He was probably in his seventies, a frail little man, maybe five feet-four inches tall or so. Always wore a suit and tie, he did — the same suit coat, every day, the shoulders overlapping his own, the sleeves ending half way down his fingers, and the hem of it almost reaching his knees. It may have fit him, more suitably, when he was younger but he would have had to have been a lot huskier, too.
His name was Giuseppi. I’ve long since forgotten his last name, as it was thirty-seven years ago that I knew him. He was the porter at the religious house where I was staying during the one year I spent studying in Rome. I don’t remember if he had any other duties; if he did it may have been as a dispatcher for the community’s phones, for there were about ten priests living in the house at the time. The system would have had to have been very simple because Giuseppi was a very simple man.
Every morning, at the same time we were saying Matins in the chapel before Mass, Giuseppi would come into the back of the chapel and drop down on his knees and proceed to say in alta voce the beginning of the Our Father in Latin, then he’d slip into Italian for the rest of the Lord’s Prayer, which he completed in sotto voce (almost in a whisper). Then, he’d intone in the very same manner the Hail Mary: “Ave Maria, gratia plena,” he’d bellow, continuing on with the prayer in more subdued Italian. That was about it for his prayers, and he was off to his office by the front door.
Giuseppi was always flashing his gold tooth with his perennial smile. He loved to greet us American students and we were always using him to test our conversational Italian. We would say: “Parla lungo, Giuseppi, lenta prego,” and he would accommodate us with the most affected, slow enunciation just to please us.
We had a tutor for some months who would stop by almost every day to teach us Tuscano Italian. She was a native Roman, a well educated matron, about Giuseppi’s age, and she would always chat with him before she left. She was a good woman and I remember how she was so courteous to the little porter who was always delighted to see her. I’ll call her Maria.
Giuseppi had such a good heart; his biggest joy was to greet us, even if it was just a passing “hello” and “goodbye.” He did not get along with the other employee, a younger man, who served in the refectory; his name was Gilberto, and with his occasional snide remarks — covertly delivered, of course — he let us know that he was more than a bit anti-clerical.
As I said, Giuseppi loved to talk to us. After a few weeks, he started to greet us with this endearing salutation: “Good morning, my dear.” And we would reciprocate: “Good morning, my dear,” with a chuckle. Giuseppi didn’t know why we found the greeting so funny. You see, to impress us, he had been listening to “Learning English” cassettes in his office. The speakers played the part of a husband and wife, and, in Italian, carrissima means “dear one,” so to Giuseppi we were all “my dear.”
I once met him walking down the street after he exited a nearby church. “Comé sta, Giuseppi,” I asked. “Bene, bene, grazie a Dio,” he replied. Then I said something that seemed to really upset him. I was young and it just slipped off my tongue without my thinking how such words, even though said half in jest, might affect someone as humble as Giuseppi was. I told him that I thought that God must love him very much — that much was fine — then I said that I considered him to be a saint.
“No, no,” he protested indignantly. “I am a miserable sinner. I have committed many, many sins.”
We were going in opposite directions, so he just kept walking ahead shaking his head, “No, no, not me, not me.” There was nothing I could say.
Giuseppi quickly forgave me for canonizing him, or he just forgot about it, because every day he continued to give me, and all the young Americans, the same unfeigned smile and the same hearty greeting. Every now and then he’d throw in a new word that he had learned, anxious to see if he understood its meaning correctly, and was pronouncing it right.
One day during Advent he couldn’t wait to talk to me. He was so excited and his face was beaming. He told me that he was taking a train to Florence to see his daughter during his Christmas vacation. Then the tears began pouring from his eyes: “I have not seen her since she was a child,” he said. “It’s been forty years. She is a nun in a convent.”
It was hard for Giuseppi to speak, his voice was choking so, and it was hard for me to understand what he was trying to explain. Somehow, during the World War, while he was stationed in Ethiopia, it seems that his wife and daughter were separated from him. I asked him why he could not find them when he returned home after the war. And this is where I could not understand his answer. Nor did I want to press him about it, for the pain, long buried in his heart, was not looking for words; it had found its escape in tears. All I could get from him was, “They were gone, they were gone. No one knew where they were.”
Well, at some point the daughter must have located her father, for he was going to see her for the first time in forty years. And she was a nun. He was so proud, so happy. “God bless you, Giuseppi,” I said. “You will surely have the most joyful Christmas of your life.” I don’t remember if I got choked up at the time, but if I am so now, just thinking about it, I must’ve been so back then.
When our diminutive porter returned to work sometime after Christmas he told us all about his bambina: “She is a nun, now,” he kept saying; “She’s all grown up, and very happy.” As he spoke he kept blessing himself over and over. But I don’t remember that he cried this time. He was perfectly content; he had received the answer to all those prayers that he offered for so many years, going from church to church (and Rome has one on every block) and stopping by one more church after work on his way home.
Home? Giuseppi didn’t have a home, a family to go to; he lived at a nursing facility for the elderly. It was about a half-mile away. One would have thought that he could’ve slept over at the monastery, at least during bad weather, for he did have a cot in his office on which he would take his daily siesta. Apparently, he never asked for this favor from the abbot or the prior, nor was it offered, as far as I know.
A few weeks later Giuseppi developed a bad cough. Each day it got worse. He tried to hide the fact that he was not well and he forced himself to be there at the door to say “hello” when we would come in from classes. There was no one on the first floor in the house to hear the worst of his fits. We were on the second floor, and there were a few priests on the third floor, but no one on the first. We knew that he must have had a bad cold, but the fact that he was up and about, at least when the doorbell rang, quieted any concerns that “maybe this old man has pneumonia.”
Maria was very upset when she came in to give us our lesson that week in Italian. “Don’t you realize that this man is gravely ill,” she chided us. “He belongs in a hospital.” She did not leave without telling the prior that Giuseppi needed a doctor right away.
He never got to see a doctor. In fact, he completed his usual work day, and then, around six o’clock, headed out into the night winter air for his half-mile walk to the hospice. And what about us students and seminarians? After our Italian class that day we had gone upstairs to our rooms for study period. Maria had spoken to the father in charge and, good man that he was, we assumed that he had heeded her admonition. I’ll never forget how upset she was that Giuseppi was working at all.
The next morning the prior told us that Giuseppi had collapsed against a wall on the way to the hospice and that he had died. It was a secluded spot where he fell, no streetlights, and, especially in the freezing cold, no strollers. His body wasn’t discovered until the sun rose.
Every Mass, at the Memento for the Dead, I still pray for Giuseppi. I should be praying to him. “For him,” “to him,” he knows what to do with the prayers. He was, by his own admission, “a miserable sinner.” And miserable sinners, when they are as humble as Giuseppi, make great saints.
Email Brian Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.