I do not travel now as much as I used to when I served at the Vatican. Besides the annual holiday to Mumbai which I looked forward to, – the Vatican reflected Mother Church’s maternal concern and care for its workers by adding four days to our vacation to recover from jet lag – there were Pan Asian Conventions that I had to organise as an official for Asia, that took me to Japan, Korea and the Philippines more than once. That meant a lot of hard work before, during and after these events: before to plan the event with all its details; during to supervise its smooth execution; after to write up the Reports and compile the Acts, as they used to be called.
Travelling long distances from Rome, meant changing aircraft and stopping at departure lounges while in transit. I recall watching passengers waiting at the departure lounge. All that they had, generally speaking, was their hand baggage as they looked at the screen to check on their departure and listen to announcements to begin boarding procedures. We were in transit. We arrived. We met. We departed. Perhaps never to meet again!
Today, grounded as I am as a missionary on loan from Mumbai to Wrexham, I hardly fly except for the much awaited holiday home. My imagination this morning thought of other departure lounges. I recalled the Homes for the Elderly both here which I visit every week and also the Homes back in Mumbai. The residents here and there are in a departure lounge. They are passengers in transit on their journey from time to eternity. I have always been impressed by the Homes for the Elderly run by the Little Sisters of the Poor who were founded by St. Jeanne Jugan, having visited their Homes in Mumbai, Rome and Florence. As part of my formation, I recall going to their Home in Mumbai regularly as a seminarian to give the elderly gents a hair cut and remember how amused I was once, when the elderly gentleman said: “Brother, can you please give me a St. Anthony hair cut?” I had to muster all my resources of tonsorial touch and creativity to meet his request making sure that what I left on his head was better than when I began work on it! We also paired their finger and toe nails, gave them a shave and a shower and tidied up their little lockers.
Vessels retain for a long time the flavour of things first put into them. Earthenware vessels particularly. I have always retained the flavour of that formation ministry. I make it a point every time I visit Mumbai to drop in at the Home run by the Little Sisters at Mahakali Caves Road, Andheri East, in the suburbs. The Sisters have a gentle graciousness and silent simplicity about them. They are one congregation that has never diversified but have remained steadfast and strong to their original charism. They live on charity and comb various sections of the locality begging for and living on alms. To start with, they are little. And they are Little sisters of the poor. I would like in my sunset years to retire in their Home. These Sisters are not just qualified and experienced nurses. They do not merely look after the physical and medical needs of the elderly residents. Even more, they are attentive with consummate delicacy to the spiritual stirrings of their soul. They are always at the bedside of the dying supporting and accompanying them with their prayer no matter what the hour, day or night. No resident in their Home ever dies alone or abandoned. They count themselves blessed to be in this departure lounge preparing the elderly for their final journey.
There are so many departure lounges in our world. The “passengers” in this case are not necessarily those who reside in Homes or Hospitals. I am thinking of those who are terminally ill; those house bound or bed ridden; those lost and lonely living on their own; those, as the song goes, who have ‘no one to cry to and no one to say ‘goodbye’ and no one to tell their troubles to’. Are we all not, whether sick or healthy, in a departure lounge everyday? We arrive. We meet. We depart, perhaps never to meet again! We need to make the last journey happy for others. No one really knows when that last journey will be. All that we know is that we are in the departure lounge together and in transit, ready to fly when the “boarding procedures” are announced!