Ages ago, long before it was considered proper to call priests by their first names and when honorifics were on every child’s tongue, we called father Richard Bollea “Dick,” for he was a member of the family who, at an early age and listening to the whisper in the whirlwind, heard the call to the priesthood.
By the 1950’s, it had been common for more than century for males in a family to become priests. The families that gave their children to the church usually were large. Just before the Civil War, the Mother Superior of a convent in Boston who had faced down a mob that threaten to burn down the papists convent was a member of a large family. In a second round of anti-Catholic violence, after the nun had told the now whiskey fortified mob to “disburse immediately or the bishop of Boston,” who had the requisite forces at his command, “will push you into the sea,” the drunken mob did burn and sack the convent. They had been incited by Lyman Beecher, the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a powerful Unitarian preacher who had delivered an impassioned sermon to the then sober protestants of Boston, ever aflame with ineradicable anti-Catholic prejudices, the oldest in the country, according to historian Arthur Schlesinger.
This fierce and poisonous prejudice, locked into the DNA of the nation -- in the revolutionary period, the hoi polloi of Boston regularly celebrated “pope’s day,” during which an effigy of the pope was paraded through the streets and pelted by celebrants -- had long since abated by the time Dick was shipped off to Paris, where he studied.
He was admitted to the priesthood in 1962 and, when we next saw him, bore a new honorific before his last name, Father Bollea, a title that seemed a bit cumbersome to members of his family and his closest friends. My brother Jim had married Dick’s sister, and so his friends and his now extended family called him “Father Dick,” reserving honorifics – mister, miss, missus and, in the case of nuns, sister – for everyone else at a time when even town drunks were crowned by children with their proper proletarian titles.
Father Dick’s last priestly assignment was as chaplin in Waterbury Hospital and Coordinator of the Hospital Apostolate for the Archdiocese of Hartford, where he consoled the sick and dying for many years. God, who does work in mysterious ways, had deposited my wife and me in Malta on the day Father Dick died. Owing to the fierce storm that ravaged Connecticut, in combination with my own stupidity – I had left behind my cell phone battery charger – we learned of his death only on our return a few days later. On the day Father Dick’s painful death, my wife and I had entered Saint John’s splendidly appointed 17th century baroque style co-cathedral in Valetta, Malta, a church richly adorned by the Knights of Saint John of Malta, first hospitalists and later fierce warriors. The church was commissioned in 1572 by Grand Master Jean de la Cassière as the conventual church of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John.
From the Middle Ages to the present day, Malta had been recognized as Europe’s hospital. In the dark days of the Second World War, it’s world renowned hospital received and cared for allied troops crushed in the fierce gears of the bloodiest of centuries. And so it seemed appropriate, entering this cathedral, to offer a prayer and light a candle to Father Dick who, while far less favorably situated than the wealthy knights, was never-the-less engaged in the same good works.
The beauty of the cathedral was overpowering. Everywhere were gilded walls, magnificent paintings and statues of one or another Knight of Malta. The tombs in the floor where many of the knights were buried were decorated with wondrous hand crafted marble tiles that put before the viewer each knight’s narrative.
But all the splendor of the cathedral was dwarfed, even in the days of the Knights of Malta, by the small and modest Byzantine icon of the Blessed Virgin, The Philermos Madonna, said to have been written by St. Luke and housed in Malta from 1530 to 1798. It was in memory of this less resplendent holy icon that we lit a candle in the co-cathedral of the hospitaliers and said a prayer that She who receives the petitions of the poor banished children of Eve might show tenderness to a man and priest who had dedicated the last years of his life to the poor and suffering.