Payback Time: A Christmas Story
As an early Christmas present to faithful readers, I offer an old column, which originally appeared in the July 2001 issue of Catholic World Report, and was reproduced on this site, in slightly different form, five years ago.
This isn’t a Christmas story, except insofar as the climax occurred during the Christmas season. Still it’s appropriate for today. Some identifying details have been changed, but in every important respect this story is true.
Edna Costello was one of those irreplaceable women who seem to appear in every healthy parish. She was the most active member of the altar guild, the Rosary circle, the parish council, the Bible study, marriage preparation classes, the pro-life league, and the ladies' sodality. You could find her in church every morning, a half-hour before the early Mass. She would still be there for another hour after the Mass was over: making her thanksgiving, tidying up the pews, saying her Rosary, arranging flowers, making the Stations of the Cross.
During the day Edna did good deeds. If anyone in the parish was seriously ill, she would know within a matter of hours, and send flowers or visit the hospital room. She would bring meals to shut-ins and place phone calls to lonely widows. On a few occasions she even tactfully asked some of the wealthier members of the parish whether they could spare a few dollars for a family that that fallen behind on the mortgage payments. Then in the evenings, more often than not she would be back at church--in the basement, this time--for a meeting of one of the many parish organizations that she dominated.
Now if this description makes you think that Edna was a saint, you should realize that many--even most--of the parishioners found her insufferable. She certainly did have her faults. She could be a bit of a busybody. She was better at talking than listening. She was undeniably pushy. But no one would ever deny that Edna Costello tried her best to be a good Catholic. And because she was such a serious, active Catholic, many people followed her lead.
Take little Tommy Brown, for example. The Brown family lived just a few doors down from the little house where Edna lived after her husband's death. When he was just 12 years old, Tommy became intrigued by the sight of the little woman who marched past his front window every morning at 6:15, in rain or shine. "If she can go to Mass every day," he asked himself, "why can't I?" Soon he too was a fixture at the morning Mass. Tommy Brown was not alone. For every jaded neighbor who laughed up his sleeve when Edna began passing out holy cards, there was another more sensitive soul who would take the card, and begin to develop a habit of prayer.
The end approaches
Year passed, age took its toll, and Edna moved to a smaller home in another town. Within a matter of months she had become the backbone of a different parish. For years she carried out all the same functions in a new location.
Then at last, just before she reached the age of 90, Edna was diagnosed with cancer. She learned of the illness during Holy Week, and thought that was appropriate. She continued her usual activities for as long as she could, doing her best to ignore the mounting fatigue and pain. But on the day after Christmas she collapsed in church, and was rushed to the hospital.
The doctors were able to revive her, and for two days her condition steadily improved. But on the third morning she took a sudden turn for the worse, and the doctors realized that she had only a matter of hours to live. At Edna's insistence, the nurses began to look for a priest.
But there was a complication. A huge blizzard had hit the town that morning, and traffic was paralyzed. The local pastor had rushed out early in the morning, hoping to get a few last-minute errands done before the snow arrived; he had miscalculated, and was now stuck in a snowbank several miles away, unlikely to return before nightfall. No other priest lived close enough to the hospital to make it through the snow on time.
Edna was drifting in an out of consciousness, but when she was awake she was lucid. She was hounding the staff: "Have you found a priest for me yet?"
Fortunately, someone remembered hearing that a young priest, home for vacation during a year of study abroad, was staying at his sister's home just a few blocks from the hospital. The nurses tracked him down, and the young priest quickly agreed to come bring the sacraments to a dying woman.
When he entered the room, the priest saw a wizened little grey-haired woman asleep in her bed. He thought he would awaken her gently by whispering her name. But when he saw the name listed on the chart on the foot of her bed, he blurted it out aloud: "Edna Costello!"
Edna opened her eyes. "Oh, Father," she wheezed, "thank God you're here!"
"Thank God you're here," said Father Tommy Brown. "You're the reason I'm a priest!"
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