Nineteen years ago Salvatore became known to the Department of Children and Families within hours of his birth. Salvatore’s mother was a young, unmarried, twenty year old who suffered a combination of mental health issues and low intelligence. For the first three months of Salvatore’s life, social services from both the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Mental Retardation provided round the clock supervision, support and training in an effort to help her learn parenting skills and to keep Sal safe.
Sadly, within three months, there was little doubt, she could not handle motherhood and Sal was placed in foster care. Sal was lucky, he was placed in one of the best foster homes in Connecticut. Louise, his foster mother was a unique woman. After raising four children of her own, she found her calling as a foster parent. She had over twenty years of experience and had fostered more than one hundred children. Salvatore was received into this large and loving home just two weeks before Christmas.
As I brought Sal into Louise’s home, it seemed as if everyone was excited. The children all cooed and ahed over the new baby as they excitedly asked questions. One of Louise’s adult daughters was there to care for Sal and the other children while Louise and I reviewed the paper work and signed Sal into her care.
As I left Louise’s home, all seemed good, except, I couldn’t help but wonder about her husband Andy. During my visit, he seemed removed and quiet. I wondered if he would bond with Sal. Then again, I could not blame him for being hesitant, after all, bringing a new child into their home meant more work at an especially busy time of year. Plus, at 60 years of age, the thought of this child being with him long term was overwhelming.
It was a week and a half later, when I received the phone call from Yale-New Haven Hospital. Sal had contracted a cold that had progressed into RSV and Sal needed to be hospitalized and placed in an oxygen tent until the antibiotics took effect.
It was four days before Christmas. A holiday that is busy for the average family, but for Louise and Andy, it was especially busy, as Louise hosted forty or more family members for a traditional Italian dinner and there was much work still to be done.
It was Andy who chose to stay with Sal in hospital while Louise remained home to care for the rest of the children and prepare for Christmas. On December 23rd, doctors decided Sal would need to stay in the hospital through Christmas. That day, I visited Sal in the pediatric ICU where Andy had now been camped out for three days.
When I saw Andy you could see he was exhausted. He had not been home except to grab a quick nap and shower. One could tell he had been up most nights trying to comfort Sal. Seeing how tired he was and the fact Christmas Eve was just a day away, I offered to give him a break. I offered to stay with Sal for awhile on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day so he and Louise could have a time together and be with their family. But Andy quickly refused, he was adamant, Sal was his child and needed him, and Andy would not leave Sal’s side unless Louise was there. He told me not to worry about Christmas, the family had decided to post-pone their festivities until Sal was home. As I left Yale-New Haven that afternoon, I found myself smiling. Where there had been doubt there was confidence. And I knew Salvatore would be one of the few lucky ones in the system. He would have a family for life. All because Andy let Sal into his heart.
As I of Andy, I think of Joseph, the foster father of Jesus. In this morning’s Gospel we received one of the rare glimpses of Joseph’s humanity. When Mary told him she was pregnant, Joseph did not take the news well. His first thoughts were typical of anyone who has been betrayed . . . to get out of the relationship and move on. As he thought about ending his relationship, Joseph had to decide how.
In ancient times there was a price to be paid for infidelity. If Joseph chose to make a public issue of Mary’s betrayal, Mary would face execution by stoning. But Joseph being a kind and compassionate person chose to keep the scandal quiet by simply sending Mary back to her family and to let her father or eldest male sibling decide her and the child’s fate.
This, however, was not God’s plan and in a dream the identity of the baby was revealed to Joseph. You can only wonder the sense of relief he must have felt knowing Mary was not crazy, she had not betrayed him and yes the child she was carrying truly was the direct offspring of the Holy Spirit.
You can also imagine how overwhelmed he must have felt. It is overwhelming enough to raise your own child. To take on the responsibility of holy offspring, to be the sole person responsible for his nurturing and protection, this brings being overwhelmed to a whole new level. And this was without knowing what we know. How within a year, he and Mary would have to leave their home in Nazareth and escape to Egypt to avoid King Herod’s wrath. They would have to tolerate Jesus sneaking off to the Temple for in depth conversations with the Pharisees and the Sadducees when he was only twelve. And yet, like Andy, once Joseph decided to accept God’s request, he committed 100 per cent.
As I reflect on these two foster fathers, I wonder what our walk with God would be like if we saw ourselves as being the primary caretakers of the Christ Child. In so many ways it would reverse how we perceive our role within the church. For too many years now, much of society has approached the church from a consumer perspective, believing the sole function of the church is to provide us with something. In all honesty, I fault the church for this. I can’t tell you how many times I have sat in parish growth meetings being asked to identify what our product is, as if being the church or salvation is a product we produce. Too often many of us come into the church expecting to get something out of it. While the truth we fail to realize, long before we even enter a church, is, we have already been offered and received its greatest products, divine mercy, salvation and eternal life.
Very rarely do we realize the price for these divine gifts are our very lives themselves. The price is a commitment to live into being Christ to the world, and to be the caretakers of the Church, the Body of Christ. The price, as Pope Francis has continued to remind the world, is to care for Christ by taking care of the poor, the sick and those in prison. The price is to devote ourselves to loving our neighbor as ardently as we love ourselves. The price, as Christ tells us, is to love our enemies.
As Louise and Andy learned early on, foster parenting is more about being flexible, heart ache, loss and commitment than it is about accolades and rewards. The same is true when caring for Christ. For Mary, the price paid was fear and reprisal for being pregnant out of wedlock, followed by the heart ache of watching her son die on the cross. For us it is often the criticism for speaking out against the systems of injustice which most accept as the only way while we work on behalf of the poor.
For foster parents there are few rewards beyond the satisfaction of knowing you have helped save a child from neglect and see that child grow into a productive and confident adult. Caring for Christ comes with the satisfaction of knowing one less child or family will go to sleep hungry at night, or suffer at the hands of oppression. Caring for Christ comes with the knowledge that this world can and will be a better place, and that we have a part in bringing the Reign of God closer to reality.