Even though it happened more than a decade back, I remembered the event with all its minute details. I had arrived from Mumbai at Fiumicino airport in Rome. The Oblates of St. Joseph with whom I lived were there to welcome me warmly. I checked out with my bags on the luggage trolley and got into the car. After about an hour’s drive we reached the Generalate of the Oblates along Via Boccea. I had hardly stepped into my little room when there was a telephone call from the airport police inquiring whether a certain Don Alex Rebello lived here. When I went to answer the call at the reception, the officer told me that I had left behind on the tray of the trolley my pouch. It contained my passport, my Vatican tessera (ID card), my soggiorno or residential permit and some money.
I began to perspire as my pulse raced. Back we had to rush to the terminal. The pouch by then had been handed over to the airport tribunal. They asked me to identify the contents of the pouch which I did. They then handed the pouch with its contents and admonished me to that I ought to be more careful particularly at Fiumicino where there are always crooks and culprits on the prowl. I heaved a sigh of relief and thanked them profusely for their kindness. But I wanted to know who was the kind and alert police officer who detected my unattended pouch in the trolley tray. It was stunningly gorgeous Giovanna. Before leaving the tribunal office I went up to her and asked her what I could give her for so great a kindness. “Un bacetto (a little kiss)” she responded smiling with typical Italian friendly humour, as the airport tribunal burst into laughter. I readily agreed and obliged!
As I recalled this near tragedy which had a happy ending, I pondered. My pouch contained precious documents no doubt. But what could be more precious than my soul? The words of Jesus in the gospel came to mind. “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and suffers the loss of his soul?” (Mark 8:36). This was the challenge with which Ignatius posed Xavier that brought about a dramatic conversion. I needed the tessera no doubt to enter the Vatican. A duplicate of that card could always be issued by the Secretariat of State. But, more importantly, I need to carry always the tessera of goodness and love to enter heaven. I cannot afford to lose it because it cannot be duplicated. Once lost, my unrepentant soul could neither be retrieved nor replaced. The tessera I hold at the moment of death is what I carry from time into eternity.
I lost my pouch in a moment of forgetfulness. Forgetfulness is a lack of awareness. I am inclined to think that to live a healthy and happy human and spiritual life three things are necessary: awareness, awareness and awareness. No. The triple repetition is neither a mistake nor a printer’s devil! It only indicates for emphasis how aware and alert we need to be always. It would have been a very costly moment had the episode turned out differently. A moment of forgetfulness is already bad; it is far worse when these moments drag on, to make us suffer from spiritual amnesia. I need to be always sober and alert and stand firm in faith remembering that “the devil is on the prowl like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). It is just when we are not alert and attentive that the devil takes advantage of our lack of vigilance to lure us to evil. Is not vigilance the price of freedom?
How could I ever forget the goodness of Giovanna? One might dismiss her goodness by stating that as a police officer at the airport, she merely did her duty. But did she not do much more than that? In tracing me, in more senses that one, she saved me, for were it not for her, I would have lost not a little. The joy of finding what I had lost more than compensated the pain of losing what was both personal and precious. Her goodness reminded me that we are all called to save others as they journey through life. We are called to restore to them what they have lost; to help them recapture and regain their peace. As I look around I observe not a few persons who have lost their peace; persons who have lost faith in God, in others and in themselves; persons who have lost the will to live. I need to seek out and save the lost. It is not for me to criticise, judge or condemn because all of us suffer from moments of forgetfulness. Alas for some, fleeting moments of forgetfulness can deteriorate as they multiply themselves into prolonged amnesia. My duty is to help the lost find themselves.
The airport adventure, if I may call it so, taught me not a little. Even as I ponder it I wonder why it has come up after so many years. We need to learn from the past but live in the present. The fruits of the present are borne in the roots of the past. At the practical level, ever since that incident at Fiumicino, I have learned never to carry a travel pouch in my hand but to have it slung around my neck instead!