The Rest of the Week

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The Rest of the Week

Tuesday, 11:15 a.m.

The nameplate on my office door reads Father Andrew Nelson, but it is not mine. Its letters are carefully etched to convey the most basic of information, the identity of its holder, yet my door is not the first upon which it has hung. Proudly with three simple words it proclaims to whom it belongs, yet somehow it conceals something much deeper, a shared history, a forgotten past, and a link forged in the irons of faith and the shadow of grief.

Every year in early Spring, there is a time when the air is tinged with renewal, a time when the melodic hymn of the songbirds begins to fill the air and when the sun seems to linger just a little bit longer. It was on such a day that I received the most curious of emails, one that caught my eye as I forged my way through a virtual mountain of correspondences that greets me at the start of each week. Somehow, this email was different from the rest. It did not ask anything of me, or cause me to look at my appointment calendar, or use gimmicks to get my attention like the countless spam messages that plague us all. Rather, this message told a remarkable story of discipleship, service and a quaint kindness and friendship that seems at times to belong to a forgotten age. 

The email began “Dear Fr. Nelson, You don’t know me and I suspect this email will strike you as strange, but I do hope you will grant me a few minutes of your time.” My interest was piqued and so, curious, I read on. “I want to tell you about a dear friend of mine who has recently passed. He was a man of deep and abiding faith.” 

What unfolded in the pages of that email was a beautiful story from a kind and gentle woman of faith who for decades worked in a little parish in the Midwest. Like so many in parishes across the country, this woman did it all. She was parish secretary, taught CCD, organized socials and did all that was needed to help the Church, carrying out the work of discipleship, humbly and with great love. But the woman was not writing to tell me her story. She was writing to tell me about her friend, a kind and gentle priest who, after many years of service, recently succumbed to cancer. 

The woman had written because her priest had so touched her heart that his passing left a hole. She shared in the email, and the phone call that would follow, the stories of his kindness and how as a humble priest he had recognized the dignity of every person, making time for the forgotten, the suffering and the marginalized. She told of his work as a hospital chaplain and the great comfort he brought to the dying, and his work in the parish and the extraordinary beauty of the many ordinary days. She told of the laughter they shared, and the way he had ignited the light of faith in her heart and how he never pointed to himself, but rather always to the God he loved and served so faithfully.

Our conversation that spring day unfolded against the normal craziness of a morning in the parish office. With the emails lined up on the computer, the mail bin overflowing on my desk, and the office staff patiently circling at the door, I sipped a cup of tea, as an email transformed into a phone call and two strangers briefly became friends. The woman who had faithfully served her parish in life, served her pastor in death. As he grew old in years, and as his health took a turn, she faithfully brought him to doctors’ appointments and treatments. A man who by virtue of his priesthood, would never have children of his own to care for him in his final years, had a family nonetheless that cared for him, a woman moved by the example and service of her priest, who walked with him to death, just as he had walked with her to new life.

In the aftermath of death’s dark shadow, the woman’s journey took an unexpected turn that would connect her by chance, luck, and I dare suggest grace to another priest, in another parish, up near the corner of the continent. As she cleaned her pastor’s office, undoubtedly with tears in her eyes, the woman I spoke with told me how she came across the nameplate that had adorned his door, and how she could not bear to throw it away. It simply meant too much. He meant too much. For her, the name Fr. Andrew Nelson meant so much that she embarked on a nationwide search to find another Catholic priest, at another parish, with the same name as her former pastor, her friend. 

She wanted, in a little way, for his memory and his name to live on. Three days after our conversation a small padded envelope arrived in the mail with a nameplate in it. The nameplate simply read “Fr. Andrew Nelson.” The name it proclaims is not mine alone, nor is the priesthood that we shared. I do not know if I will ever live up to the heroic virtue that the other Fr. Andrew Nelson showed in life, or if I will be able to live and die with the same profound grace and dignity that he did. 

What I do know is what every priest knows. Namely, that the beauty of priesthood and the power of God’s grace are matched only by the beauty, faithfulness and devotion of God’s people.

In the end, the most important name we all share is not the one found on a nameplate, but the common identity we share by virtue of our baptism: Christian and Disciple.

R.I.P., Fr. Andrew Nelson, and until we meet, may I be worthy of the names we share.

Father Andrew Nelson is the pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish, Somersworth, and St. Mary Parish, Rollinsford.