Jesus revealed through the kindness of strangers

By  Fr. Bill Moloney, Catholic Register Special
  • December 18, 2006

In 1985, Bishop James Doyle sent me to the faculty of education of the University of Toronto where I had a wide range of facilitators and assignments. My psychology professor, Dr. Kong, provided a challenging assignment that proved spiritually fulfilling and blessed my Christmas experience that year.

The assignment was to do something I had always wanted to do, but had also feared. Instantly I realized my topic. Prior to teachers' college, I had been stationed with Fr. Peter Seabrooke at St. Michael's parish in Cobourg, Ont. Being in such close proximity to Hwy. 401, we had many transients dropping by for handouts. Often they would show up at inopportune and busy times. We would give them a meal ticket and send them on their way. Fr. Peter and I would often wonder if the transients experienced Jesus in such situations, and what it would feel like to be in their shoes on the other side of the door ringing the bell. Now was my opportunity. When I headed home for the Christmas holiday I would visit a number of Catholic rectories as a transient in need of support.

I was filled with excitement. Yet another chance to encounter Jesus. When the big day arrived, I headed home dressed for the part. My attire was an old ripped pair of track pants, a dirty t-shirt, a filthy toque and an old barn coat straight from the farm. I had not showered for five days and had doused myself with an ounce or two of beer. Sarcastically, my mom shared that this role was not too far a stretch.

I parked around the corner from the first rectory around 10 a.m. and headed to the door. I rang the doorbell and waited. The secretary answered. I told her I was heading home for Christmas to be with my family. I said I hadn't eaten for awhile and asked for food. Everything I said was true. I had been driving home for 45 minutes and breakfast had been an hour-and-a-half ago.

The secretary asked me to wait outside and closed the door. After a few minutes a retired priest came to the door. I told him my story. He said the parish had a policy not to give out money. He would, however, prepare some food for me. I was invited into the rectory and asked to take a seat in the waiting area.

While waiting I could clearly see the secretary through the office window. She was typing. During my wait she never looked up once, nor spoke to me. Above her on the wall was a picture of Jesus knocking on the garden wall. I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if I was wearing my clerics.

Eventually the elder priest returned with two peanut butter sandwiches, a piece of cake and a banana. As he opened the door, he pulled out his wallet and handed me a two-dollar bill for a coffee. He wished me a safe journey and said he would pray for me. Driving away, I felt a little guilty. However, the food tasted good.

At the second parish, the door opened and the secretary stopped short when she saw me. I asked to speak to the "Father." In reply, she literally looked me up and down and said in a firm voice, "May I help you?" It was immediately obvious that I would not be speaking to a priest in that parish. I told her my story. She said they did not give handouts. The parish did however, support a men's hostel downtown, and she quickly gave me directions. The lady was extremely business-like and I decided to push my luck. I said I was new in town and didn't know my way around. I asked if she would please write down the address and give it to me. As I walked away, she called out and wished me a sincere Merry Christmas.

It was lunchtime when I arrived at the third parish and knowing that people don't like to be disturbed during meals, I decided to be more aggressive. When the secretary answered the door, I asked to speak to the "Father." We went back and forth like this four or five times. Finally, she went to get a priest. The pastor soon arrived, still chewing some of his lunch. I related my story. Without hesitation he said, "No problem, just go around to the back porch." The back porch turned out to be a summer kitchen with a couch, table and chairs. I stood there, toque in hand, until the housekeeper came out. The term does not do this woman justice. She looked like a typical grandmother.

Grandma welcomed me and asked me to be seated. She asked me my name. She was the first to ask that question all day. I said my name was Bill. She said, "Bill, now that's a fine name. I understand you are heading home for Christmas to be with your family. Isn't that marvellous. Everyone should be with their family for Christmas. Now you wait here and I'll bring you something to eat. You just sit and relax."

Needless to say, the lump was growing in my throat. I sat quietly feeling guilty. Meanwhile both the secretary and caretaker went through the summer kitchen. Neither spoke. Within 10 minutes, Grandma returned carrying a tray. There was a huge steaming cup of coffee, two toasted sausage sandwiches and some Christmas desserts. The lump was growing. The tears were welling. Grandma told me to take my time and enjoy my meal and went back inside. The tears started to flow. I had to leave, I thought, but that would be a waste of good food. I wolfed down my meal. It was delicious. Grandma had outdone herself. As I was about to leave, Grandma returned and put her hand on my shoulder. She was the first to touch me all day. She spoke. "Bill, I said it is important to be with family at Christmas. It's also important to receive a present at Christmas." She reached into her apron and pulled out a gift-wrapped package and an envelope with my name written by a shaky hand. Grandma told me this was my Christmas present. She made me promise I would not open the present or card till Christmas Day. By now the tears were flowing freely. Grandma said I could stay as long as I wanted; if I needed a nap, I could sleep on the couch. When I declined, Grandma wished me a Merry Christmas. She went inside and I left as quickly as I could. I truly felt I'd experienced the love of Christ through Grandma.

The door was opened at the fourth parish by, yet again, the secretary. Once again I related my story. Her expression was one of panic. She informed me the priest wasn't home, that this was only her second day of employment, and that she did not know the parish policy. She wanted to do something, and knew that she should, but didn't know what. She was working herself into a tizzy. I told her it was all right, that I would get help somewhere else and said good-bye.

The fifth and final parish did not have a doorbell. I knocked and knocked on the glass door, but there was no response. I tried the door and found it unlocked. I stepped inside and found myself in a vestibule. I could hear a voice inside the inner door. I knocked and there was no answer. I could still hear the voice, so I decided to knock loudly. I banged on the door and a priest answered. I told him my story. He said "no problem" and asked if I could wait while he finished a telephone conversation. The door closed and I stood patiently in the vestibule, hearing his muffled voice through the wall. Five minutes later I heard him say good-bye, hang up the phone and walk down the hall. I presumed he was going to the kitchen. After 20 minutes he was still not back, so I assumed he had to be preparing a feast. I felt badly about the effort to which Father was going, so I decided I would tell him who I really was and explain what I was doing. I knocked. No answer. I knocked again. No answer. Finally I hammered on the door. I heard a loud bang and someone running toward me. The priest swung open the door. His hair was disheveled and his shirttail was pulled out. I introduced myself as a priest from Peterborough diocese doing an assignment for teacher's college. I explained this was the fifth and final Catholic church I had visited dressed as a transient and looking for a handout. He said he was glad I had knocked because he had forgotten about me and fallen asleep. He invited me into the rectory so we could discuss my experiences. Our conversation was fantastic as we dissected how Jesus had been revealed through those I'd met, their words and their actions. Finally, he told me that the Advent theme for the parish was looking for signs of Jesus. He said I was his sign of Jesus.

Christmas was a week away. It was difficult to wait. I felt just like a young child anticipating opening presents. When the day arrived, the first present I opened was… Grandma's; a pair of home-knit socks. In the card there was a simple Nativity scene, a Christmas blessing and a wrinkled two-dollar bill. Again the tears began to flow. My Christmas experience was blessed indeed that year because people had performed simple acts of Christian charity in the name of Jesus.

How does Jesus want to touch others this Christmas through you? Are you looking for signs of Jesus?

(Moloney is pastor of St. Joseph's parish in Bracebridge, Ont.)

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