Snapshots of family and friends taken over the decades, some dating back to the 1960s, lie in small packets in my desk drawer. From time to time I take them from their envelope to look again at those familiar faces. Most are smiling, and you can almost hear them responding to the command, “Say cheese!” About half, though, are no longer physically present in this world, and so I like to see them in my mind’s eye as smiling in the presence of the God who has received them.
Among the oldest of the snapshots are two of my parents, taken when they visited me at the Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville, Pa. We made an afternoon excursion to nearby Hawk Mountain, where each fall thousands of hawks circle high in the currents of air as they begin their annual migration southward. Binoculars over her shoulder, my mother stands looking directly at my camera. My father stands apart, adjusting his own binoculars, while other visitors nearby gaze upward at the dozens of gliding hawks. Behind the group rises a grove of trees whose golden leaves still stand out even in the now-faded color of the snapshot.
The modest collection is divided not only chronologically, but also according to places where I have worked as a Jesuit. Some photos show people met during my assignment at St. Aloysius parish in Washington, D.C. The surrounding neighborhood includes a low-income housing development called Sursum Corda (“Lift up your hearts”), words from the opening dialogue of the preface of the Latin Mass. It was bestowed on the development partly because of the involvement in its creation of Horace McKenna, a Jesuit whose ministry among the poor has led to his reputation as a saint.
One St. Aloysius snapshot shows Pauline Belt, an African-American resident at Sursum Corda, seated in the church’s little social hall.
The photo is in a glass display case there, near a hand-drawn crayon picture of Horace done by one of the homeless men he served. Pauline was old then, and now is with God. Sursum Corda, designed as a model inner-city village with trees, open spaces and units with five bedrooms for large families, is facing its own death as real estate developers close in with plans that have already displaced many low-income residents.
Other social hall snapshots show two African-American men nattily dressed for the Easter Vigil. A nun who worked at a facility for persons with AIDS had brought them to St. Aloysius that evening. The date on the back is 1991, and the inscription also notes that these two men died soon afterward. An earlier picture shows the sister, Lenore Benda, S.S.J., with two other men for whom she was also a source of support and encouragement.
But not all these small photos are in the social hall or my desk drawer. Some I keep before me, in a frame propped against a plant by the window to the left of the computer where I sit typing these words in my office at America House. One shows two of my dearest friends, both members of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, taken during a trip to the order’s retirement home in Albany, N.Y. The older, then in her 80s, sits in an easy chair. The much younger sister stands beside her. And yet it was the younger who died first, of cancer, not yet 50 years old. I feel that although physically gone, they are with me still as they look out from the snapshot meeting my every glance.
And so it is with the increasing number of pictures of loved friends who are now alive with God.