The town of Lourdes, situated on the Gave de Pau River at the foot of the Pyrenees in Southwest France, is always an inspiration. No matter at what time of year one comes for a visit, the streets are thronged with devout pilgrims making their way back and forth from the grotto where the Virgin Mother of God is said to have appeared to Saint Bernadette Soubirous eighteen times in 1858.
This past May I was in Lourdes with 350 pilgrims from Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. The weather could not have been more ideal. It was, therefore, a pity to leave early, but necessary. For I had added to the Lourdes trip a brief detour to Rome, where I would participate in two academic ceremonies honoring a friend and benefactor of the Catholic schools of Bridgeport. The first of these ceremonies was at the University of Saint Thomas, an institution of the Dominicans; and the second at the Gregorian University, an institution of the Jesuits.
The Dominican Fathers had graciously invited four members of our party - the honoree, a federal judge from New York, my priest secretary and me - to stay at the monastery of the Master General of the Order on the Aventine Hill. There is no more lovely neighborhood in the Eternal City. We were delighted and honored to accept the invitation.
The first day in Rome we were scheduled for Mass at the North American College, a seminary for United States citizens located a short distance from Saint Peter's Basilica. I decided, however, also to attend the Mass of the Dominican community early in the morning in the ancient Church of Saint Sabina attached to the monastery.
The pews in the church are arranged in the manner of monasteries across the world, with two sets of stalls facing each other on either side of the main aisle. I took my place in one of the stalls and followed the Mass with great spiritual benefit. The principal celebrant was a young Dominican whose warmth and devotional style easily drew the priests, brothers, women religious, and laity who were present into the wondrous Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
When the final blessing had been given, the priests and brothers immediately began to recite the Office of the Day. I had no Italian breviary with me and thus had time to lean back and admire the church with its graceful columns and arches and its truly magnificent alabaster windows.
Soon my attention was drawn to a declaration in Latin set into the white marble floor of the church in black marble lettering. It proclaimed that on this pavement Saint Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order, "was wont to prostrate himself" over the tombs of the five Roman martyrs buried beneath. One of the five was Saint Sabina, the patroness of the church.
When the recitation of the Office was over, I left my place and walked over to examine the declaration more carefully. An Italian gentleman, fashionably dressed with a brown leather briefcase under his arm, came up behind me. "The Saint used to lie on that floor to pray before Mass," he reported. "In this way he sought to draw himself closer to the heroes of the early Church who gave their lives for the Faith. He was a wise man. He understood that we followers of Jesus Christ need to be in spiritual contact with those who went before us in living out the Gospel."
I turned to express my agreement, but my fashionable friend had started to walk away. As he approached the rear door of the church, I blurted out, "Grazie, Signore." There was no sign that he had heard me, as he disappeared into the garden outside.
The next day one of the Dominican priests arranged for our group to have Mass in the cell in which Saint Dominic had lived during his years in Rome in the early 1200's. At the end of the Mass, he told us about the brightly colored carving set into the wall over the altar. It depicted the Blessed Virgin surrounded by a crowd of men and women in prayer, and it recalled the story of a vision which Saint Dominic is said to have had in the cell where we had just finished Mass.
Saint Dominic, the Dominican explained, had in the earliest days of his new religious Order assigned a group of young priests to the Missions of the day. They were not well prepared for the assignment, and all were killed by the various communities they had attempted to evangelize.
Overcome with anguish and remorse, the Saint knelt in his cell one evening praying for the priests whom he felt he had delivered to their death. The Mother of God appeared and, gesturing toward the persons on either side of her, announced, "These are the faithful souls who are here in heaven with my Son and me." The Saint dried his eyes and looked up. "But where are my young priests?" he pleaded. Mary opened her cloak, and there they were. She was keeping them close to herself.
We all studied the carving intently. The Virgin's cloak was spread wide, revealing before her a cluster of young priests, their hands folded and their heads bowed.
"She kept them very close," the Dominican whispered.
The next and last day of our Roman sojourn brought us to the Hall of Pope Paul VI in the Vatican for a public audience with Pope John Paul II. As we entered, I spoke with the bishop in charge. Would it be possible for the federal judge in our group to be presented to the Holy Father, I asked. "He is blind," I noted, "and he is the first sightless person to sit on the federal bench in the history of the United States."
The reply of the bishop was in the affirmative. One condition, though, was set. My priest secretary would have to sit with the judge in a special section in the front of the hall to hold on to the judge's seeing-eye-dog while he was accompanied to the Pontiff by the man who had been honored by the two universities and a lady from Greenwich, who, along with her husband, was visiting Rome with us.
I joined my priest secretary as the judge and the others began to move up the ramp to the stage where the Holy Father's throne was situated. Everything proceeded exactly as I had hoped. The Bishop of Rome leaned forward and grasped the hands of the judge, who failed to see him only with his physical eyes. With every other sense and sensitivity - corporal and spiritual - his gaze met that of John Paul II, who with great warmth drew him close to himself.
Early the next morning we departed Rome; and late that afternoon I was back in Bridgeport, ready for a host of Masses, meetings, dinners, Confirmations, and days of recollection in the May-June crush.
A few days later I entered the Masses I had celebrated in Lourdes and Rome into a Mass register such as every priest is obliged to maintain. Next to the first day in Rome I wrote, "Stay close to the heroes of the early Church"; next to the second day, "Stay close to Mary, our Mother and Protector"; and next to the third, "Stay close to the Vicar of Jesus Christ."
I closed the register, only to re-open it immediately so as to print at the top of the page these words from Psalm 63:
"I will meditate on Thee, O Lord,
There was a time when I considered that last phrase rather inelegant, but not anymore. Now, after my Roman visit, I find it strangely beautiful; and in reciting the Psalm I even dare to add an invocation of my own:
"Help me, O Lord, to stick close to You,
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