I don’t recall the slippers but his pajamas were blue— not navy, more sky. On the table was a box of Salerno Butter Cookies and a tall glass of milk. He sat on the edge of the bed, windows to his back, legs dangling over the side. It was always about 9:30 or 10:00 at night when I would sit down with the table, cookies and milk between us. As he talked and I listened he ate one butter cookie after the next after the next. He offered to share but he only had the one box.
Six years earlier the fellow in the sky blue pajamas had ordained my classmates and me with the elegant solemnity the Church does so well. Now here we were, me—a freshman Chaplain at Columbus Hospital and him the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago— and my patient—John Cody. In his red robes and mitre carrying his gold plated crosier he was a thoroughly intimidating presence whenever he had come to the seminary. After all he held all of our fates in his hands. Now, in his pajamas munching Salerno Butter Cookie, he scared me even more.
The difference between seminary then and hospital now was that at seminary I could disappear into the crowd but during those evenings in the hospital, it was just the Cardinal and the Salerno Butter Cookies and me.
Apparently, I need not have been too worried because Monsignor Don Carroll, who was senior chaplain at Columbus Hospital, had known Cardinal Cody in Rome long, long before Cody even was a lowly auxiliary bishop in St. Louis, and Don had vouched for me; and as a painfully young hospital chaplain I had no ax to grind and was outside all the church politics rampant at the time in the Archdiocese. Finally, Cardinal Cody absolutely loved to tell tales and all I needed to do was drop by his VIP room after my other chaplain duties were done and settle -in to listen to whatever the Cardinal had to say. He was gracious to me but, frankly, we never had a real conversation, not one in which I’d said much—and that was fine with me. The Cardinal seemed happiest and most relaxed when he was telling stories and, since this was the late 70s , he had plenty of stories to tell.
Just shortly before I met him as a patient, the Cardinal had returned from the Papal Conclave that elected Pope John Paul II and just 2 months earlier he had been in Rome for the election of John Paul I and then his funeral only 33 days later. Knowing he had been intimately involved in a unique and utterly intriguing episode of contemporary history, the Cardinal simply couldn’t resist talking late into the nights about it and I was his default audience of one.
Sometimes with eagerness, sometimes in a near whisper he talked of the process— procedural and personal—of gathering with over 100 other Cardinals from all over the world in the Vatican to elect two Popes and bury one. I remember he noted several times that in the August Conclave the temperature had soared in Rome and living conditions in the Vatican for elderly Cardinals had become torturous, there being no air conditioning or even an open window in the Sistine Chapel. He related many other stories too, but that was a long time ago and I wasn’t keeping notes.
At first I listened and marveled at the privilege and power a Cardinal exercises in the Church, and sometimes even in history, and how remote and insignificant my life was from all that drama and responsibility. Then, sometimes, I’d be paged away from the Cardinal to the ER or to labor and delivery or to ICU to spend time with a patient, the family, and staff. It was later on those nights that I’d think to myself how remote and insignificant Papal Conclaves and Cardinals are from the lives of people right here in front of me in the hospital. It occurred to me then (as it does now) that I had no choice but to trust that God was with those Cardinals roaming the hallways of the Vatican but that absolutely I could see for myself that God was with those living and dying in my hospital’s rooms. Nothing in that random thought has changed in the ensuing 34 years. So, indulge yourself and have a butter cookie, a cold glass of milk and trust in the God who is near.