Sunday, February 5, 2012

Women of God

“Jesus approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up.”  (Mark 1:31)

This past week, the Church lost two great women who dedicated their lives to serving the Church.  On a personal level, I lost two remarkable women who I looked up to as examples of unflappable faith.  One of these ladies I have known since I entered seminary, for she has prayed for me and for all seminarians and priests every day for the last 36 years.  The other was the heart of my last parish who lived for serving her parish and for taking care of her priests.  Both ladies loved the priesthood and devoted their lives to praying for us and our ministry.  Now they enjoy the just rewards of true servants of God.

I met Delia Berta González in 1993 when I was in my first year of seminary.  She was a small woman with a loud, loud voice—not unlike my own grandmother. In 1976, Bishop Roman and Bishop Estevez, when they were still parish priests, were doing a radio show with her to promote vocations and asked her on the air if she would start up a prayer league of people to pray every day for more vocations and for our seminarians and priests.  She didn’t hesitate and immediately gave her phone number on the air.  From that moment, ladies were calling her up because they wanted to be part of this prayer league.  Thus, the Liga Orante was born, and Delia Berta set up a very simple ministry.  She would assign one person to call ten people to pray for vocations during the week.  It grew exponentially to the point where we once had thousands of people praying for vocations every single day.  The highlight of the Liga Orante’s year was their annual Mass with the Archbishop and the seminarians at St. John Vianney Seminary every January.  Two hours before Mass started, little old ladies would be carefully parking their cars and filling up the seminary chapel.  Delia Berta would always be seated proudly in the first pew.  This was her day with her boys. She hugged and kissed each seminarian as if each was her grandson.  At the end of the Mass, she would present the Archbishop with a check that was scraped together with the coins and dollar bills of her ladies.  The check was usually anywhere between $12,000 and $19,000 for the seminary.  She would then grab the microphone from the Archbishop and would proceed to tell her army of ladies to give more to the seminary and to keep praying.  We would laugh because not even the Archbishop could take that microphone away from her once she got started.  Years later when I became Vocations Director, I also became the chaplain to the Liga Orante.  Delia Berta was thrilled, but her health was beginning to decline.  She would call me up this time of year to remind me of their annual Lenten Retreat, but she was having trouble remembering how many times she called me.  I didn’t mind.  During my last year as Vocations Director, she recognized very few people, but she still kept her seat in the first pew at their annual Mass.  She may not have remembered everything, but when she say her seminarians, her priests, and her bishops walk in, the great smile of pride would return and she was full of life again.  I preached at her husband’s funeral and helped her bury a daughter in a span of a few months.  Her mind may have been failing her but the work of the Liga Orante had to continue.  Her closest friends carried her torch these past few years even as many of these ladies from Delia Berta’s army of prayer began to go home to the Father.  On Saturday, Jesus approached Delia Berta, grasped her hand, and helped her up.

Right before Christmas 2008, as I was saying goodbye to Delia Berta and my work with Vocations, I called my soon to be new parish, Mary Help of Christians, and a booming voice answered, “Good morning, this is Marge!”  I asked to speak to the pastor, but that voice stayed with me.  I would meet Marge Hickey three weeks later.  She was our sacristan, our receptionist, our go-to volunteer, the only one our pastor would allow to cook for the priests and spoil us.  She did all of this as she was about to turn 80 years old.  Every morning, she would open the church at 6:30 a.m. and prepared the altar for Mass before the priest arrived. Everything had to be just right for God and his priests.  I would walk in around 6:50 a.m. and find her sitting at the edge of the fourth row praying from her book of novenas and I’d whisper good morning to her.  Marge didn’t know how to whisper.  She would always break the silence of the morning with a hearty “Good morning, Father!”  Many a day I would sit with Marge at the reception desk, and she would tell me stories about her family growing up in Long Island during the Depression.  Marge was always independent.  Her father died at a young age, and she took care of her mother and sister when they were dying.  During Lent, she fondly recalled the times her mother went to Long Island Sound on Fridays to fish for small halibut that she would prepare for dinner.  Marge always said that she never tasted a better piece of fish.  Marge was also an excellent cook in her own right.  She would spoil the priests with incredible rib dinners and big fried gulf shrimp.  She never made a bad meal, but she was never satisfied with what she made. Nothing was too good for her priests.  Every Sunday morning she had to bring us our bagels: a honey bagel for Father Jerry, an oatmeal raisin bagel for me, and a plain bagel for Father Tom.  And many a parishioner almost had their hands cut off if they even attempted to go near our food.  Her health started failing during my last months at Mary Help, yet she continued to show up at the office even if she couldn’t show up to daily Mass anymore.  She continued to cook for us and answer the phones and supervise the decorating of the church during Christmas and Easter.  Even as her incredibly generous heart began to fail, she continued to worry about letting our pastor down.  On Wednesday, Jesus approached Marge, grasped her hand, and helped her up.

If you read the Greek translation of St. Mark’s gospel, the word “help” in Greek literally means “raise up.”  St. Mark uses this word in today’s Gospel to “raise up” Simon’s mother in law and again when Jesus “raised up” the little girl who had died and finally to describe Jesus’ own resurrection.  What did Simon’s mother in law do to thank Jesus after being “raised up”?  She began to serve them.  How else could she thank the Lord.?  These two extraordinary women were pillars of the Church.  Even through great pain and physical hardship, they would constantly rise up to serve the Lord each day.  Like St. Paul in today’s second reading, they both believed that the preaching and the spreading of the Gospel was an obligation that had been imposed on them, and woe to them if they didn’t accomplish their mission.  But they did accomplish it, and they leave behind a legacy of service and fidelity to the Church that should serve as an example for all of us as Jesus calls us to rise up as a Church during these trying times.  God called two good and holy women home to himself this week.  It is up to us to continue their work.

“Well done, my good and faithful servant…come, share your master’s joy.” (Matthew 25:23)