By Judith Costello
Father Robert Stanion. He made a great impact on our family. When he died on March 23, the world lost a shining light. We had been praying for his recovery from illness for months. It was hard for us to understand: Why him? Why now?
It was just before Advent two years ago when the jolly Franciscan came into our lives. Eleven-year-old Peter and I were sitting at the back of the church waiting for the communal penance service to begin. Peter wanted to make sure he got to the sacristy confessional first. He was exhausted and didn’t want to wait in line.
A banner I designed, of Jesus blessing a child, was hanging right outside that room. As Peter stood up to get in line, the bearded priest wearing gray robes stopped him. Although the church light was soft, Fr. Robert’s eyes seemed to squint with strain. But he pointed to the banner and said, “You were the model for that. You are a famous boy. And a leprechaun too!” He gave a tug at Peter’s pointy ears and laughed. Then he tapped Peter with his program and invited him to come to confession.
Fr. Robert told Peter he should read the Bible 10 minutes a day. Something in his gentle command left a lasting impression. Peter continues that practice to this day. At each of the next communal confession times, Fr. Robert tapped Peter on the head and called him a leprechaun. He remembered details about our lives.
Last year, when Fr. Robert came for Lent, Peter was going through a hard time. I wondered if Fr. Robert might be able to help him, so I told the church secretary. When it came time to line up for confession, three people were in front of Peter. Fr. Robert came out of the sacristy. In his raspy voice he declared, “I will see young Peter first.” And when Peter came out he looked as if a weight had been lifted.
Brigit, at age 9, went to see Fr. Robert for the first time last fall, for her first face-to-face confession. Fr. Robert made her laugh. He made it easy while also challenging Brigit to be kinder to her “leprechaun” brother.
For me, Fr. Robert shared stories about saints I’d never heard of. He even compared his holy life to my lowly one. The last time I saw him, I was especially troubled. He said, “Close your eyes and open your hands.” Then he pressed a present for the children into my hands saying, “They are beautiful. God will bless your family.”
I was so touched I cried. Fr. Robert put his head back and laughed. “Now don’t you go out there crying. The other people will think I’m a monster!”
That was the last time we saw Fr. Robert. He fell sick a few weeks later. And during this Lenten season he went to heaven.
At approximately the same time Fr. Robert died, something else happened at our house to remind us that life and death are great mysteries.
The feral cat in our barn gave birth, but she rejected one of the kittens. When we found it, the kitten was cold. Brigit knelt beside me, afraid to touch the unmoving body. Death hung heavily in the air. Not knowing what to do, I rubbed the little fur ball. Suddenly it began to breathe again! After a full night of being fed on goat’s milk, the kitten is now climbing, mewing and full of life!
Fr. Robert left the physical world, but our faith assures us that he has been revived like the kitten. His squinting eyes always seemed focused beyond this world. He was seeing the light of salvation. And now he has been transformed in that light. He left behind that message —that we should seek what is beyond this world.
To remind us of his lessons, the children are calling one of the kittens “Fr. Robert.”