleman who had worked for the College even before the war drove us through the dark, cold streets of the Eternal City with the casual disdain for traffic signals that makes motoring in Rome never less than an adventure. The Archbishop, however, did not seem to notice. His eyes were closed throughout the journey as he led the student master-of-ceremonies, the driver, and myself in reciting the Rosary in Italian. This was evidently part of the "prayer and recollection" about which he had spoken so beautifully the night before. Not a word was exchanged among the four of us. Recollected, we sat motionless; and quietly, we prayed.
At the mother-house I learned that the regular organist had appeared and that there was accordingly no need of me. The student master-of-ceremonies suggested that I assist him at the altar. "You can take the Rector's ring when he washes his hands", he said with a wry smile.
The liturgy was for me deeply moving, though my part was little more than what the student master-of-ceremonies had indicated. At the washing of the hands before Mass, toward the end of the Offertory, and after Communion, I dutifully took the Archbishop's ring and, when he had finished drying his hands, returned it to him. It was a rather ornate piece of jewelry with a chalice engraved on one side of the setting, a bishop's mitre engraved on the other, and a green malachite stone in the center.
The Archbishop's sermon was brief, and the theme came as no surprise. It was an elaboration of what he had told me the night before about religious profession and the reverence that was owed it.
* * * * * *
On January 1, 1993, Sister Marie Dolores Ballotta of the Sisters Minor of Mary Immaculate, a new religious congregation in the Diocese of Bridgeport, made her solemn profession at the ten o'clock Mass in the magnificently renovated church of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Stamford. The Mother General and Foundress of the Congregation, Mother Maria Elisabetta Patrizi, had come from Rome for the ceremony, joining hundreds of Holy Name of Jesus parishioners and their Pastor, Reverend Sherman W. Gray.
The Mass, which I was privileged to celebrate, and the profession, at which I presided, were quite unforgettable. When Sister Mary Dolores came before Mother Maria Elisabetta to recite her vows, words from the past rushed into my mind: "I am being granted the grace of witnessing the giving of an entire life to Christ and His Church. A religious is freely choosing the Lord above all else without condition or reservation. And the Lord in His gracious providence is allowing me to represent His Mystical Body in this marvelously holy event."
I whispered a prayer of thanks that, recalling the example of my seminary rector, I had made a holy hour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament the night before, meditated on the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience when I rose in the morning, and even recited the Rosary with the Diocesan master-of-ceremonies as we drove from Bridgeport to Stamford.
There was, however, one small snag in the ceremony. The ring that I was wearing, much too large for my hand, kept slipping up and down my finger. It was a rather ornate piece of jewelry with a chalice engraved on one side of the setting, a bishop's mitre engraved on the other, and a green malachite stone in the center. I had never worn it before but sensed that I should on this particular occasion. It had been left to me by an Archbishop who died in a priests' retirement home in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1986, an Archbishop on whose faculty I had served as a young priest and from whom as a seminarian I had learned the meaning, the beauty, and the wonder of religious profession.