Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Blessings in Disguise

Father John J. Lombardi

"The serene beauty of a holy life is the most powerful influence in the world next to the power of God." - Blaise Pascal

In my opinion, one of the most beautiful men in the world visited the Mount and Grotto last month. No, not the Pope; nor a famous man you've seen in the news or read about in a religious journal. Rather, he's a priest of the Pittsburgh Diocese, a graduate of Mount St. Mary's College, a frequent swimmer, dog-owner (!) and gentleman-soul. He is a priest not preaching to crowded stadiums or holding frequent interviews on t.v., but is, rather, a man with Alzheimer's disease. With his gentility, simple way and calm spirit, his silver-flowing hair and soft voice, I felt like I was visiting with a saint when around him. How odd?, as I think: saintliness amidst a disease.

St. Paul gave us a tasting of this kind of holiness and Christ-likeness when he wrote of God's way working thru human brokenness: "My power is made perfect in weakness" (II Cor. ). We usually look for holiness and graces manifested in explicit power (the Pope, for instance), and thru intellectual precision (St Thomas Aquinas' great works on theology), in acknowledged saints (St Theresa of Avila is recognized worldwide), and in great accomplishments (the evangelization of a St Francis Xavier going to India, converting thousands). We are taught, as modern Catholics, to look for God's workings in big, grandiose ways, and we should. But this should not veil us to His workings in small, humble and subtle ways. Holiness is all around us, in simple, servant souls who live in, thru and with Jesus in their daily lives. Is this true of you or are you always waiting for holiness to develop when you get struck by a spiritual lightening bolt.

Many times during the priest's weeklong stay here (I'll call him "Fr. George"), he would say: "I'm forgetting things." Though affected by this disease, he did not recoil from adventuresome tasks. He could have stayed in Pittsburgh and cancelled his annual journey to the Mount; but, sensing the need for both "spiritual circulation" and reliance upon others, he found a ride to the College and arrived. He would often pull out a crinkled, yellow-legal paper from his pocket and look up a name or number he could not recall, and then ask me to confirm his "suspicion".

With these seeming embarrassments, and his independence taken away from him, he didn't stay in his seminary room but rather exemplified the virtue of fortitude by trying and re-trying a certain goal or task-he would not be kept down. He showed the virtue of persistence as he tried to meet the president of the Mount St Mary's College five times-with no luck When we went out to a restaurant, after looking at the menu, he would ask what a hamburger was, or pizza, and ask what a number of other items were-but he would still go out and eat, not recoil, and ask, unabashedly, to seek answers. Time with him was very poignant. Other times, though, his disease showed forth more clearly. One time we got in my car to take a ride in the country, and I asked him to put on his seat belt. As he looked at me in a befuddling way, he responded: "What's a seatbelt?"

These virtues were implanted and worked at within himself all thru his life-they didn't just "pop up"-- and the "residue of them" stayed within even though this disease was eating away his memory. He thus showed me the need for present-time, persistent spiritual work for future benefit. Someone told me that "Fr. George" is about the same person-in character and gentility-as he was decades ago. God is still working within him and his soul even though the body is deteriorating ; the "spiritual" is prevailing, though the "material is unveiling". You may think about this when you visit the nursing home or work with a physically or mentally challenged, handicapped person: there is the physical side of things, which we frequently judge by, and then there is the soul's presence underneath. Look deeper.

Thru all of Father's challenges, his reliance upon us, I felt the presence of someone extraordinary-thru the virtue of smooth, spiritual simplicity, his dedication to his priesthood and his love of God and his alma mater, Mt St Mary's College, and his desire to "stay on God's path" of holiness. Call it spiritual childhood. St. Therese of Liseaux is famous for this. She basically said she wanted to be a child for Jesus: needing Him as a child needs a parent-totally, without frills or complications, abandoning all cares and needs to Him. She said she would like to be a "play-ball" in the baby Jesus' hands-to do whatever He wished with her. "Do small things with great love."

St. Therese was not well educated but knew that simple love of God, doing His will in the present moment, offering up sacrifices and flowers to Him, being pure in the soul so He can work within us, praying to Him with child-like confidence, has made her a "doctor of the Church"-- recognized by for her spiritual insights and holiness, and which are applicable to all, today. A few weeks before her death, St Therese said: "I feel that my mission is going to begin to give souls my Little Way.  .the Way of Spiritual Childhood, the way of confidence and total abandonment. I want to point out to souls the ways which to me are so perfectly successful: to throw to Jesus the flowers of little sacrifices, to win Him by caresses. That is how I won him." When Pope Benedict XV made a promulgation on her sanctity, he wrote: "Spiritual Childhood is the secret of sanctity.". 

Ask: what is under your "spiritual nose" that you can do or use, to become holy in child-like simplicity, right where you are now living or working-washing the dishes, spending more time with the children, taking a walk to enjoy God's creation in the beautiful Maryland Summer, praying more, reading the Bible-perhaps "subtle things" you may overlook?...How is God calling you to holiness in the here and now of your daily existence? .  How can you trust in Him more like a child?

