The Lord, Saint Martin And All Of Us
The pastor's study was on the second floor of the rectory and looked out on the school playground. When I took over the reins of the parish in 1971, I used to sit at my desk, do my paperwork, and enjoy the chatter of the children as a kind of musical background.
It was at that desk that I first came to notice a boy from the parish by the name of Peter. He had been hired by the janitor and the director of religious education for summer work around the parish plant in a number of capacities. One was supervising the basketball games in the playground. Though he was only fourteen, his authority was accepted by all. From my study window I used to marvel at his effectiveness, kindness, and youthful wisdom.
My marveling increased one summer afternoon when I happened into the Church and found Peter there catechizing a surprisingly large group of youngsters. He was seated on the steps leading up to the Communion rail, and they were clustered together in the front pews. His theme was devotion to the saints, and his handling of it struck me as not only original but also quite compelling. "The Lord has a lot of great friends in heaven," he explained. "They are the saints who want to be our friends too. Sometimes it's good when you're talking to the Lord to bring a few friends along."
I was by no means the only one taken by Peter's maturity and goodness. In order to save money on fuel and light, I used to celebrate weekday Mass in a rectory office that had been converted into a kind of chapel. We called it the Chapel of Saint Martin de Porres because it boasted a lovely statue of the Saint which had been in the pastor's study before my arrival.
All of the parishioners were Afro-American; and they were delighted that Saint Martin, a Black who called himself "the slave of the poor," was the patron of their chapel. As a rule, between fifteen and twenty of the most devout of them would come to weekday Mass. They were all good friends, and they were quite perceptive as well.
On a July morning after Mass I was approached by one of their number. "We think that you should talk to Peter about going to the seminary," he said. "We believe that he is just the kind of young Black man that America needs in its city parishes. And we feel that he should be ordained as soon as he is old enough."
I had great esteem for the man who had come to speak with me. He was an accountant by profession who kept our books and finances in order at no cost to the parish. He and his wife were in the rectory at least two nights a week and had become very special friends with whom I used to do a lot of kidding.
"And who is this 'we' of whom you speak?" I asked in a joking tone. My friend fixed his eyes on me with deadly seriousness and replied, "The Lord, Saint Martin, and all of us." I realized that this was no time for levity and promised to speak with Peter that very day.
For some reason I felt awkward about the interview. I did not know the boy well and had no idea how he would handle my proposal. Nonetheless, spurred on by "the Lord, Saint Martin, and all of us," I chatted with him for about a half hour and finally came right to the point. "Peter," I said, "would you like to be a priest?"
The reply was simple and direct, very much in the style I should have expected. "Yes, Father, I would," he answered. "I want to be a missionary in China. Can you help me?"
I have no explicit information as to how the Lord and Saint Martin reacted to this response, but I do know that "all of us" were not altogether pleased. Still, the parishioners for the most part made their peace with Peter's choice; and several urged me to find a seminary for him. That Fall he entered the minor seminary of the Society of the Divine Word, a missionary congregation. The parish hosted a going-away party at which the director of the religious education cried a bit along with several of the women from the Altar and Rosary Society. Our one consolation was that Peter would be a priest somewhere and that he would be back with us in the summer at least during the early years of his seminary training.
The following December I was transferred to Rome. I sent Peter a note with my new address and a promise of prayers. We exchanged Christmas cards for a few years but at length lost contact.
Early this August, while preparing to leave for World Youth Day in Denver, I quickly looked through the mail that had come into my office. One letter was from a parish in the Midwest and signed "Peter." The author was the young man with whom I had discussed the priesthood more than twenty years before. He had completed his minor seminary studies, he wrote, and decided that he would prefer to work in a city parish in the United States. Hence, he had entered the local diocesan seminary, been ordained, completed two assignments as a curate, and was now a pastor.
Some weeks earlier, he reported, he had met the director of religious education of our old parish in a nursing home in which she had recently taken up residence. She had insisted that he write to tell me that he was a pastor in the Midwest, that his parish had an elementary school which he was struggling to keep open, and that he had told her he had never thought he could be so happy.
The next day I celebrated the Votive Mass of Saint Martin de Porres with fervor and joy. I prayed for Peter, for his parish, for his parish school, and for his happiness. Nor did I have any doubt that my prayers would be properly answered, for somewhere I knew that everything had been worked out a long time ago by the Lord, Saint Martin, and all of us.
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