What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Cardinal

The cardinals have migrated to the Vatican, roosting in the Sistine Chapel to pick a new Bishop of Rome. The closest I’ve come to a cardinal is watching redbirds through my kitchen window. But I have met a bishop, the Most Rev. John Donovan, who stood before the altar of St. Ann Church in the spring of 1967 to confirm me as a soldier for Jesus. I was 9 years old and seeing red, and not because of the scarlet robe the bishop was wearing.

My classmates and I had prepared for weeks. I had somehow messed up two years earlier on my First Communion Day – according to Sister Margaret Mary, God sent rain that day because we second-graders had been disobedient – so I wanted to get my Confirmation Day right.

Everything I needed to know – the answers to our 103 catechism questions – was contained on the sheets Mrs. Gabel had mimeographed and stapled into my yellow catechism folder. The bishop would quiz us during the service, as he would the confirmands at all the parishes in the diocese, and we didn’t want to be the class that disappointed him … or her.

I intended to prove myself worthy. I carried my folder home every day. I wore its cover thin from studying those questions: Who is God? What is man? Name the 12 apostles. The 7 sacraments. The 10 commandments. I learned every answer, word for word, even the hard sacrament (Extreme Unction). I could impress Bishop Donovan with my knowledge of papal history: The first pope was Peter, picked by Jesus when he said, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.”

We packed the front pews on Confirmation Day, brimming with maturity. We girls had traded our wide-ribboned hats for lacy triangular veils, our white anklets for nylon stockings. I stood on my black patent toes to see Bishop Donovan at the end of the procession of altar boys, Father Mayer and the other parish priests. I rose and knelt and sang and responded through the liturgy until His Excellency came around the altar and descended the steps to stand before us. I sat upright, my hand ready to shoot up. It was quiz time.

He posed his first question: “What is the greatest commandment?”

Greatest commandment? I mentally flipped through my folder. I didn’t remember the commandments being ranked. I glanced around, hoping someone else knew the answer.

A hand went up. “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not have any other gods before me?” It was more a question than an answer, but a good choice. God put that commandment first, so it must be the most important.

But it wasn’t.

Another brave soul ventured: “Honor thy father and mother.”

He probably got points with his parents but not with the bishop.

The next guess, “Remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy,” was another great choice – we were sitting in church after all – but still wrong.

All good commandments, the bishop assured us, but not the greatest.

After much coaxing, he eventually got some version of the answer he wanted: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.”

“Now,” the bishop continued. I sat up for the next question, glad the hard one was out of the way. “What’s the second greatest commandment?”

What? Another ranking? If we didn’t know the greatest, how could we know the second greatest?

By some miracle, and a lot more coaxing, someone eventually got it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I hoped the bishop was finally ready to ask a question from our catechism folder – he had 103 to choose from. Instead, he turned and climbed back to the altar. The service was moving on.

That’s why I was mad as my name was announced and I stood before him. After weeks of preparation to understand our faith and show the bishop what we’d learned, we never got the chance.

I hoped Mrs. Gabel wouldn’t yell at us on Monday. We knew our prayers and creed and the difference between mortal and venial sins, even our state of original sin thanks to Adam and Eve and the serpent. It wasn’t our fault the bishop only cared about love.

Comments

  1. Lee-What an incredible memory you have! All I remember about Sister Margaret Mary was she was the reason we went to public school. Her diagnosis today would probably be dementia.

    • Lee Lueck says:

      Another memory, one that didn’t make the story, was that you were mad because I got to wear stockings the same year you did, even though you were a year older. Thanks for not holding it against me, my dear big sister!

      • I do remember that and I no longer hold it against you. I’m with dad. He got a kick out of your story. Looking forward to seeing you soon.

  2. Eric Disney says:

    I love this, Lee–how often we get caught up in all the details, legalities and “facts” that rule our lives and forget about that big, fat, uncontrollable and intangible concept that permeates [or should] our very souls as we relate to Him and each other–very nicely stated. “What’s love got to do with it?”–everything.

  3. Good old Sr. Margaret Mary. Sorry I do not remember any of this. Only who your sponsor was.

    • Lee Lueck says:

      Yes, so much I had to leave out. Grandma and Grandpa had come from Cleveland with a bunch of presents for me!

  4. Laurie Orlow says:

    This is one of your best, Lee! That title and last line are fabulous. I loved the way you told this story and the message behind it. Craig’s cardinal, when he appears outside my window, will now remind me both of the Vatican gathering and of your experience with the bishop in red.

  5. Elizabeth Koehler says:

    I love it when little nuggets of truth make their way to the surface like this and stay in your heart for years to come. Great story!

    • Lee Lueck says:

      Thanks, Liz. Sadly, what stayed with me for 40+ years was the memory of my anger. Once I began writing the story I saw the way I played into the manipulations of my well-meaning (I think) teachers and how the bishop refused to play.

      • Laura Saleh says:

        Great story, great writer! (So glad I found this blog!)Thanks for reminding us we can always learn lessons even from our past, and even at our age!!

  6. Love this, Lee. What a wonderful testimony. Thanks for sharing it with us. :)