It was during the week after Easter Sunday, some years ago, that, as I went round blessing the houses of my parish, in the Archdiocese of Bombay, a pastoral responsibility that was for me never an irksome obligation but a joyful opportunity, I came to this particular mansion. I rang the doorbell and knocked at the door persistently - but there was no answer. The altar boy that was accompanying me informed me, in answer to my query, that the house belonged to a prominent parishioner, but forewarned me that he was an alcoholic. I said that I knew that he was an alcoholic, but that I had heard he had given up drinks and had even joined the Alcoholics Anonymous. The boy then told me that the man had gone back to his drinking - and I knew that one who has a slip becomes even much worse that before.
Hearing the repeated knockings, the woman next door peeped through her window and warned me, "Father, don't go to that house. That man there is a pig - and his house is a pigsty." "My dear lady," I retorted, "I have not come to bless houses, but homes," and I kept on knocking and ringing the bell, till the door was finally opened. On seeing me, the man apologized for not being aware that it was the day set aside for the house blessing in that zone of the parish. I knew him to be a very talented speaker and actor, but unfortunately alcohol had been his downfall. His marriage was broken and he was now almost a pauper. (I remembered then that he had once come to borrow ten rupees, which surprised me, knowing that he was supposedly a rich man.)
As I went round blessing his big house, I noticed that he was truly like a pig, with blood shot eyes and disheveled hair, and his house was like a pigsty with vomit and excreta here and there. I could not help noticing that there was not a single bit of furniture anywhere and that he had no clothing except the filthy shorts he was wearing. He told me afterwards that he had sold every bit of furniture and every piece of clothing - for drinks. As I was leaving his house with the sad awareness of how much pain he must have caused his loved ones and how much humiliation he must have brought upon his family known for its priests and nuns, I found myself turning about towards him and crying out, "I wish you could change."
But he cried out even more, "I want to change," and almost shouted in despair, "But tell me how!" I didn't know then the answer in the way I now know, but in my perplexity I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a large, beautiful stature of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the corner of the sitting room. It reminded me of the lovely picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in my family house, where as a child I would read again and again the words below that picture, "I will bless every home where the picture of my Sacred Heart is enthroned and honoured." It reminded me of the small emblem of the Sacred Heart that my mother had pinned on my coat on my First Holy Communion Day, and of the Sacred Heart devotion every First Friday in which she had brought us up since that day.
I somehow felt inspired to lead the man by the hand to the front of that stature. I was quick to notice that there was no crown on that statue's head. He told me later that he had sold that crown for four rupees in the bazaar - for drinks, and when the pious ladies of his neighbourhood heard of it, they passed judgment that he would now go to hell like Judas, for selling and betraying Jesus for money. I quoted to him the invitation of Jesus, "Come to me all you that feel oppressed or are burdened in any way and I will give you rest. Just know that I am kindhearted and compassionate and you will find that rest" (cf Mt 11:28,29).
I then looked at him straight in the eye and said, "I want you to promise Jesus that from this very moment you will not touch a drop of alcohol." (I often wondered what droved me then to have him make such a drastic promise.) I then led him in a prayer of repentance, forgiveness and renunciation, and a prayer inviting Jesus to come into his life as Saviour and Lord and to set him free of every burden by the power of the Holy Spirit. After that I left his house to go to bless the next one. If you would have asked me then, "Do you believe that prayer must have worked?" I would have replied, "Frankly - no." For I was full of faith and compassion in that house; but once I was out of it, I was, sorry to say, back to 'normal'. And, it is true, I forgot him completely—but God did not (Is 49:15).
One year later, we the priests of the parish were invited to a party in the home of one of our parishioners. It must have been a very pressing invitation, for all the five priests went for it. At a certain moment the host of the party stood up and addressed his guests who filled every room of that large house, "You may wonder why I have called you for this party and, even more, why only soft drinks are being served at my party." We were all glued to his voice as he continued, after a pause, looking all around, "It is because today, I repeat, this very day, exactly one year ago, a priest came to this house …" As he related the rest of the story, my hairs stood on end as I realized that he was referring to my Easter house blessing visit of one year ago.
He would make himself available to any alcoholic in Mumbai (Bombay) that needed help and he would give his testimony in every Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group in the Archdiocese in his simple but powerful and inimitable style, always ending with these two sentences: "I thank God my Father for allowing me to go right down into the gutters (he was often seen in and picked up from the gutters of his parish), for if I had not gone down there, I would never have realized how much he loved me;" and, "There is only one person I thank, and - he is my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ who, out of his Sacred Heart of Divine Mercy, gave me this last chance of coming back to him."
On his part the Lord continues to speak to us today, as he spoke to the people of his time, "Learn from me, and imitate me to be meek and mild, tenderhearted and kindhearted, to those who are burdened or oppressed in any way" (Mt 11:29), as we pray to him in the words of that haunting melody:
Jesus, what a wonder you are,
You are so gentle, so pure and so kind;
You shine like the morning star,
Jesus, what a wonder you are!