When we say the word family, it can mean so many things. Obviously, there’s our immediate family—parents, siblings, children, and spouse. As we expand outward, there are cousins, aunts, uncles, second cousins twice removed. Our friends, coworkers, and fellow parishioners are a kind of family, to be sure. As we continue to zoom out from our inner circle of immediate family to our local community, then to the city or town we live in, then to our state and nation, then to the entire world of humanity, the intimacy of the notion of family diminishes, becomes more remote, less personally known to us. And yet our faith teaches us that the human family—that is to say, every single human being on planet Earth—makes up the body of Christ and has inherent dignity.
Sometimes it’s a person whom we don’t know personally but has such a powerful message that it resonates across our country or the whole world. People like Oscar Romero and Mother Teresa were able to—and still do—reach so many with their examples of holiness without meeting the vast majority of the people they inspired. However, we can also look a little closer to home to find that well of inspiration. For me, a recent loss in my family reminded me that I don’t always need to look to the saintly titans of our faith to find a golden example of Gospel living.
I feel blessed for having grown up with connections and relationships in my extended family on both sides of my family. Thanksgivings were spent with my mom’s side of the family, while 4th of July celebrations brought my dad’s side of the family together. On top of the fact that it was Independence Day, it was also my grandmother’s birthday, so along with the hot dogs, German potato salad, baked beans, and, of course, beer, there was birthday cake and ice cream. And always at these Imwalle family gatherings was my Aunt Mary Anne, who passed away recently.
Following Christ’s Example
The older sister of my father, Mary Anne was one of a kind, a truly genuine spirit who loved life and loved people. Despite the flurry of conversations and sometimes chaotic atmosphere of 4th of July picnics and family Christmas parties, when Mary Anne came to talk to me, she always made me feel deeply valued, and she really wanted to know what was going on in my life. When I started dating my future wife, Belinda, Mary Anne and her husband, Tom, were quick to make her feel welcomed and accepted into our extended family. She seemed keenly aware that Belinda, coming from Mexico, might feel like a bit of an outsider in these family get-togethers, and I noticed time and again how she made an effort to help Belinda feel included.
At her funeral this past August, as I spoke to grieving family members, I noticed a trend in our conversations. Everyone said basically the same thing that I just described about Mary Anne. In so many words, all of us felt truly listened to by her. And though she accomplished many things in her life—from becoming a nurse to saving her local library to caring for both of her aging parents in her own home—her ability to make you feel like the only person in a room full of people and activity is something I will always return to when I remember her.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the way Mary Anne listened to people was Christlike. There are many examples of Jesus stopping and paying attention to a person while he was being followed by crowds. Often, these are moments in the Gospels when something particularly impactful about the nature of Jesus is revealed or emphasized, for instance, calling on Zacchaeus to come down from a tree, or noticing the woman who touched his cloak and was healed in chapter 8 of Luke. These moments are a reminder that, although Jesus is the savior of all humankind, he also has a profoundly personal connection with each and every one of us as individuals.
So, as I mourn the loss of my aunt, I am grateful for having had the opportunity to learn from her approach to life, one that mirrored the compassionate and attentive way of Christ. Indeed, it’s what we’re all called to do: Be like Christ. And one of the best ways to do that is to listen—really listen—to others, to make them feel like the only person in a crowded room. Mary Anne did that. So can I. So can you.