In August of 1976 while working with the Communications Office of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia I helped coordinate media coverage for the 41st International Eucharistic Congress which Philadelphia hosted.
The event attracted thousands of visitors, including a virtual who’s who of International Catholicism. Among them, the future Pope John Paul II, Poland’s Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the leader of California’s migrant workers, Cesar Chavez, and Philadelphia native Princess Grace of Monaco. But the star of the week was the future Saint, Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
The tiny nun actually got the week-long event started by leading several thousand people in a candle light procession along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Within hours of that event, our office received a unique request from Eunice Kennedy Shriver. She and her husband, Sargent Shriver, wanted to arrange for a lunch meeting with Mother Teresa during the Congress. Someone would have to escort Mother and that’s where I came in.
A driver took Mother from a convent in Fairmount and brought her to the old Convention Hall in West Philadelphia. I accompanied her to the lunch held in a makeshift cafeteria in the basement of the Hall. When I say makeshift, I mean card tables with plastic tablecloths and paper plates.
I briefed Mother on who would be joining us, but it quickly became apparent she knew all about the Shrivers. Eunice was the sister to JFK. Sargent was the first Director of the Peace Corps. Together, they had started Special Olympics. It was like Mother Teresa had googled them before Google.
As we entered the cafeteria, the Shriver’s could not have been more welcoming.
Almost immediately Eunice began to question Mother about her mission to improve the lives of the impoverished in India.
After almost every answer, Mother would end by repeating her mantra: “I’m doing this for the poorest of the poor.”
What a stark contrast: a prominent member of one of the country’s most prominent families hanging onto every word from the tiny Eastern European nun who had gained worldwide notoriety for her years of service in the slums of Calcutta.
After a few minutes, a waitress approached to take our order. The menu, fittingly, was plain and simple.
The Shrivers opted for a ham and mustard sandwich. I made it three. Mother Teresa, looked up and gently whispered to the waitress “I’ll have a ham and mustard sandwich also.”
A few days before Christmas in 1976, I accompanied Cardinal John Krol to Rome for the official announcement by Pope Paul VI that John Neumann, the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia, would be canonized a Saint on June 19, 1977.
Whenever the Cardinal went to Rome, he and his traveling party would stay at Villa Stritch, a hotel-like property the American Church owned just outside the Eternal city.
On the morning of the official Papal announcement which would be held in the Vatican’s Consistorial Hall, I joined the Cardinal for breakfast eager to learn more details about the day, realizing only clergy were allowed to be present to hear the Papal decree.
I asked the Cardinal some questions about the ceremony and then he had a simple question for me.
“Do you want to go?” he said.
“How can I since only clergy are allowed in?” I responded.
“Just answer the question,” said the Cardinal.
“Of course I want to go”, I said adding “But how do I get in”?
The Cardinal had it all figured out. He always kept a spare black cassock in his room at Villa Stritch. I would wear the spare cassock to the Consistory. That would be my ticket go where only clergy were allowed.
Within minutes, we were off for the thirty-minute drive to the Vatican. As we arrived, the Cardinal and his entourage were saluted by the Swiss Guard and ushered up marble steps and down a more marvelous hallway to the exquisite Consistorial Hall.
Here I was, a married father of two, dressed in a Cardinal’s spare cassock, and all the time acting like I’ve been there before. All I could think of while waiting for the Pope to enter was what happens if my cover is blown. What if someone realizes I’m an imposter? What would happen to Cardinal Krol? What about Bishop Neumann’s canonization?
“Don’t worry,” I told myself. “Everything is going to be OK.”
As the Pope entered the Hall and was seated just twenty feet away, I joined dozens of Cardinals, Bishops and “fellow” priests in standing in prayer.
That’s when I noticed the possibility my cover would be revealed. How could I explain the gold wedding ring on my finger? It had to go or I would.
Gingerly I covered the ring with my right hand and ever so slowly slipped it off my finger.
No one noticed. The canonization was safe. Cardinal Krol would not be at the center of an ecclesiastical scandal. And I would live to tell about my short “priestly” life inside the hallowed staircases and hallways of the Vatican.
If you’ve ever been to Augusta National Golf Club for the Masters, you know a popular meeting spot for friends is under the Oak tree between the Clubhouse and the first tee.
It was there during Masters week 2006 that I met for the first time an iconic figure from one of the game’s by gone eras.
Let me give you a clue. He wore a violet shirt, a violet sweater, violet pants and, yes, matching violet shoes (I don’t know about his undies but I’m guessing.)
It was Doug Sanders. Once described as “The Peacock of the fairways”, Sanders won 20 PGA tour events and was runner-up in four Majors during a professional career that spanned four decades starting in 1956.
Doug was alone that day. A sad looking man despite his radiant attire. A solitary figure as he stood along the rope line that separated mere mortals from some of the game’s biggest names. The latter were enjoying lunch and drinks at tables spaced on the manicured lawn of Augusta’s stately and historic Clubhouse. We mortals enjoyed just watching from the other side.
Suddenly it dawned on me. Why was Doug Sanders standing a few feet from me on one side of the ropes, while his peers were on the other side?
“Excuse me, but aren’t you Doug Sanders?” I asked.
“Yes I am,” he responded,” How did you know?”
Talk about a loaded question.
“Well for starters, your outfit is a dead giveaway,” I said. “Who could forget you?”
He smiled and wanted to know where I was from.
I could hardly say “Philadelphia” when he blurted, “What a great town and some great courses.”
Actually, the first time I had seen Sanders in person was at one of those great courses, Whitemarsh Valley Country Club, which hosted an annual tour event for roughly 20 years from the 60’s into the 80’s.
And the reason Sanders shared a spot on the “other side of the ropes”, he explained, dates back to a short putt he missed on the 18th hole in the final round of the 1970 Open Championship at St. Andrew’s.
All he needed was to make that three footer and the Open Championship was his. But he pushed it right, and instead of hoisting the Claret Jug, Doug Sanders became a footnote in Open History.
It meant a next day 18-hole playoff which he lost to Jack Nicklaus by one stroke. And it also meant looking from the outside in on the rope line on Augusta’s back lawn.
You see, any winner of a Major is invited to play practice rounds during Masters week and have access to the Clubhouse and all of its amenities.
Three feet. That’s all that separated Doug Sanders from lunch and drinks on the lawn at Augusta National that day in April ‘06. And his name on the Claret Jug forever.