I said my first rosary 35 years before I owned a rosary. It was at Lourdes in the summer of 1971, in the company of the mentor of my early years, Cesareo Pelaez, who celebrates his 77th birthday today. When I wrote a post summarizing my first seven weeks of blogging, it struck me that I hadn't written about a whole list of "Cesareo moments." Lourdes 1971 is the first that comes to mind.
Cesareo moments were times when, long before I was a Catholic, Cesareo taught me about Catholicism. He did this not to evangelize but because, until he was slowed by a stroke four years ago, Cesareo was always teaching—even when you didn't want to be taught! And since he was raised in a Cuban hothouse of Catholicism in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the Church and its culture tended to flow out of him like mother's milk. So if you traveled with him, as I did often in the early 1970s, you were forever seeing and hearing about Catholic stuff.
I thought about this yesterday when reviewing recent posts on Pat McNamara's excellent blog of Catholic history. I came upon Blessed Alexandrina Maria de Costa (left), and I thought, Cesareo told me about her, and I never believed him. What he told me was that a woman in Portugal had lived with nothing but the Holy Eucharist for food—for many years. I thought that sounded pretty far-fetched, and I stored it on my mental Catholic culture shelf somewhere between the Turin Shroud (in which I still choose to believe, despite evidence debunking it) and pieces of the True Cross (of which there are enough to reconstitute an entire redwood forest). I checked the dates in Pat's post: Blessed Alexandrina lived on the Eucharist alone from 1942 until her death in 1955. For Cesareo, this period spanned age ten to age twenty-three, or from before his confirmation until he was teaching at a Marist Brothers school in Santa Clara. Of course, any "phenomenon" like Blessed Alexandrina would have been bruited among the priests and nuns with whom Cesareo was in contact.
So, Lourdes—Cesareo and I traveled together for seven months in 1971, from February thru August. Sometime in May or June perhaps we arrived at this village on the French side of the Pyrenees. I'm sure there was a long build-up by Cesareo as our train snaked its way through the French countryside, but nothing could have prepared me for that experience. There are two episodes I most remember, one intimate, one grandly theatrical.
In 1971, there were in Lourdes, if memory serves, several hospitals or hospices for the care of invalids, thousands of whom come every year in hopes of a cure. On a beautiful late-spring day I was walking alone past one of these buildings when I noticed some kind of vehicle being unloaded and hospital sisters in full habits scurrying about. My attention must have been attracted, and I wandered closer when, suddenly, one of the sisters turned hopefully to me and asked, in French, if I could help for a moment. Mais bien sur! She gestured to follow her to the far side of the vehicle, then reached inside, and pulled out a child, whom she immediately placed in my arms, indicating that I was to carry the child up a flight of stairs. Attention à la tête! she said. Be careful of the head.
I looked down and only then fully realized what, I should say whom, I was facing. It was a hydrocephalic boy, with "water on the brain" and a terribly misshapen head. I was frankly shocked. But he was in my arms and there was only one place to go: up the flight of stairs. I cannot remember how much eye contact I made with the child, or whether I even said anything. I know I was trembling. I reached the top of the stairs and mercifully was met by another sister who quickly scooped the child from my arms with a simple Merci, monsieur. Feeling my own inadequacy and lack of charity more than anything else, I beat a hasty retreat. Nor did I "volunteer" again to help the invalids of Lourdes.
That evening, I said my first rosary. At least that's how I thought of it, though I was not holding beads and the rosary was said in French, with which I was only high-school-fluent. I did know the Our Father in French—Notre père, qui es aux cieux . . . —and could chime in pretty well every decade. But the Hail Mary was a work in progress. Yet none of the words mattered ultimately, because I was "saying my rosary" with (I'd estimate) twenty thousand other souls, most of whom held a candle as we processed together in front of the great church that has been built above the grotto where the Blessed Mother, referring to herself as the Immaculate Conception, appeared to St. Bernadette (left) in 1858.
I cannot reconstitute that experience enough to provide much more detail. I can only say that from that evening on, the rosary was impressed on my consciousness as something I wanted to experience more often. When your voice is joined with twenty thousand others, you understand that something far greater than you is praying when you say the words. There was a presence in the square in front of the church at Lourdes that evening, a presence I would pine for through many years to come.