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Wonder Box

by the Most Rev. Edward M. Egan

The Director of Buildings and Grounds for the Diocese of Bridgeport came to my office one rainy Friday evening in December to show me a curious object that had been given to him earlier in the day. It was a wooden box about the size of a Kleenex carton on the front of which was a metal bas-relief of the Last Supper and on top of which was a metal stand broken in several places.

"A lady found this in her attic tied to some old books," he explained. "She was wondering if you would know what it might be."

"Let's see if there is anything in the back," I replied. We turned the box around and discovered there was a drawer which, when opened, was found to contain four miniature altar linens yellow with age, a small spoon, and a square bottle with crosses etched into its sides.

"This," I concluded, "is a very old Communion set that a family would have used when a priest came to their home to see someone who was ill. The holes in the stand were very likely for a cross and two candles, and the little-metal shell attached to the front was undoubtedly intended for holy water."

The Director of Buildings and Grounds handed me the books that had been tied to the box. We opened them. They were printed in the 1860's, and one was embellished with the florid signature of the author across its frontispiece.

"We can leave the box and the books on my desk until Monday morning," I observed. "I have an appointment in Norwalk and do not want to be late."

As I drove through the rain that evening, the Communion set brought back events that had long since slipped from my memory.

In 1958, when I returned from the seminary as a newly ordained priest, my younger brother presented me with a splendid Communion set. It was made of brightly polished wood and fit snugly into a black leather case. Inside were a silver-plated cross, two silver-plated candlesticks, a bottle for holy water, a prayer book containing Sacramental rituals, a stole that was violet on one side and white on the other, a tiny spoon with which to give Communion to persons who might have trouble swallowing, and a packet of holy cards on each of which was printed the prayer, "Memorare."

During my first several months as a priest, I gave the set a good deal of use, since four floors of a hospital in the cathedral parish where I served as a curate had been assigned to my care. Five mornings a week I would walk to the hospital, receive a list of Catholics on my floors, and move from room to room and from bed to bed with my Communion set, hearing Confessions, distributing the Eucharist, and administering "Final Anointings" as well.

In addition to the hospital assignment, I was also appointed to work with an older curate in presenting "inquiry classes" two nights a week for persons who were interested in becoming Catholic.

One evening I arrived at class with my Communion set in hand. I had returned from an emergency call to the hospital and hurriedly placed the set on a table next to the podium from which I was to speak. The wooden box was not securely closed and was only partway inside its leather case.

At the conclusion of the class, one of the "inquirers" approached me. He was a middle-aged man who was evidently quite ill-at-ease. "I won't be coming to any more classes," he declared. "This business about the immortality of the soul is too much for me. Maybe old Plato liked your 'proofs' but...well, thanks for a lot and good luck."

I expressed my disappointment and asked if we might not get together privately to discuss his concern.

"No, I don't want to do that," he responded; and looking around anxiously for a graceful approach to changing the subject, he pointed to my Communion set and inquired, as nonchalantly as he could, "What's that?"

I was delighted to have a way to prolong the conversation. Hence, I unzipped the leather case completely, opened the wooden box, and set up the cross and candles that were inside. Then, putting on the stole, with the violet side showing, I invited the man to imagine that I was standing at the bedside of a dying person. Meticulously, I led him through what I had frequently done at the hospital. First, I heard the imaginary person's Confession, insisting that he or she should not go to the Lord burdened with the guilt of sin. Next, I administered the Anointing of the Sick, explaining that I was fulfilling a directive contained in the Epistle of Saint James. "Is anyone among you sick?" I quoted from Chapter Five. "He should summon the presbyters of the Church, and they should pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord." That done, I turned the stole over, revealing the white side, and prepared for Holy Communion, genuflecting and raising a non-existent host over the pyx in my hand.

"This good person will go to the Lord with Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, in his or her heart and soul," I whispered. "What could be more beautiful than that?"

My one-man audience offered no response. Accordingly, I raised my hand in the "Papal Blessing at the Hour of Death," noting that it was altogether fitting that the Holy Father have a part in the journey of a member of the Church into eternal life.

The man shook my hand and left without comment.

As I walked back to the rectory, I wondered if I might have appeared ridiculous to my erstwhile "inquirer." However, in less than a week all such concern evanesced when a call came to the desk to which I had been newly assigned in the Chancellor's Office. It was the man for whom I had performed what we then called "The Last Rites." He wanted to see me that evening and wondered if I would be willing to bring the meeting "that wooden box in the black leather case."

We met in a tiny office in the Cathedral rectory. "Show me once more what you do with all the things in your box for people who are dying," he said.

"Certainly," I replied; and with a good deal of pleasure I repeated the ceremony, this time adding extensively to my commentary.

At the conclusion the man rose, embraced me, and asked to be reinstated in the inquiry class. I did as he requested and shortly after Christmas had the joy of participating in his Baptism and that of seventy-three other "inquirers," all seventy-four of whom were convinced with the conviction of Faith that their Creator had endowed them with the priceless gift of immortality.

The Director of Buildings and Grounds was in my office when I arrived on Monday morning. "What about the box?" he asked. "Shall I throw it away?"

"No," I replied. "I would prefer that you wrap it up carefully and put it in the storeroom where we keep religious articles. You never know what tales a box like this might have to tell."

I paused a moment and went on. "Indeed," I added, "you never know in what wonders of grace it might have played a part."

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