The Blessed Mother and Me
O God, you have taught me from my youth. Psalm 71
My older sister attended St. Ann's Academy, a well-recognized Catholic Girls Schools in my hometown of Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania. The Academy was open to boys from Kindergarten to 6th grade, at which point, for boys, puberty was on the horizon, 7th grade was to be taken elsewhere, allowing the girls to finish their education undistracted by non-academic concerns.
My sister was doing well in St. Ann's so it seemed appropriate to my parents to enroll me in St. Ann's 1933 Kindergarten Class. I didn't thrive at St. Ann's, so my parents transferred me to a public school after second grade. Thus ended my parochial school career.
I only remember four things in my few years at St. Ann's: my stammering made me an object of abuse and ridicule on the part of some of the boys in classes ahead of me. In the second grade, when it was my turn to read before the class, I finished with a sigh of relief that I didn't stammer too much, and that I had finished, a minor triumph for me. I stood in front of the class somewhat pleased with myself only to hear the teacher say slowly, "Robert that was very, (pause) very (pause as I waited for the word 'good') -- poor". I walked back to my seat thinking she is wrong, I thought that for me, that was pretty good.
The other two things I remember had relevance to my Catholic faith. In the first grade, at recess, I walked the grounds and found myself in the convent's cemetery, with headstones, flowers and in the center a larger-than-life, realistic statue of Christ on the cross. I was frightened and turned away. I could not imagine that the cross and the figure on it had anything to do with my life.
And later in the second grade, dressed in a suit with hands folded and eyes reverently downcast I walked back to the pew after receiving my first holy communion, wondering why I didn't feel any different after having received the Host and why the Sisters proclaimed that reception of communion would transform me.
Becoming the disciple Christ wants us to be is the work of a lifetime. Being born into an observant Catholic family and being baptized is a wonderful start, but much more is required. God does lead, teach and instructs us from our youth as the Psalm says. As with so many, the one who led me (and continues to lead me) to Christ was the Blessed Mother.
God's remedial education for me began with a ship.
At three years of age I was enthralled by a model of the Santa Maria, the flagship of Columbus, sitting on the mantle of my Grandmother's home. We lived there for a time so I saw it everyday but was forbidden to touch it. (I did find a way to touch it once or twice). Canvas sails with a red cross on the mainsail and the detailed rigging gripped my imagination. I thirsted for a model of the Santa Maria of my own but never found one that equaled the Santa Maria in my grandmother's home. Saying the name of the ship, "Santa Maria", became a joyuful boyhood refrain.
My next clear remembrance of God's gentle tugs was through the years of elementary and high School. My bedroom was on the third floor, so every day passing through the second floor on my way down, I passed a statue of the Blessed Mother on a small table in the hallway. That image radiated tenderness, warmth and love that thereafter pulled me toward the Blessed Mother whenever questions arose or trouble loomed.
It was the blessed Mother that set me on a path that led me to finally recognize in her Son, Jesus, the same qualities of warmth, tenderness and love I perceived in her. I no longer recoiled from the cross but embraced it, at first tentatively, then more completely as my relationship to Jesus deepens.
It is remarkable it took so many years for me to realize that "Santa Maria", the Italian translation of "Holy Mother", is the beginning of the second part of the Hail Mary, andthat my desire for the ship on my grandmother's mantle was God's loving way of telling me where to start my journey to Him.
And now, as my life approaches its end, I find myself at peace in my home parish, Queen of the Holy Rosary.