On May 21st, 2016 my wife Jean and I traveled to Philadelphia where she and 2 friends from the first grade at St. Rita's Catholic School in Philadelphia attended Mass at the Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia on her feast day, May 22. A third friend, unable to make the Mass at the Shrine, was able to join us at a restaurant for lunch.
These 4 friends have communicated with each other over the years, despite distance, illness, deaths or personal misfortune, by mail or phone calls and by visits to each other's homes.
Jean and her friends have been faithfully visiting the Shrine for 81 years. When one of the group cannot join the others at the Shrine (as when Jean was overseas) the others send her a packet of dried leaves of the St. Rita roses blessed at the Shrine on her feast day. It is a prayerful and joyous occasion, one that we hope to continue for as long as we can, despite Jean's Alzheimer's disease.
Long trips like this are not easy on people with Alzheimer's disease, because just getting out of the house presents a host of new sights, sounds and images that are unfamiliar and disorienting. Deciding what to wear, packing, going through airport security and navigating the new environment of a hotel room present challenges. But Jean is determined to see these long-standing friends and she has a bit of trust in me to handle the details. Yet it is a struggle for her to place these unfamiliar things in their proper context. However, once at the Shrine on Broad Street in Philadelphia and the site of her elementary school, Jean was in familiar territory and was able to, at least partially, feel in charge of the situation.
What was new on this trip was a short interview with a local newspaper complete with a photograph of the four friends, arranged by the daughter of one of the 4. After all, 81 years of continued friendship undisturbed by serious, lasting disagreements is worthy of note.
The article appeared in the Daily News in Philadelphia a day or so after we left Philadelphia. Jean loved the photo and the comments the reporter made but felt the reporter had missed an essential point. The reporter commented on the marvel of such a long-lasting and untroubled friendship and wondered if this tight bond of friendship had anything to do with allowing these women to live into their late eighties.
What Jean thought was lacking was an appreciation of what had been taught to these women from the first grade at St. Rita's Catholic School. Jean and the others had grasped early on that there is a loving God revealed by Jesus and witnessed by St. Rita and other saints throughout the centuries. That this faith required them to acknowledge God's love for each other by offering their praise to Him and loving their neighbors, their friends, indeed everyone, in the way that God loves them. Perfect charity means that we will the good of the other regardless of any cost to us. That is what Jesus did for us.
There were some uncomfortable moments when one of Jean's friends offered some resistance to have an article written about them because of her strong sense of humility. "Our long-standing friendship need not be touted as something extraordinary". There were discussions among the 4 friends, and quietly and beautifully, the resistance was dropped, and interview and photograph embraced.
This admirable friendship has lasted because these four women understand that Christian charity means “willing the good of the other regardless of personal cost”.