by Francis Sweeney, SJ
The late Rev. Francis W. Sweeney, SJ (1916-2002) was a professor of English at Boston College from 1951 until his retirement in 1998. A dear friend of the famous poet T.S. Eliot and his wife Valerie, Fr. Sweeney knew many luminaries in the field of literature. For the full duration of his time at BC, he was the faculty advisor to the student literary magazine Stylus, and he also founded the Lowell Humanities Series which, over the years, has brought to campus such notable intellectuals as W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Hans Küng, and Karl Rahner, SJ among others. The following piece was published by Fr. Sweeney in The New York Times on September 1, 1972. It later appeared in his collection of essays entitled It Will Take a Lifetime.
It was late afternoon on a grey November day, with the east wind bringing the smell of wharves and ocean into the Boston streets. I walked southward on Boston Common down the Long Path quartering the sloping fields between Beacon Street and Boylston. My mind wandered to the palimpsest the Common is. Here Ben Franklin tethered the family cow. Here the Boston schoolboys threw snowballs at the Redcoats. Here Boston hanged Mary Dyer, the Quakeress, and perhaps Mary Glover, convicted of witchcraft, who could answer the court only in Irish, and who had difficulty saying the Lord’s Prayer. Down this Long Path Emerson walked with Whitman, while Concord tried to persuade Brooklyn not to publish Leaves of Grass.
Over on the concourse along Tremont Street, the Single-Taxers and the Born-Again Baptists, and the Hare-Krishna dancers were crying out to the unredeemed.
At the southern end of the Common a broken iron fence encloses a small graveyard where Appletons and Copleys lie under their thin slate gravestones. A young man came out of the graveyard, like one of the possessed men in Matthew’s Gospel. He was dirty, not with the ingrained dirt of the city bum, but with the grime of sleeping out on the ground, and not having washed that day. He walked a bit unsteadily, and spoke too loudly, like a child bringing his playground voice indoors.
“Can I walk along with you, Father?”
As I said, “Yes, of course,” a man some distance along the path turned and asked, “Is he bothering you?”
“No,” I said. “I want to talk with him. But thanks.”
The young man touched my sleeve for a moment with a soiled hand, and said, “I haven’t eaten since yesterday morning. I was wondering….”
“There’s a lunchroom near here,” I said. “Let’s go over there.”
We walked down the mall where some of Boston’s heroes gestured or meditated in bronze: William Ellery Channing, Charles Sumner, Wendell Phillips with his preposterous axiom graven on the pedestal: “Whether in chains or in laurels liberty knows nothing but victories.”
The lunchroom was brightly lit and clean with its white and green tiles. As we took our places on stools at the counter, a tall, thick-shouldered waitress turned from the grill and saw him, the rumpled clothes, the grimy paws. “Oh, no,” she said with a gesture, “not here!”
“Then I guess you don’t serve me either,” I said. We walked out, with not a word from him to save his pride.
“There’s another lunchroom across the Square,” I said, and we walked through the traffic past the statue of Lincoln with his hands outstretched to a kneeling slave. I was afraid of another rebuff, and asked him to wait outside. He stood on the curbstone, but looked in the window a few times to see whether I was still there.
The counterman grilled three wads of meat and wrapped the hamburgers in foil, and put them in a brown bag with a quart container of milk. Outside, we walked east and around the block. He quickly ate the hamburgers, and then talked on as he drank the milk in long gulps.
He had returned from Vietnam less than a year before, had landed a job, and things were going well. He lived in a city not far from Boston, say, Nashua, New Hampshire. He had come to Boston for a holiday three days before with a hundred dollars in his pocket and a brand new sports jacket. But one drink had merged into many and the money was gone, and, with great regret, the sports jacket. He had slept last night in the graveyard, where a few children had tried to rob him. He had jumped up and driven them off.
“Can I buy your bus ticket home?” I asked, pointing to the bus terminal in the Square. “You can be home tonight.”
“No,” he said, “I can’t go home yet. And don’t give me any money.”
“Then what can I do for you?”
“Father, perhaps we should say some prayers.” I agreed, and standing on the corner of Stuart and Carver Streets we said a too-loud Our Father and Hail Mary. “The Creed,” he prompted, and so we said that while people stared from passing cars. Then he said, “Father, my parents are dead. We should say some prayers for them.” So we did, with his tears coming now.
“Can I give you absolution?” I said impulsively. “Are you sorry for all the sins of your life?”
“Oh, yes, Father!” he shouted. And while he chanted the Act of Contrition I absolved him, and blessed his dignity and innocence. And so I left him.
I thought I might have heard from him in the months since, and I haven’t. And yet I hear from him every day: when I awake in the night and grieve for my sins, for I trust God’s mercy in the daylight, and fear His justice in the dark. I hear from him in the midst of my Mass and when I lift my head from reading Scripture, and try to understand the Word. Because he taught me, when I had almost forgotten it, what a priest is for: to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to forgive all sins, to pray for the living and the dead.
I would like to meet him again and thank him.