Of the dozens of bright-eyed, smiling faces that greet me on a daily basis, there is one that usually takes a little more effort to reciprocate. Santo is a ten-year-old boy who wanders freely; he doesn't go to school or do any significant work at home, he just spends his days roaming around alone, and usually winding up in our yard. He is always dirty from head to toe, with soiled, ripped clothing and a foul odor. I meet Santo at least once in a day and usually far more. He yells, “SISTER!” from any distance, no matter how far away, and he continues to shout until I take notice and respond. A massive smile and a distinctive “How are yooooou?” is followed by a hug that lasts far too long, usually until he is removed from my body. There is the occasionally inappropriate touching, and then calling me his wife. He tells people that he’s bought both Cait and I for 4 Pounds… (We are worth far more!) If I let him, he throws an arm over my shoulder and keeps us walking side-by-side, literally until he is removed. The next bit of the conversation is a routine dialogue that never varies from the following:
"I'm fine. How are you?" I reply to his initial shouting across the playground.
"Fine. Gomoro (I'm hungry)," he informs. "Issm tachy munu (What's your name)?" The question never fails to follow. Let me assure you, the boy knows my name quite well.
"Grace. Issm tachy munu?" I reciprocate.
"Santo," he'll say, like this is news to me. Then he'll inevitably question, "Sister Caitie wen (Where is Sister Cait)?”
"Kporo yo (At home),” I inform.
"Brother wen (Where is Brother Dan)?"
"Kporo yo (At home).”
"Abuna wen (Where is Father)?"
"Kporo yo (At home).”
And so it goes, Santo will continue to ask me about every Salesian community member that lives or has ever lived in our house for the entire length of time until I reach my destination and we part ways.
Perhaps you’ve already picked up on this, but Santo is a child with special needs. He’s an epileptic, so he drops into convulsions on the ground at any moment without warning- quite frequently, in fact. There is no special school for the handicapped, and no support for those with special needs in this place. I’d say he’s lucky to even be alive and to have a mother that takes care of him at all.
As I have interacted with Santo day in and day out for all these months, it has become very easy to give a quick handshake, shrug him aside, and continue on my way. It’s easy to become short when he repeatedly asks the same questions. It’s especially frustrating when he acts like he’s your husband.
But as I have recently started to take a step back and look at the boy who stands before me, I am suddenly struck by the image of Christ.
Santo loves unconditionally. In almost a year, there has not been a single time that I have passed him by without fully receiving all the love he has for me. I could be a quarter mile away and if Santo spots me, he’ll scream for me relentlessly until I respond. He is the same with every member of our Salesian community. It doesn't matter how short or unkind I've been in the past, he's always ready with big hugs (uncharacteristic of this culture) and his unique and massive smile that literally beams. Santo has profound joy upon interacting with any other human being. Genuine elation results from something as insignificant as one of the Brothers walking past him. It's something that many Christians strive for, that limitless ocean of charity, that Santo innately offers the world through his simple little life. Santo is teaching me a beautiful lesson, one that I have been taught over and over again but rarely observed in such a concrete way: My vocation is to love.
Santo calls me out in my weakness, first to begin by better loving Santo himself, the little one who loves me so much. From there, I must strive to offer this charity with every daily interaction. When I am tired, when I’m grumpy, when I’m feeling introspective or down on myself, and for a million other reasons every day that I forget my simple duty in this world, Santo calls me to love others as Christ Himself loved. Just as with Santo, Christ can only use our human weaknesses to aid us with His glorious and capable strength.
When I think of this pure love, I can’t help but call to mind one beloved priest that served on our campus at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Fr. Rick. Fr. Rick had a tremendous daily workload- teaching classes, leading many groups on campus, commitment to his religious order, spiritual life, and priestly duties, not to mention his main apostolate, which was heading the Priestly Discernment Program on campus. Despite Fr. Rick’s packed schedule of work, prayer, and daily activity, he never stopped loving. The person in need was never second to his To-Do list. Father was never more than a phone call away, day or night. Students flocked to him for spiritual advice, wisdom, and encouragement regularly. Why? Because he has been graced with an inherently and undeniably Christ-like way. He loves as Jesus loves. When Fr. Rick looks at you, it is like Jesus himself is gazing into your soul. His words are always Spirit-filled and life giving. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since. Fr. Rick is a father, brother, mentor, confidant, confessor, supporter, cheerleader, and friend to literally hundreds of students on that campus, because each and every one of them feels uniquely cherished and cared for by his paternal presence, as I’m sure the Apostles did when they sat before Jesus. I have thought more than a few times throughout this mission that if I were to love the little ones here just a tiny fraction as much as Fr. Rick has loved our campus at Franciscan, I’d consider this a complete success.
Innocent, silly little Santo has called me to love radically today. He has called me to reach outside of myself and to emulate Mother Teresa’s challenge:
“I have found the paradox,
that if you love until it hurts,
there can be no more hurt,
only more love.”
I think we all need a little more love. God bless you, Santo. Mbori du na mo.