This past weekend I was working on the internet in the lounge of the Newman Center at the University of Arizona, where I am in residence. I was just getting ready to leave for an appointment when an 84 year-old parishioner whom I hadn't seen for several years because of my travels came over and said hello. I asked how his wife was, and he replied, "She died."
I felt terrible, but then discovered that she had died while the Dominicans were away at our assembly. The next day we made arrangements to get together Monday morning. I drove out to his house on the north side of Tucson. I heard his confession, and we talked for several hours. During the course of the conversation he confided to me that he was disappointed that in the two years prior to his wife's death due to Alzheimer's, none of the priests had contacted him, nor had any of the parishioners apparently missed them, even though they always sat in the same place at the same Mass. One former parishioner, a former sister and a nurse, had helped him care for his wife, often coming in to spell him or to give her some care that he was not able to do himself.
I was saddened by his story. He held no anger towards his community, only sadness. "How does something like that happen?" he asked. "Do we care so little for one another, or are we so privately engaged at Mass that it doesn't occur to us to know who we sit next to week after week?" I felt guilty because I hadn't noticed his absence, either, although my travels over the last two years may have meant that I didn't preside at the Mass they normally attended. Nor had it occurred to me to ask any of the parish staff how Bob and Nell (not their real names) were doing.
Sherry has written on this topic before, I know, but it is very troubling. The Newman Center is not a large community, by Catholic standards, and the Mass Bob and Nell attended is the smallest of the four to six offered on a weekend; perhaps 150 people attend. It's not like they were faces in a huge crowd.
Bob's struggle to care for his wife meant that he was often housebound. He has macular degeneration and cannot drive. The last two years were spiritually beneficial, as his prayer life improved. But he had to do it essentially alone. He commented that he was realizing how hard it is for him to express his faith, or to speak of his relationship with God to others, but that it was becoming easier. He said, "I'm not afraid of dying. I know God loves me, and He has supported me wonderfully through Nell's fading and death. I have to overcome my reticence of speaking about Him to others."
Bob is a wonderful man, and Nell, his wife, was a beautiful, holy woman. Their faithfulness to the practice of their faith, and to each other, were exemplary. How sad that they remained anonymous, and, essentially invisible, to what is generally described as a very friendly, welcoming Catholic community.
How have we arrived at this state of affairs, in which we our actions indicate we'd join with Cain in asking, "Am I my brother's keeper?"