By Fr. Marcel Taillon
Seminarians who study in Rome at the North American College live in the seminary on Janicilum Hill but walk a long distance to classes at universities around the city each day.
As a seminarian classmate of Bishop Robert Gruss (at the Angelicum University) I would accompany him after early morning Mass to class across the city, two-stepping to keep up with his fast clip! We managed most days to stop for a coffee and cornetto at a local cafe and also stop at the Eucharistic Chapel at Piazza Venezia, where the famous Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located in the heart of historic Rome. Afterwards, we would dart across the street and up the last hill to school. Miraculously, we always arrived there on time, perspiring from the pace and activity before 8:30 a.m.
One day, dressed in our customary clerics, we walked with our book bags through our regular stop at the Piazza Argentina, where we encountered a deranged mad man who set his eyes on me and physically attacked me. He threw me to the ground; foaming at the mouth and was yelling “Padre — Io famo” or “Father — I’m hungry!”
He began to punch me in the chest and face while sitting on top of me in a rage. You can imagine my fright. Bob Gruss (a non-smoker who is also called “the Marlboro Man with a heart” by those who know him!) pulled the man off me after several substantial blows had been delivered. The police came and took the man away. You can imagine my fear and pain and distress having never been through anything like that.
Bob Gruss picked up my backpack, gave it to me and said, “Are you all right?” I nodded, “yes,” although I wasn’t. We resumed our regular daily routine in silence and walked into the Eucharistic Chapel like it was every other day, except it wasn’t. I had never more appreciated that chapel nor the Lord as I did that day. I prayed with all my heart to the Lord. I thanked him for Bob and for not letting me be even more injured. I remember praying, “Lord, thank you! Please never let me see that man again or let anything like that ever happen again.”
We walked into the daylight and I was still numb. Bob Gruss asked me what I prayed for and I told him. Then I asked him what he prayed for and he, with great hesitation, after a few minutes said, “I prayed that the Lord bring that man back into our lives so we can help him.”
I’ll never forget that. I thought that was just plain scary at the moment and silly in light of my bruised ribs and ego, not to mention my clerical shirt being ripped and in ruins.
About six weeks later, at the apostolate of San Gregorio run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, where I served meals and gave (or tried to give) haircuts to homeless men, Sister Nebutita told me to answer the door, since someone new was ringing.
I opened the door and standing there, cool as a cucumber, was “Guisseppe,” the man who had assaulted me. On medication and now calm, he was warm and friendly. I couldn’t even catch my breath! Cautiously, I invited him in; I was short of breath, afraid and reticent.
Eventually, he would become a regular Thursday acquaintance of mine to whom I would serve dinner and with whom I would pray. He had no recollection of the incident, but thank God I did.
That night when I walked home I realized two things I will never forget. First, God doesn’t always answer our prayers even when they are sincere and from the center of our heart. Secondly, I learned that Robert Gruss had his eyes fixed on the Lord and the “no greater love” in his own heart had enabled him to intervene and help me then intervene for Guisseppe, too.
The people of Rapid City have been given a bishop who experiences this love so deeply and personally that he wants others, whether intimate friend or erratic stranger, to know it too.
God has blessed Rapid City.
(Fr. Taillon of the Diocese of Providence is a close friend and classmate of Bishop Gruss. He is pastor of St. Thomas More Parish, Narragansett, R.I. This article is provided courtesy of the West River Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Rapid City.)