(The celebration of Halloween evokes childhood memories, both fun-filled and fearful, and provides a commercial warm-up to the approach of the winter holidays. In this mad rush, the religious significance lies trampled and forgotten along with the saints we fail to recognize in our midst.)
It was Halloween night in Boston’s North End. In the glow of a Saturday evening sunset, I left home in a bit of a rush with the hope of catching the 5 o’clock Mass at Saint Leonard Church on the vigil of All Saints Day – All Hallows’ Eve – a major feast day on the Christian liturgical calendar. I threaded my way down Copp’s Hill to the crowded sidewalk along Hanover Street near the Peace Garden. Freedom Trail tourists, diners hoping to score a window table when restaurant doors opened, and clusters of families with children in costumes crowded the pavement. Little witches and princesses, super-heroes and werewolves vied with their plastic jack-o-lanterns for the goodies doled out by North End shopkeepers and merchants.
Eventually this fantastical entourage would find its way to Paul Revere Prado for a holiday celebration where pizza, candy, spooky music and haunted happenings were awaiting. Meanwhile, in the gathering dusk under the dome of Saint Leonard’s, Father Claude Scrima was at the altar lectern, doing what he does best – preaching the gospel with an immediacy and urgency that tonight dwelt on the saints. He pointed to the holy murals, frescoes and statuary encircling the worshipers — reminders of the prophets, martyrs and blessed ones commemorated in the feast day liturgy. None of us in the pews were about to be nominated for canonization. First and thankfully, we were not yet dead (although that point was open for debate until the fellow slumped over in the last row let out a startling snort). But, more importantly, preoccupation or speculation about one’s own prospects was an automatic disqualifier. The truth was that we were all sinners of one flavor or another. What we should strive for was to take each day as an opportunity to become a better person – to be a good a neighbor. Now that was certainly something within our collective reach.
My mind began to wander as the stained-glass windows on the western wall of the church no longer reflected the dying rays of a brilliant sunset. The sanctuary grew darker and the votive candles flickered while my thoughts turned inward. I was back in a Pennsylvania college town nestled in a valley of the Allegheny Mountains, standing at the foot of the bed of a 23-year-old in an intensive care unit with his father, a dear friend from my college days. The young man’s name was Tim – ‘Timmy’ to his father John and mother Cindy. You don’t need any further identification because last names don’t really matter for a saint or his parents. After all, how many of us know the surnames of Francis of Assisi or Mother Theresa?
In the words of his college chaplain, Tim was a talented, popular, fun-loving Notre Dame graduate who was hired by a prestigious Chicago investment house before he checked himself into a hospital with the sudden onset of troubling symptoms soon pointing to a diagnosis of a rare cancer. As a result of his illness, he suffered through many chemotherapy sessions under the watch of some of the best medical minds in the country. He rallied briefly, even attending his older brother’s wedding. But, the prognosis was grim as Tim was dragged downwards by a compromised immune system. Shortly thereafter I booked a flight to his hometown and found myself in a hospital ICU room full of medical equipment and machinery that whirred and clicked and dripped. John gently approached the guardrail on his son’s bed and softly spoke to the shrouded figure lying in a fetal position.
“Tom’s here from Boston to say hello.”
Suddenly stirring and craning his neck, Tim cocked one eye and, in a half-smile, half-grimace, whispered, “Are you still writing those letters to the editor?” This young man had been exposed to some of my quixotic rantings and literary outbursts. He knew me only too well. I held back tears and marveled in awe that he could still manage a wisecrack with IV tubes and hoses crawling out from under his sheets. I could not bear to turn and look at John in the face since I knew that his paternal agony must be unbearable.
As the sedatives and painkillers kicked in, Tim motioned to his father.
“Dad, I know that it must be my medication. But, there’s no man behind that window curtain, is there?”
I was speechless as his father’s tender words provided reassurance. They were all the more poignant in light of the fact that John was a physician who had made rounds in this same room for his own ICU care patients. Of all people, he knew the score. In silence, I stood in place as the afternoon sun fell. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” I wanted to say. “There is no great and powerful Wizard of Oz.” But, death did not lend itself to ironic humor for someone so young and full of promise.
When I returned to Boston, I was filled with the withering realization that Tim was about to leave us. When his time arrived, a few of his close friends and immediate family encircled his hospital bed for two days of storytelling and the sharing of memories. His doctors made him comfortable as he reassured all that he was in no pain. His university chaplain from South Bend, Indiana materialized on a moment’s notice to administer the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church and celebrate an intimate Mass at bedside in which Tim received a sacramental communion wafer. With humility he described it as “the only chemo I ever needed”. Precious grains of sand were dribbling out of his hourglass as he willed himself to remain conscious and cling to this transformative moment for himself and his loved ones. In a strained voice, resisting the effects of sedation, he even had the presence of mind to inform his physician-father, half in excitement:
“Dad, I’ve got to stick around. There’s too much happening”.
After he slipped into unconsciousness, his loyal friends remained with him to the end. At 5:00 p.m. on a Tuesday, ‘Tim died peacefully. He knew he was loved.’ as one specially-designed website announced.
With the news of Timmy’s passing, in sadness I returned to Pennsylvania for the funeral in the company of my wife and daughter. What we witnessed instead was an outpouring of love and emotion for an extraordinary individual, described as “an asteroid who flew through our lives” by Notre Dame’s director of campus ministry presiding over a liturgy in celebration of life. We prayed for Timmy’s soul and for his family and friends – that their spirits would be restored as they moved from mourning into morning.
I could not wait for the convening of a Vatican commission. Nor could I afford eight centuries to linger for a canonization ceremony similar to what Saint Hildegard von Bingen endured. Certainly I did not demand proof of a post-mortem miracle because I had already witnessed the miracle of Timmy’s healing powers in comforting his distraught and mournful parents, siblings and circle of friends when he knew that his time was at hand. I had stood at the foot of his hospital bed with his father and had seen enough for my personal validation.
It did not happen overnight, but one day I suddenly invoked Timmy’s name when I was assigned to a guardianship case involving end-of-life medical directives for a hospice patient. I had what I knew would be an impossibly aggravating court appearance. I recalled Tim’s clear-mindedness and even jaunty demeanor when faced with an absolutely discouraging prognosis. I remembered his smile and lightheartedness. Even distracted by pain, his calming words were reassuring. He had faced cancer whereas I only had to anticipate a dyspeptic judge and an abrasive opposing counsel. But, there was much at stake for a dying woman. And so, I sat in my parked car in front of a court house in Salem, Massachusetts and whispered:
“Saint Timmy, pray for me. Watch over me and guide me with your grace.”
I admit all of this with an apology for ignoring my namesake from baptism — Thomas the apostle — he of ‘doubting Thomas’ fame. I already had plenty of misgivings to spare without requesting the intervention of someone renowned for his disbelief. And, I have to disclose that he was never really my go-to guy when I was in a pickle because I never quite understood his unrelenting skepticism over the resurrection of Jesus. He threw a tantrum just because he missed a celebrity sighting when he got stuck grocery shopping and arrived late to the disciples’ hideout.
You accept moments of grace wherever and whenever they are bestowed upon you. I stood at the foot of a young man’s ICU bed with his father John whose own patron saint was the sole apostle remaining at the foot of a cross on Calvary after the others fled in fear. I bore witness to a son’s transcendence and sanctification over a fatal illness. I can attest to a father’s and mother’s grief and ultimate consolation that they had brought a child into the world whose short life in a very simple, yet extraordinary way touched the lives of so many others.
Alone in a church pew, I awoke from my dreamlike reverie and realized that the liturgy was almost over on this Eve of All Saints. Father Claude finished the service with the traditional blessing of departure.
“Go in peace. The Mass is ended”
Along with the other congregants, I chanted.
“Thanks be to God.”
But, under my breath, I intoned a further supplication.
“Saint Timmy, pray for us.”
I emerged from the church sanctuary into the gathering darkness of Halloween night and made my way homewards along now lamplit streets.
From Boston’s North End, Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life and city living.