Very shortly, on November 2, we as the Church will mark All Souls Day. It offers us an opportunity to pray for our beloved who have died—our relatives, our friends, our late teachers, bosses, priests—as well as the countless nameless souls who are helped by our prayers. If they are still in purgatory, our prayers will help them on their last leg of the journey to heaven.
All Souls Day is also a tender opportunity to cherish our memories and thoughts about our loved ones who have passed.
Please indulge me in sharing such a heartfelt memory.
While still the Bishop of Green Bay, on Monday, January 16, 2006, at 5:03 a.m., in Room 942 of Saint Vincent Hospital in Green Bay, my dear mother crossed over the bridge from this life to eternal life. She died in my arms—a precious blessing indeed.
It was such a powerful experience that I felt a longing for a tangible reminder. I wanted something to represent that tender moment.
Six weeks after my mother’s death, I found it. While visiting my Green Bay seminarians in Rome, I found a pectoral cross in one of my favorite religious goods stores—a cross with a unique image that captured my heart.
Every bishop always wears a pectoral cross. It is worn over or near his heart as a sign that Jesus must be first in his heart and, in turn, that his heart seeks to be like the heart of Jesus. When dressed simply in a suit and clerical collar, a bishop wears the cross in the left inner pocket of his jacket, attached to a chain that goes diagonally across his chest from this right shoulder. When garbed for liturgical celebrations, he wears the pectoral cross in the center of his chest. In both cases, the cross remains close to his heart.
Back to my story. While in Rome in March of 2006, I found a pectoral cross with a medallion in its center bearing the image of our dear Blessed Mother cradling her dear, lifeless Son, Jesus, just having been taken down from the cross.
The cross stunned me. While I had reflected many times on the image of Our Lady cradling Our Savior after he was taken down from the cross, now I was struck with the reality of what her feelings were. As my mother gently breathed her last on that cold Wisconsin morning, I was able to cradle her. Just as Mary, the Mother, held her Son, Jesus, thus did I, David, the son, cradle my mom as she ended her earthly journey.
Each time that I celebrate Mass in our parishes, I wear that white cross with the image of Mary and her Son. That image marks a definitive moment in the history of salvation and brings me closer to our Blessed Mother and to my own mom.
Each time that I wear that cross with the image of Mary and Jesus, I think of why it was such a sacred privilege to cradle my mom as she breathed her last. Those final moments with her have a profound symmetry:
- She “cradled” me in her womb from conception until my birth;
- She “cradled” me as I first saw the light of day;
- She “cradled” me through hunger and discomfort when I was an infant;
- She “cradled” me as I earned the nicks and bruises of a youngster at play;
- She “cradled” me through my successes and failures as I began the rigors of elementary school;
- She “cradled” me with encouragement as I went on my first date as a high-schooler;
- She “cradled” me as I took a step of faith by entering the seminary;
- She “cradled” me through all my doubts and questions as I moved through formation as a seminarian;
- She “cradled” me—the first to do so—the day I was ordained a priest;
- And finally, she “cradled” me just eight hours before she died as I thanked her for all she had done for me and she promised to watch over me from above.
Yes, 5:03 a.m. will always have a special and tender meaning for me. This is not only because of the last embrace between a son and his mother. That experience awakened in me a deeper appreciation of what happened between another Son and His Mom on the hill of Calvary. And for that awareness, I shall be ever grateful.
Isn’t that what it’s all about? As we breathe throughout our lives and at our last, we don’t go it alone. We are always in the tender embrace of our dear Savior and His Blessed Mother. That was a crucial lesson my mom taught me all throughout my life. I was blessed to have been able to return the favor over the years and at last at 5:03 a.m.
As we approach All Souls Day, in the midst of your busy schedules, don’t forget your loved ones. Perhaps you can go to Mass on that day, or visit where they are buried. Whatever you are able to do, let your heart be made tender by your memories.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let Your perpetual light shine on them. Amen! Alleluia!
Photo by Justin Merriman