“Blessed are they who mourn, they will be comforted” (Matthew 5, 4)
I had just finished lunch when I got an urgent request from Rosa to visit her son Alex who was ill in hospital.
At the time I was in charge of a sprawling parish on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile, and Rosa was the leader of the newest and smallest of the seven Catholic communities under my care.
Her community consisted of twenty-five families, the poorest of the poor. They knew they could become homeless at any given moment, because they were squatters who had built their little wooden homes on farmland to which they had no title. Moving their house would be no great problem. They could dismantle it and re-assemble it again in half a day. The problem would be finding a place to locate.
Rosa was a born leader who had organized the 25 families into a self-help community. The women held monthly meetings, in a different home each month, to plan how to raise funds for the needy days of winter when their sons and husbands would have no work on the land.
When I first met them, I realized they also wanted to be true to their Catholic Faith, so we organized a second monthly meeting devoted to reading the Bible, and sharing how they tried to put their Faith into practice in daily life. Rosa again showed herself to be a leader in this reflection, as she shared how she saw the hand of God in her life from her troubled childhood to the present day. At this time Rosa was married, with four children. Alex, her oldest son, was about 22 years of age.
When I received Rosa’s request to visit her son Alex in hospital, I got the Holy Oils and took the bus to the hospital in downtown Santiago.
When I got to the hospital, there seemed to be confusion about where Alex was located, but eventually a nurse led me down a long corridor to a quiet part of the hospital where Alex was alone in a little room, apparently in quarantine.
Rosa’s message had said that Alex was suffering from pneumonia. When I saw him he seemed to be in a deep sleep, but I soon realized, on speaking with the nurse, that Alex was not only very ill. He was dying.
Rosa soon joined me in the hospital. She prayed with me while I administered the Sacrament of the Sick, and afterwards I was able to observe how she, as a mother, ministered to the needs of her dying son.
She spoon-fed him when he was able to swallow. She moistened his dry lips. She cooled his fevered brow with a damp cloth, and always had gentle words to soothe him when he became restless or agitated.
This continued for another three days, until Alex finally breathed his last.
I was there with the family for the prayers at the moment of death, and Rosa concluded the ceremony with a farewell kiss for her dead son.
The wake at their little home was traumatic, and I recall Alex’s younger brother tearfully beating on the casket with his bare hands as if he hoped to wake his brother from the sleep of death.
The next day the whole community travelled to the cemetery, where Alex’s casket was sealed in its niche, in the customary form of interment in Chile.
I wondered what I could say to Rosa afterwards, in an effort to console her in her great loss. She must have sensed my uneasiness, for she smiled gently and said to me: “Father, I don’t need to be consoled. God has been very good to me. I have been with my son Alex for the past week, and have been able to care for him in a way I have not done since he was a baby. I was able to feed him, to ease his pain and to hold his hand as he passed from this life. These are things our Blessed Mother was not able to do for her Son, as she watched him die on Good Friday. So I feel privileged that God has given me these memories to ease the pain”.
I feel privileged to have known Rosa. I have been enriched by her faith. She lived her Good Friday with faith and dignity. Her simple words on how she attended her dying son are living proof that love, fragile as it may seem, can still outlive the power of death itself. (Song of Songs 8, 6)