By Rev. Daniel J. O’Sullivan
I was raised in an Irish Catholic ghetto on the West Side of Chicago. We learned our family and ethnic heritage very well and cherished our traditional Catholic faith. We knew our neighborhood well, but knew little beyond our parish.
Celebrations were frequent; music, singing, dancing, story-telling and laughter were common either in pubs or at home.
We didn’t express close affection by hugging, embracing or saying words of love and affection. That, I suppose, was presumed.
Then, as a young teenager, I went off to the seminary, which was sort of like a ghetto of its own. You’re studying to be a priest. You don’t draw close to people, except the other possible future priests, and especially not to women.
I wasn’t the truest conformist to all their expectations but, in general, I went along as instructed.
First, I became very close to my family; my parents, of course, but also to my brothers. We had many stories and experiences in common, met regularly and shared a few pints. They, not priests, were my truest friends.
Then, they married, had children and then grandchildren. What wonder, what delight. what love. They fulfilled my life.
All this time, I had the "Res" guys, my classmates from Resurrection Grammar School, who always included me in all their activities: picnics, travel, weddings, baptisms. They are still my lifelong friends. M any of us first met in 1942, in the first grade.
Then, there are my high school classmates who went to the Seminary but never were ordained. They raised families, participated in parish activities, gathered for holidays like Saint Patrick’s Day and New Year’s. We always keep in touch. Their wives know as many of our stories as we do from listening to them being told over and over again.
You, the parishioners of Saint Irenaeus Parish and other parishes, have shared my life, family and stories. I feel you are family every Sunday as we gather at the Table of the Lord. I am most certainly aware of your love and affection and your physical and fond expression of that love.
A few years ago, I became a hugger, an embracer. It wasn’t easy at first, because it was counter to my cultural experience (We just didn’t do that). But, even so, I embraced the idea with lavishness. I thought I had arrived as a real person.
Through my recent sickness, though, I have learned one more sign of affection that was missing.
For years, now, friends and parishioners have been hugging me and saying, "I love you." I heard it very clearly, but I only responded very shyly and softly, "Thank you." Now, I have learned that "Thank you" is not enough.
When someone says "I love you," I should not answer, "Thank you," like it is a gift. I should return the gift: "I love you."
I remember the first time I said, "I love you," I was on the phone. I said it nice and clear and she definitely heard me. T he sky didn’t fall, I didn’t quiver or shake. Matter of fact, I felt good and, to a degree, relieved. T here, I said it, "I love you."
What does "I love you" mean? Study Advent and Christmas. There is a price to pay but more to gain.
The preceding is the last column Fr. O’Sullivan wrote to members of St. Irenaeus Parish. He died December 15, 2008 at St. James Hospice, Chicago Heights.