Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Pray for "Buttercup"

We interrupt our normal programming for a request for prayers....

Late last Friday night, a call as dreadful as it was (for lack of a better word) painfully unsurprising came in.

Working at its usual speed -- i.e. faster than the speed of light -- the famous South Philly buzzmill hummed with word that Fr Nick Martorano OSA, the beloved longtime pastor of St Nicholas of Tolentine on 9th Street and iconic dean of the downtown clergy, had been rushed into quadruple bypass surgery.

The news prompted, well, something close to a quaking amidst the rowhouses.

I'm just one of thousands, maybe more, blessed to call Fr Nick not just my pastor, but practically a member of my family. He's one of my closest friends and greatest teachers, one of those amazing folks who's put up with me for a very long time (and, candidly, vice versa), a soul brilliant in his simplicity, kindness and purity of heart, one of the many unsung heroes of today's church who keep the shop going. But I say the news was "unsurprising," and painfully so, as as he's someone who I've always been especially concerned about. I've seen him invariably take too little care of himself, and I'm just grateful to God that he dodged a major bullet.

I've known my share of priests, but honestly, I can testify to the ends of the earth that there's none finer, better, none more devoted than Nick. And if anything, what got him into this is precisely that he's too good and, whatever the cost of time, effort or energy, never able to say "no."

Only 57, he's on the verge of his 25th anniversary as pastor of St Nick's -- his home parish -- which he's essentially rebuilt and renewed through his gifts of vision, great faith and a work ethic that would've felled almost anyone else years ago. In a unique way, everyone is welcome on Watkins Street in a way they might not have felt elsewhere, and this scribe is just one of many "nomads" who've flocked to it over the years thanks to the warm spirit and open door which've made it the strongest parish left in the old neighborhood, a place where the state of the church these days is, to put it mildly, mostly a universe removed from its golden age of growth and strength.

Among its natives, not a few parishioners recall their now-pastor as the stickball-playing kid who everybody called "Nicky Priest" -- a moniker that, to this day, drives him nuts. There are few pastors left who can, unbidden, walk into their people's homes, park themselves on the couch, start flipping channels on the TV and making calls on the phone. Not only can Fr Nick do that, he does do it, and the folks usually have a stock of his beloved Iced Tea Diet Snapple on reserve, just in case he shows up, collar unbuttoned, the plastic tab in his preferred spot, hanging out of his shirt pocket.

I've spent more warm -- and, as 40 degrees is his idea of "summer," some not so warm -- nights than I could count on the church steps with him as the neighborhood kids would stop by and catch up. When he wants to get away -- whether for a show in New York, shopping at the Reading Outlets, a pilgrimage to Fatima or a Scandinavian cruise -- it invariably turns into a parish trip of at least 20 or 25 folks, usually more. He can't leave the office for an hour without a half-inch-high stack of messages waiting on his return. And one longtime parishioner, who he buried last year, loved him so much that she'd never call him by name, instead addressing him as "my Buttercup."

In sum, the "High Lama" doesn't just lead the parish -- he is the parish. Pastoring of this sort has become ever harder to come by these days, and in Nick's case it's come at a particularly high cost.

Just a couple weeks ago, I popped in to see him on a Saturday morning. Usually surrounded by all sorts of visitors, it was a rare moment of peace as he finished breakfast and began rummaging through the papers. True to his classic form, though, within a couple minutes he started falling asleep at the table, probably because -- and it happens more often than you'd think -- someone who couldn't sleep called the rectory in the dead of night, knowing he'd answer. And listen. And console. And listen some more. And that he'd stay on the line 'til they were done, 'til they were OK.

This is what a pastor does, of course. Well, it's the mark of a true pastor, a good shepherd. And none knows his own, loves his own, gives more for his own, is one with his own, as he is and as he does.

Despite knowing what the answer would be, I asked Father if he'd been resting alright before launching into my standard sermon that, for all his drive and energy and youthful spirit, he's not as young as he used to be and that, while I could go on all day, there was only one person who could make the decision to take better care of himself.

As always, he listened. Usually, he'd just let me keep rattling before letting the point go or saying that it wouldn't be long before Les Mis -- his one great enjoyment in life -- was back in town. But this time, unusually, he volunteered that he hadn't taken a day off since August... before reeling off everything on his plate that he had to take care of.

Apparently, Fr Nick finally did put a brief breather on the schedule earlier this month. Then, remembering that he had the monthly School Mass and hospital duty, he ended up cancelling it. After complaining of chest pains while walking, it took a parishioner's initiative behind his back to get him to the cardiologist.

Suffice it to say, given the extent of the blockages the tests revealed, the guy who lined up the appointment against his wishes ended up saving his life.

There have been complications since the operation. Father developed pneumonia after the surgery and remains sedated on a ventilator; antibiotics are beginning to do the job of getting him into the clear. As the hospital has been inundated with calls since Friday, the request has gone out that parishioners and friends not call there, especially as the staff can give no information over the phone. If any of the locals are reading, know that any further updates will be posted here as soon as they're received from the bedside.

Fr Nick's taught me more than almost anyone else over the years, and even in this moment, there's a lesson that might be useful for some of us... well, at least, it's useful for me.

After his return to the shop, another hard-working pastor who recently underwent a bypass was told to look around.

"See," the advice went, "it's all still running."

Admittedly, realizing that in my own life is far from my strong suit. Sure, that comes from the desire to keep pushing, keep working, keep doing that last thing, maybe well past the point when I should, but with the good intention of trying to keep the bases covered and do a good job.

Then again, when there's always another "last thing," that means the wheel never stops turning and the actual last thing never really ends up getting done. And more than just maybe, there also seems to be that nagging, foolish temptation to try to give what I don't have, of trying to be perfect when I can't be, when none of us can, but somehow seeking to ignore that and keep plugging away regardless as the gas tank keeps pinging at its lower extreme.

Thankfully, it's Lent, and there's no better time to realize not just the error and, in my case, the excess of pride that comes with this tendency, but also its costs -- to our quality of life, our health, our relationships, our sense of peace, our ability to enjoy the gifts and goodness in our lives as we deserve, as God would want -- and to work at integrating the awareness that the things around us will still keep running without us, that they're bigger than ourselves, and that, as one friend put it, "thou shalt dig thyself an early grave" is not one of the Lord's commandments.

Again, this comes from one for whom the sheer thought of time off inspires shades of guilt. And so, in the name of doing a better job of practicing what I preach -- not to mention a much-needed immersion into Lent -- posting (aside from any updates on Fr Nick) will be suspended 'til Monday.

In the meantime, please keep the "Buttercup" and his caretakers in your prayers, and all the sick, especially those who are alone.

Thanks as always for reading, forgive me for what I've done and/or failed to do in the process, hope your Lent's off to a great start... and, please, please, for your good and that of the folks around you, gang, take care of yourselves!