Arts and Culture

A Pandemic Gift

Screenshot of James Stewart as George Bailey, Donna Reed as Mary Bailey, and Karolyn Grimes as their youngest daughter Zuzu, in Frank Capra’s classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” 1946. (Photo: National Telefilm Associates/ Wikimedia Commons)

The experience of the pandemic is an experience that we should never forget and pray that we never have again. Probably for each of us, the experience has been in some way a learning experience. It probably forced all of us to reflect deeply on our lives and our relationships. I have come to believe that all of us are a product of our relationships — our relationships with God and with others. How people tried to stay in touch with their loved ones during the pandemic was very touching. The pandemic also may have stirred up some memories that, previous to the pandemic, were buried deep in our consciousness.

In the middle of the pandemic, I received in the mail the Spring 2020 issue of Xavier: The Magazine for Alumni, Parents and Friends of Xavier High School. It was like a gift. The magazine brought back memories of the four important years I spent at Xavier, the Jesuit high school on West 16th St. in Manhattan. The entire issue was like a blessing, but one essay was special. It was a history of the retreats that were a regular part of a Xavier education. Written by Gregory T. Steltzer, a 2011 graduate of the school who now is Xavier’s Director of Ignatian Service Programs and also teaches freshman and senior religion, the essay is both informative and inspiring.

A graduate of Fordham University and Boston College, Steltzer must have done an enormous amount of research in checking the history of retreats at Xavier, research into some documents that go back more than a hundred years. He writes the following:

“…the history of retreats at Xavier traces back to the school’s early years. An entry in the ‘Diary of the College of St. Francis Xavier: July 1853-June 1878’ indicates a four-day, in-school retreat taking place in October 1855. Later records and calendars indicate that the annual student retreat continued, taking place at the beginning of the school year — typically coinciding with the Mass of the Holy Spirit. One entry in September 1901 describes a Tuesday-Friday retreat with more than 600 boys present, concluding with confession and Mass followed by breakfast on Friday morning. An article in the 1937 edition of The Review describes an in-school retreat directed by … a Jesuit considered a prominent ‘high school retreat master.’ The article notes the importance of the retreat as a special time dedicated to the spiritual life of students to pray and consider their vocation.” (p. 19)

I made my Xavier senior retreat about 70 years ago, but the essay by Steltzer brought back some wonderful memories both of the retreat and my entire experience at Xavier. It was on the senior retreat that I decided to speak with a priest about whether I had a vocation to be a priest. I have heard that the pandemic has provided many people the opportunity to ask some serious questions about their lives. Steltzer’s essay helped me to be grateful for some wonderful high school experiences and some terrific human beings, classmates, and teachers, who have had a profound influence on my life. There are too many classmates to mention, but the presence of Jesuit Fathers Tom Matthews, Gerry Knoepfel, Vincent Taylor, and Coach Leo Paquin provided terrific role models. If I meet them in heaven, my first words should be “Thank you.”

The essay in Xavier also moved me to recall important relationships I have had since high school and especially relationships I have today. Probably because of my age, many friends called to ask how I was weathering the pandemic. I treasure my friends and their love for me, so very evident during the pandemic. It is one of the great blessings in my life. Many years ago, in a discussion about priests leaving the priesthood, someone asked me why I did not leave. Without a pause, I said, “I have been blessed with great friends.”

I agree with thousands of movie fans that Frank Capra’s classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring James Stewart, is one of the greatest films ever made. Capra thought it was the best he had ever made. He was right. The movie has everything: humor, great acting, wonderful plot and dialogue, and a marvelous message. I can never watch it, even though I have seen it countless times, without being moved to tears. Most wonderful is the film’s message that we don’t know how many people in our lives have influenced us positively nor how many we have influenced positively. In the climax of the film, George Bailey, portrayed beautifully by Stewart, who is tempted to believe his life has been a waste, discovers how many friends he has, how many people love him. He comes to understand that no man who has friends is a failure.

Steltzer’s essay and great memories helped me to see that, even in a pandemic, there are moments of grace!

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.