Fr. George himself, though age seventy-something, spoke like a child-both in his tone and content. One time he asked, innocently, out of the blue: "Do you need any money," as if I ran out of my weekly allowance. Another time he inquired: "Do you want to see my room?", and, "Do you need help at the Grotto?".  If you ask me what was extraordinary about this man, I would say: nothing. The blessed thing was that he was extraordinarily-ordinary, pointing to God and The Little Way in a spiritually beautiful manner-in spiritual clarity and childlikeness, without knowing it, unselfconsciously. It seems God sent him to us to show that, amongst our "grand designs" of conquering the world for Jesus (which we need), Fr. George was "smelling the flowers along the way;" in our Ameircanist "rage for order," Father's simple, elegant manner brought peace and a spiritual detachment to our souls; and in the midst of our desire for more possessions (physical and spiritual), Fr. George's abandonment taught us to trust in the Creator more, and not so much in created things.

One night we were having dinner with Fr. David Shaum, Fr. George's past music teacher, and my priest-friiend looked at Fr. Shaum, as if for the first time, and said-"You're the priest who taught me how to sing, weren't you?" Fr. Shaum later said he was a beautiful singer. Indeed at Mass, several times Fr. George sang wondrously, piercing thru the disease of Alzheimer which could not block him from praising God. Even in Mass Father exemplified Spiritual Childhood, simply and elegantly at his retiring age: he showed us that we should never tire of holiness no matter how intimidating (esp in saying or going to Mass), that to "sing is to pray twice" (St Augustine), and that he, Fr. George, was still suffusing his priesthood with the High Priest, Jesus Christ thru the Mass at his age and with his tremendous challenges!

On Father's day, I took Father to our family's celebration in Baltimore ("How long is the ride?", he asked a few times, like a child traveling on a long trip). And, once there, he fit in like an "old-shoe". Being good Baltimoreans we gave our Dad steamed crabs. Father George didn't recognize what they were, but was patient for something more familiar. As he sat and drank his soda, he waited for something more familiar.   we found out he liked hamburgers! We realized that, if we were patiently persistent, we could help and accommodate him. Though he was amidst "strangers" in an unfamiliar setting, we enjoyed and learned from Father's sense of relaxation and "blooming where you're planted".

He was being where he was, embracing holiness in the present moment. And he was an excellent basketball player! While playing with my nephews on their court, Fr. George shot and made baskets marvelously: he seemed to come more alive on the court, "returning to a habit" he once knew. Hew smiled, had fun and ran around lots-he was in his element-as a priest, and as an athlete. What was latent in him now came alive. Towards the end of our visit there, Father offered to drive my car several times, though he is not now allowed. It was his way, I think, of showing charity and of intimating he was ready to leave!

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who loved and adapted the Little Way of St Therese, and who accomplished great things and was recognized by the world, said: "It is nothing extraordinary to be holy. Holiness is not a luxury of the few. Holiness is a simple duty for you and me. We have been created for that."

Father is dedicated to his priesthood, to God, the Church and to holiness, even amidst debilitating disease. He says Mass at the Cathedral in Pittsburgh every Monday and Tuesday night, and he offered to say Mass at the Grotto a couple of times by saying Mass. After talking with Father about prayer, spending the week with him, and celebrating Mass with him, one time he said longingly : "I hope I can always say the Mass."

Many people-including this present writer-- want to meet famous people, and encounter greatness and learn the "secrets to success". Now, because of God's revelations and graces, I would rather meet, and look forward to seeing, again, Fr. George. I learned more from him than from a "theological chalkboard". He gave what no one else could. And he didn't even know it.

Amidst the searching for great lessons and gurus let's learn the "spiritual lessons under our noses". Let's ask and seek how we can embody The Little Way in our lives, here and now.  Consider Spiritual Childhood:

