Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, is the Patroness of the Congregation of Holy Cross. As we prepare for the memorial on September 15, I will offer a new image and a short reflection based on each of the Seven Sorrows of Mary.
John 19: 25-30 Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother* and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home. After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I thirst.” There was a vessel filled with common wine. So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth. When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, “It is finished.” And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.
Amid this day’s grief
My priesthood began shortly after AIDS was named as a killer among people in our country. I would never have predicted that a disease would so form my early years of ministry and carve a deep wound within me as I faced the sudden and tragic crosses of such suffering among family members.
I find myself at a loss in this present generation of priests and young families to explain the angst and the fear of those years when a diagnosis was an instant condemnation of death. I can only paint a few pictures with words of the broken relationships, humiliation, shame and grief that tore so many families apart in my early years of ministry.
I especially remember the mothers who stood next to their son’s suffering during the early days of AIDS. These women straddled the demands of other family members as they cared for and worried about their ill children. They had to deal with the shame that often accompanied the diagnosis of AIDS. They had to defend their dying child when so often so many families were not aware of the disease or the struggles of sexual identity. In many cases sons had to come out of the closet as homosexuals in the same conversation that also informed parents that they were dying. Mothers even had to protect their ill children from the anger of the father’s of these children who could not admit they had gay sons
There seemed to be little warning of this disease that drained the bodies of seemingly perfectly healthy people. The “wasting disease” caused men to lose drastic amounts of body weight. The initial, multiple diseases that appeared under the label of AIDS were also new and considered contagious during various times. This health crisis produced mass amounts of fear among doctors and nurses, hospital janitors and researchers, and among professional chaplains and social workers. There was also much fear within Christian churches as how to respond to people living with AIDS and there families.
I was called one afternoon to the hospital to anoint a man who was dying of AIDS. I was asked to welcome his parents to the hospital who would be arriving that evening at 7:00pm from their travel across the country. They were arriving to be at the deathbed of their son. I had no idea of their family story or what I would be facing as I arrived a few minutes early in the quiet room.
I sat by the dying man’s bedside and waited for his parents. The nurse and I decided not to wait for his parents to anoint his emaciated, tormented body. She and I prayed on their behalf, a prayer of letting go and of reconciliation. We prayed not knowing any of the stories of the relationships with his family, not understanding the hopes and dreams, the skills and talents of this man who was very close to leaving this earth. We prayed with a pregnant silence and a few words of Scripture. I dipped my thumb into a small metal container of sacred oil and dabbed it on his forehead in the sign of the cross. I could feel his breath slipping away as I reached across his face.
I then remained at his bedside and waited. Finally, his parents arrived in the room carrying with them a flurry of emotion. They were exhausted from the day’s journey. I became aware of his mother first. She seemed full of anger as she threw off her heavy coat and she seemed so restless next to her son’s quiet presence. I tried to welcome them both, but something more was happening. I made a quick decision to invite them into an empty room next door. As we settled into some comfortable chairs, the story unfolded.
His mother admitted to me after taking a deep breath, “I am not angry that my son has AIDS. I am not angry that my son is dying. I am angry that my priest at our home parish told me yesterday not to come to my son’s deathbed because he was going to hell anyway.”
I tried my best to calm them both and to invite them to sit at their son’s deathbed so to let him go in peace without anger and regret. I encouraged them to get some rest for the night. The next day, his mother called me and told me that her son had died in the early morning. She asked me to offer her child a funeral service and that the rest of the family would be coming from all over the country for the burial. I spent the next few days immersed in their family stories. They were all afraid of the public shame of the collective name of the diseases that had killed their son and brother, AIDS. They had never admitted that their strong, well-educated and successful son held on to so many secrets in the years before his death at age thirty-five.
We buried this son on a sunny day in November. That day happened to be my birthday. We all arrived at the church with a collective ease and even joy. The week had brought many miracles of acceptance from the hours of storytelling we shared. The funeral became a true celebration of faith and of a son’s life that was filled with hope. The family admitted out loud the cause of his death and the label that their son was gay. The funeral became a celebration of the fact that God’s love is unending.
For many years after the funeral, this lovely, Midwest mother sent me a birthday card to thank me for being with the family during her son’s death and burial. Every year until her death, she gave thanks that her son’s death brought the family into a deeper relationship, into a more truthful bond. Even though her grief never left her, her gratitude helped ease her own suffering.