This reflection is the second in our Lenten series, “First-Person Faith.” Read more about the Collegeville Institute’s first-person approach to theological discourse in our introduction to the series.
A friend of a friend’s mother lay dying, and I was urged to go to her immediately. As a visiting pastor, I received a brief scouting report: 98 years old, one surviving daughter, terminal lung cancer, Italian Catholic. For my part, I was 33 years old, badly in need of a shave, embarrassingly under-dressed, Presbyterian, and now walking hesitantly into the hospice room, tiptoeing to the bedside. The one surviving daughter of uncertain age remained seated in the far corner, her eyes glued to her iPhone, her hand gesturing dismissively toward me as if to say, “Get on with it and be gone.”
Laying my cold hand upon this 98-year-old woman’s wizened brow, brushing a wispy strand of stray white hair back in place with my thumb, I prepared to give a blessing. I expected that I’d been urgently summoned for the sacred and humbling task of offering holy and wholly inadequate words before this threshold—between world-as-is and world-yet-to-be. My confession to you, my Catholic sister, I thought while bending over the dying woman of faith, is that I do not know exactly what to say.
It was the one lying closer to the Eternal Word who spoke first, or at least attempted to speak, parting chapped lips to utter something too faint to hear. Still, this effort caused the one surviving daughter to vault from her chair and cross the room in a single stride, press her hand to her mother’s face and urgently ask her to repeat: “What did you say? Mamma, ripetere! Mamma!”
Summoning strength from untold ancient reserves, Mamma pushed up air and articulated clearly, “Roger. Roger.”
Words hanging in the air, confusion written on the daughter’s face, I did not know what to say, but didn’t let that serve as an excuse. “So beautiful,” I began with what I imagined was a professionally pastoral tone, “‘Roger.’ She remembers someone special; how very beautiful!”
The daughter shook her head angrily. Or at least, that’s how I perceived her response. My cheeks instantly flushed hot from a rising panic that I’d missed something crucial, and thus been tragically insensitive. I whispered shamefully, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t . . .”
“No, no,” she replied impatiently, shaking her head more furiously, “We know no one by that name.”
So silence once again pressed upon us, a heavy stillness interrupted only by Mamma’s labored breathing. Then she——spoke once again, the same as before, “Roger.” And her eyelids fluttered open, staring through the ceiling, perhaps into the infinite light in which all is illumined completely. “Roger.”
And the one surviving daughter snapped her fingers and dramatically cried out with eureka-enthusiasm, “Not ‘Roger’ but ‘coraggio’! Mamma, coraggio!”
“Italian?” I asked, remembering the scouting report.
“Yes, Father,” she replied, forgetting who I was, “She says the word for ‘courage.’”
“‘Co-raggi-o’” I repeated slowly, still 33 years old, still in need of a shave, still under-dressed, still Presbyterian and suddenly stilled and in awe beyond any other words.
Then her daughter spoke through a smile, dislodging tears from the corners of her eyes. “Roger that.”