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Sitting with Grandpop and God

Faithpoint | Wednesday, October 29, 2008

I wish you could have met Thomas Fizzano, my grandfather. I think I wish you could have met him. He was one intimidating old man. The completely undisputed patriarch of our traditionally Italian family.

He was steely quiet – in that aloof and intimidating kind of way – and utterly unapproachable. I can’t remember ever actually talking to him. As a kid, I learned about him largely through legends that others would tell around the Christmas table after he left the room. How he had built a huge concrete company from scratch. How he had invited his brothers and cousins from Italy, and supported them until they got on their feet in America. How he had flown a fighter jet in World War II, and returned home a hero.

So, this is how I knew my grandfather for most of my life – more as an unapproachable legend than as a real human being.

Then, in 7th grade, an unforeseen breakthrough. My history teacher assigned us to interview someone who had lived through the Depression. My mind, of course, immediately jumped to my kind and gentle grandmother, but my mom informed me that she was not in the country during the Depression.

Then, I could read my mom’s eyes – and I screamed, “No way!” – as she asked, “Why not ask grandpop?”

On the appointed day, my mom drove me to my grandparents’ house. I pulled out a piece of looseleaf on which I had written out every word I was going to say to my grandpop. And, hiding behind the paper, I began the interview: “Where were you living when the Depression began?”

I will never forget the next hour of my life.

Because over the next hour, this man, in all of his inapproachability and intimidation, looked me in the eye, smiled, and spoke to me, quietly, gently.

And one particular moment in our interview stands out. My grandfather spoke about losing his brother to cancer during the Depression, and regretted not having enough money to get better care for him. As he told this story, I heard just the slightest pause in his voice. I remember stealing a glance, and caught sight of a tear that hung on the edge of his eyelash.

Two years later, my grandfather himself died of cancer. In his last days, he couldn’t speak and was barely conscious. And I used to sit next to his bed for an hour or two, just reading the names of the horses and jockeys in that day’s races at Philadelphia Park (just to complete the old Italian patriarch stereotype, my grandfather loved horse racing).

I remember during those days feeling oddly comfortable sitting next to my grandfather. This man, who had intimidated me my entire life, suddenly seemed gentle, and approachable, and knowable.

Today, when I want to really remember my grandpop, I think of two times: the day we sat at his kitchen table and he cried about losing his brother in the Depression; and the days I sat next to him as he died.

My point is this: I think there is something deeply revelatory about seeing someone who you know to be powerful become suddenly vulnerable. Someone who seemed totally secure and in control, living in another world than ourselves, become suddenly helpless and human, and knowable.

And I wonder if Jesus isn’t sometimes one such person for us.

Surely all of us have been attracted by Jesus’ message, by his power, his goodness and holiness. And it is sometimes difficult, in the face of such overwhelming goodness, to think that this person can truly love us in our own limitations. Pity us, perhaps, but not love.

At some points in my life, I have a hard time praying because I feel, deep down, that God must be somehow disappointed in me. That is to say, God, in my weakness, can seem unapproachable.

But when I walk into Church, I am confronted by this man on a cross. Jesus, the good and holy one, dying. And on the cross, precisely dying, we see Jesus as someone like us – for on the cross, Jesus takes on our greatest limitation and our certain fate – that one day we will die. And if he is willing to take on that limitation, which other of our limitations would drive him away?

On the Cross, we see someone like us – and in doing so, our Church invites us to see our God.

We all have people in our lives, like my grandfather was in mine – people who seem unapproachable, because of their power or their authority or even because of their goodness. They can often seem larger-than-life. They can tend to make us see our own deficiencies, rather than our potential goodness. We can feel insufficient around them.

Maybe, sometimes, Jesus is one such person for us?

But the central mystery of our faith asserts a profound response to this natural question in our hearts. That our God has become weak like us, vulnerable like us, broken like us – human like us. And precisely as such, he invites us to come to know him and to love him.

Perhaps that is why, when Christians throughout the centuries have wished to spend time with their God, to know him and love him, in all his unapproachable glory, they have done so by sitting before Jesus, hanging on the cross.

This week’s Faithpoint is written by Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, Director of Campus Ministry Bible Studies. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Faithpoint are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.