  • Simplicy: A Philippine family was visiting the Glass Chapel during Holy Hour. Grandmom was helping Mom and Dad by taking care of the beautiful granddaughter, thereby allowing the young couple get some silent, care-Fr.ee time. Seeing the lovely Perpetual Help Icon near our altar (Baby Jesus protected by Blessed Mother amidst the foreshadowing Crucifixion), the grandmother brought the little girl to the Icon and sweetly held her to it and allowed her to kiss Jesus and Mary. How impressive and impressing--teach your children and your own soul Spiritual Childhood.
  • Childlikeness: I went to anoint a lady and, after this, I talked to her grandson, Ian. I invited him to come to Our Lady's Grotto, and then, detecting his eagerness, I said: "Hurry." I turned to leave and he said to his Mom, holding her hand, "Mom, let's go and hurry!" .  The Little Way: How can you live your faith more simply by the Sacraments, sacramental and holy activities which will impress to your soul love of the Savior and Virgin?
  • Abandonment: Fr. McLean Cummings is a Baltimore Diocesan priest. Hearing the need of Roman Catholic priests in rugged Russia, he prepared, learned a little Russian, and left a year ago. He's still there without comforts of home, family and even familiar language. All for Jesus-Spiritual Childhood. How can you abandon more to God and His ways-concretely and daily?
  • Treasure Time: Last week I went fishing along with Gill Hoffman and his grandson, John, I was both impressed and inspired by Gil's time with, and many affections for his teenage grandson-esp spending all day with him in a "guy-bonding" sport! Their jibes, terms of endearment ("Pop" for Gil and "champ" for John), and their commitment for each other showed me that virtually nothing is more important in a relationship than "simple time" with others. How can you spend more time with loved ones?
  • Child-like Playfulness: The other day the pool was closed where I and a family of eight were to swim. No big deal-the kids weren't fazed one bit. We met at my parents' house and used their little, 8 foot by 4 foot "pool," and squirted the hose, jumped in and out and made an "aqua sliding board" for fun. They-we all-had a blast. I know the children wouldn't have laughed as much at their regular pool, and thereby taught us how to adapt to surprises-and have fun with simple things.  How can you use simple things God has given you-joyfully?
  • Focus: Msgr Hugh Phillips arrived here at the age of fourteen. He became president, librarian and dean of Mt St Mary's College, but his love for, and dedication to the Grotto, where he was Chaplin for decades, is unparalleled. Because of Msgr's focus and love of the Lord and the Virgin, he built the beautiful bell tower, enlarged the gardens and road to the Grotto; he healed, confessed and blessed countless souls, all because of his childlike love of Our Lady. He would often simply bless people: "Thru the Virgin may Jesus give you everything because He never refuses His Blessed Mother." --Spiritual Childhood.
  • Faith: John brought his wife, with Multiple Sclerosis to the Grotto. She can't talk or walk, can barely hear or move, and her twisted body sits uncomfortably in a large, bulky wheelchair. Despite the travails of travel they were going to a grandsons' confirmation; amidst the arduous tasks of transport, John lovingly pushed Sara all the way up the long hill to the Grotto to light a candle and pray a decade of the rosary. He said: We're seeking a healing, but, also embrace God's will." They've been married, in sickness and in health, richer or poorer, for almost forty years.
  • Spirituality: -a German lady, Marie, in the nursing home, looks forward all week to Mass on Monday afternoons: this is her greatest joy. how can you have this same thirst for Jesus, esp. in the Holy Eucharist?

There was, in Father George, a lack of ego, self-promotion and complication - all amidst his disease. But Alzheimer's, though somewhat of a dis-ease for him, was not for me and many of us who met him. Rather, the ease with which God was working in and thru him showed us the Way of Spiritual Childhood--how reFr.eshing and enlightening. You may see or experience this in people with autism, in a person who cannot speak or hear or see, in a person dying with cancer, in the many who live in nursing homes-an authenticity and purity which is attractive and paradoxical: blessings and hope come thru "disguises".

There is a man-very physically and mentally challenged and challenging-- who comes frequently to the Grotto with his valiant mother. The young man, "Joseph," is often restless and sometimes cries out in the midst of Mass. Pilgrims may look back to see what's happening. Mom calms him down or may take him out for a "breather," then come back in, perhaps several times in a half hour. They stand with everyone, kneel, sit on the floor sometimes, even outside on the concrete, hearing the Bible and seeing Jesus come in consecration. Simple actions before the Lord-Spiritual Childhood.

Joseph comes up for Holy Communion with Mom holding him, and after Mass, too, for a blessing. Unfatiguing, Christ-centered and spiritually-questing for God amidst tremendous sacrifices, they frequently come: Jesus is speaking to them, gracing them--the Little Way. Some people may wonder why, amidst so much challenge, Mom undergoes all this. She wants him to receive the graces. Like Fr. George, sitting at home is not an option; God and community is The Way. As I sometimes look out during Mass at the congregation, and Joseph and Mom, I see stunning commitment and heroic love. Perhaps Joseph's body and mind cannot understand what's happening in Mass, but his Mom knows Joseph's soul can. Mom once said: "There are many challenges, but there are also so many blessings in Joseph."

Yes, we need "rocket scientists" to use brawny brains to get us to the moon and help the Catholic Church spread the Gospel in various, modern ways. We enjoy impressive athletes who can use massive muscles to lift great weights and run long distances, and show us how to persevere. And we need men and women in power to use cunning wisdom to further the Kingdom in government and business. All of us, though, should seek, live and promote the Way of Spiritual Childhood as do these people above. It is not beyond our reach, as a matter of fact, it is God reaching down to us in compassion and mercy.

"Holiness means something more than the sweeping away of the old leaves of sin: it means the life of Jesus developed in us." - Lilias Trotter

Briefly Noted

Subversive Shepherds.  Jeremiah was "Subversive" in the sense that the King, Zedekiah, was a mere puppet of his unspiritual advisors. Thus Israel went to ruin and, eventually, exile. Jeremiah challenged the lethargy and systemic evil of his times. How can you and, also, help and Pray for your shepherds-Pope John Paul, bishops and priests-they need your help! Encourage and inspire them to live and preach the liberating truth-even though, like Jeremiah, it is challenging to the Current (supposed) Order. We need more prophetic shepherding for more prayer, holy silence and intensified spiritual life; for a simple lifestyle; for the Commandments and moral life to prevail; for family protection and Catholic unity.

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi