When you’re a priest in a large church, you know people by sight. But the truth is, you don’t always get to know everyone’s name. In a parish like mine, with over four thousand families, you’re fortunate to learn a few hundred first names. Some people understand this; others don’t. They’ll come up to you and very aggressively ask, ‘Do you know my name, Father?’ I used to say, ‘Sure’, and try to change the topic. But too often they’d call me in on it. So now I just tell the truth: ‘No, I know your face, but your name escapes me.’ Some get a little miffed. ‘But you did my sister’s wedding three years ago,’ said one. ‘That,’ I responded, ‘was three hundred weddings ago.’ A similar moment happened recently, but I was happy for the confrontation.
An attractive young woman approached me after Mass. She waited until all the other folks had left before asking, ‘Do you know who I am?’ I didn’t. So I asked, ‘Have we met before?’ ‘Well, yes, in a very unusual way.’ Now she had my curiosity aroused. ‘Tell me where and when,’ I asked. ‘My name is Samantha. I’m eighteen. You actually knew my mother back when she was pregnant with me. So that’s when we met, it just wasn’t face to face.’
I asked her to tell me more. ‘My mother raised me alone. She had very little financial or emotional support. Her parents didn’t like my biological father. He apparently left the scene once Mum became pregnant. So here she was, just nineteen at the time – pregnant, alone, poor and scared.
How, I wondered, did I fit into this story? Samantha continued: ‘I recently asked my mother why she didn’t get an abortion. She said she almost did. But she happened to come upon a priest who gave a talk on the beauty of human life, and the need to protect it. You. She looked for you after Mass and you two talked. Just like we’re talking now. My Mum says she expected you to get angry at her when she said that she was pregnant and considering an abortion. But you didn’t. You just hugged her and offered to help her to have me. She said that when she cried with fear about raising a child alone, your eyes filled up too.’
I asked Samantha to tell me more. ‘My Mum says you two talked for over an hour. And then, as Mum said she needed time to think about her options, you offered her a blessing and prayed for me too. Mum says that blessing made her realise that there really were two of us. Mum and me. I stopped being a problem and became a SOMEONE to her for the first time. I stopped being a crisis and became her child.’
I wish I could say that I knew or remembered the encounter, but I don’t. I wish I could say that I knew just the right words to say back then, but I didn’t. Like many times in my life as a priest, I think God just used me as His instrument, and it’s foolish to claim credit for saying the good stuff!
Samantha concluded, ‘When I heard that story I had to find out where you worked. I just needed to tell you that I’m grateful that you and my Mum met when you did. She needed someone to listen, someone to care. She needed not to be condemned for what she was thinking of doing, but to be loved enough to see the positive possibilities. You did that and I think that’s why I got to be born. So, listen, when you’re tired or having a bad day or when all the scandal stuff in the Church gets you down, please don’t forget that sometimes your life has more meaning than you know. Thanks for being there for my Mum. Thanks for being there for me.’
I’m going to pay more attention to those faces from now on. Sometimes they have the most beautiful stories to tell.
– By Mgr Jim Lisante; publ. in the ‘Crusader Magazine’, issue December 2012; for subscription etc. contact the Crusader Magazine at “All Saints Friary, Redclyffe Road, Manchester M41 7LG, United Kingdom”.