He came to Mass every Sunday at nine o’clock.
He and his 20-something-year-old son sat in the pew in front of us, and somehow we always wound up behind them.
His son had severe autism and sometimes wore headphones to help deal with the crowd and the noise.
On Thanksgiving weekend I shook hands with him at the sign of peace and told him how grateful I was for his weekly witness, how it heartened my husband and me as we dealt with our children (the 10-, eight-, seven- and four-year-old always seemed to turn into talkative squirrels at Mass). He had never complained and always beamed a great smile at the sign of peace. “See you next week,” I said. He nodded.
Owing to schedules, we didn’t make it to our normal Mass time for four weeks in a row; when we finally did get back to our usual schedule, Father gave a homily about the silent witness of a father having brought his 25-year-old son to Mass every Sunday.
My husband and I exchanged looks as we both noted the absence of our friend at that Mass. It couldn’t be him — yet how could it not? How many other fathers did we know who dependably brought their adult sons to the nine o’clock Mass?
I worked up the nerve to ask Father, and our instincts were confirmed; we wouldn’t be seeing him at coffee and donuts in the parish hall anymore. My husband and I mourned a friend we’d only known on Sunday, a friend whose name we didn’t even know but from whose witness we had drawn such strength.
Each week I find myself searching, to see if someone else is bringing that young man, his son, to Mass.
Who explained to the son left behind? Who else understood the hole in his son’s life, so eloquent in our view of that empty pew? The father left a hole in our parish, and in our family, because that strong witness that so-heartened us with its constancy was now revealed in fullness by its very absence.
As a parent of a son with special needs, I know how hard it must have been to get his son ready on time, week after week, year after year, but this man had done it. I know we’ve fallen prey, on occasion, to considering that the son we struggle with doesn’t really need to be there, that if we were to take a split squad to church and keep him home, our lives will be easier.
But the testimony of the shepherds and kings is this: “they showed up.” They came when they heard Christ was born, not because it was easy to get to the stable but because they wanted more than anything to be there.
Our nameless friend honored his faith and his son’s by bringing him to church, even when the son shouted out; even when the father felt tired; even when it was cold or difficult. I don’t think we get the easy out anymore, and I owe the weeks and months and years ahead of masses in no small part to this father’s work.
In the Catholic church, there are three populations: the Church militant (those here on earth working out the witness of their faith), the Church suffering (those in purgatory, already saved but not yet fully) undergoing purification for sins, and the Church triumphant (those in the full presence of Christ). Saints are those in the third category, and known saints are those who, through their lives lived, pulled others closer to Christ.
This father, with whom I’d spoken with only to wish peace during Mass, and in that other brief conversation the week before he died, left behind more than an empty place in the pew. He made sure the pew behind his will be fuller.
Merry Christmas, my friend. I pray you have heard the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I hope to one day see you again, so I can say, “Thanks for always showing up. You were a good shepherd to the family behind you.”
Sherry Antonetti is a former special educator and currently a freelance writer and mother of 10. She writes at Catholicmom.com and her blog, Chocolate for Your Brain. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.