The Perrys were a large family, ten children, who lived just across Route 95 from the former Sacred Heart Church in the Pleasant View section of Pawtucket. The children were very familiar to the priests in the rectory and to the Sisters of St. Joseph at the school. The two oldest boys, however, were rascals, raising the eyebrows of the priests and sisters as the two tykes terrorized Park Street. When I was transferred from Pawtucket to Ss. John & Paul in Coventry, by mere coincidence, the Perry family also moved to Coventry. The children grew up and went their own way but Betty Perry, the mother, always kept in touch even when I moved on to other parishes in Warwick and Pawtucket. In late summer, I received a call from the Perry family that Christopher, the oldest boy, had returned home from Texas, actually to die. Lung cancer had returned and his final days were near. Christopher told the family that he would like to see Father Kiley. The amused tolerance of the priests and sisters at Sacred Heart parish years before was not wasted. The faith had taken root.
It is quite a shock to see someone you recall as an hyperactive neighborhood teenager now a sixty-two year old man on his deathbed, deprived of hair and energy by his treatments for cancer. We spoke about his years in Texas, about deaths and losses that he had experienced over the years, and about his struggles with a terminal illness. Then I offered him the opportunity for confession, for the sacrament of the sick and for Holy Communion. He was understandably grateful to receive these sacraments, especially while he was fully aware of the solemnity of the moment and of the great grace of final preparation for eternity that God was granting him. After the prayers were concluded, Chris became quite thoughtful for a moment and then remarked to me, “I feel like I should do something.” What he meant, I am sure, was that he felt he should do something in return for God since God had been so good to him in granting him the Church’s final sacraments.
“Chris, we don’t have to pay God back for his blessings,” I tried to explain. “Everything is a grace,” I continued, “Everything is God’s free gift to us whether we deserve it or not.” “It’s not what we do for God but what God does for us that is most important. Be thankful for these precious moments that He has granted you. Enjoy God’s Presence.” Poor Chris was dead in two days and buried within the week.
It is entirely true that salvation is the free gift of God to his loved ones. It is the saving death of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s Cross that has opened the gates of heaven for all mankind. Redemption is something that mankind accepts, not something that mankind achieves. Nonetheless, having been saved and redeemed through the grace of God and the death of Christ, some response on the part of the converted soul is certainly appropriate and, in fact, beneficial. My grateful friend Chris felt like he “should do something,” but poor health denied him the opportunity. That is happily not true for most believers. Most believers can do something, not to save themselves, but to express their gratitude for being saved.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, the proud Pharisee brags of his achievements: his fasting, his tithing, his resistance toward greed, adultery and dishonesty. Clearly he views his own virtues and his lack of several vices as the primary cause of his justification. He has saved himself, so to speak. The humble publican, on the other hand, bent over in the rear of the Temple, cannot boast about any virtues. Rather, he clearly knows that God is the unique source of his salvation. His heartfelt prayer is “‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” He has no pretentions at all. Still, he can certainly do something for this God on whose goodness he relies. He can go to Temple. He can pray. He can admit his own unworthiness. He can make profound gestures of contrition and penance. The publican does not usurp the goodness of God as the Pharisee did; rather he responds to the goodness of God as all true believers must. Indeed, we all should feel like we “should be something.” But we should all do something in gratitude to God, not in gestures of self-importance.