One year ago this Nov. 14, Msgr. Thomas Shelley died. He was a longtime church history professor, and the well-respected historian of my home diocese, but growing up, I knew him only as the priest who celebrated 8 a.m. Sunday Mass, and who, without fail, made me smile. At some point on Sunday morning, whether he was descending the altar steps as we were taking our place before Mass, or we were greeting him afterward at the church’s door, he would meet my gaze, and the intensity and mischief in his eyes invariably elicited my smile. Then he would raise his finger and, on cue, admonish me gravely, “Keep on smiling! Your smile is a great gift: never stop smiling!”
Monsignor’s kindness was as unforgettable as it was uncomplicated, because it strikes to the heart of Christian life. Recognizing in even a very small child the capacity for goodness and hope, he determined to help me exercise this capacity, and then verbally acknowledged and encouraged me in it. As fine teachers do, he reinforced his lesson by simplicity and repetition.
I only recently learned that Monsignor had died. After a conversation among the Sisters about the power of a smile, I determined to write and thank him for his generosity of three decades past. Instead of his mailing address, my search turned up colleagues’ and students’ tributes to his life. There will be no opportunity to thank him this side of heaven, so instead I share here three suggestions for this month of November, when the Church remembers in a particular way her beloved dead and when our country pauses to give thanks to God.
At some point, it becomes too late to thank a person who has touched your life. This month, take the time to remember, and then thank, someone who has shown you God’s gaze of love.
Visit a cemetery. About a week before or after your visit, go to confession and Communion, and while you are at the cemetery, pray for those buried there and for the pope. This is no small commitment of time and effort, but the Church thinks these acts on behalf of the dead are profoundly helpful for the sanctification of the living — so much so she promises, with the authority granted her by God, that, each time we do them, a departed soul will advance in, and possibly even complete, her purification and enter His presence.
Finally, as Msgr. Shelley did, make it a practice to acknowledge the goodness in another, no matter how young or seemingly insignificant that person is. By doing so, you encourage and strengthen the person, and you give glory to God who is the source of that goodness. Your acknowledgment can be as simple as a smile itself, just as Mother Teresa taught: “Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.”
Sr. Maria Veritas Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.