A telephone number given in the Dec. 17 Style section's "Noted With" column for purchasing Monsignor Thomas Wells's book of essays was incorrect. The number is 301-962-8000. (Published 12/19/2000)
It was this time last year when Tommy had no words. Nothing. So he just kept shaking his head. Then he cried.
I suppose Mary Magdalene anointed Jesus's feet with her tears because it was all she had. So Tommy, too, offered us his for the same reason. And that was enough.
At the foot of a Christmas tree, my wife, Krista, and I told him we couldn't have children. And the white lights all around began to bleed. Months passed and our discord unfolded. Although Krista and I made the easy decision to eventually adopt, doctors told us we could bear children of our own through in-vitro fertilization.
After researching the procedure, we discovered the Catholic Church didn't support the method because it risked aborting embryos, and regarded the surgery as an unnatural way of creating life.
I met Krista outside a Bennigan's in Lakeland, Fla., six years ago. I said something silly, about her "pretty" eyes, to get her to talk. She bit, but told me my line was awful. In a brief, awkward parking-lot conversation beneath a blanket of stars, Krista told me her life was horses, that she was Catholic and that her family owned the two Italian restaurants in town. Our first date was Sunday Mass the following day.
At breakfast afterward, she told me she wanted 10 children one day, likely to try and run me off. But I am from a family of 10, so I stayed. We were married in '98. We discovered our infertility in '99. We were Hatfield and McCoy in '00--at least when the issue of starting a family reared its gruesome head. Which was every day.
Krista was convinced an in-vitro attempt was justified. I was fairly convinced our plight was God's will, and that we probably shouldn't mess with it. I wouldn't, however, blame Krista for her fierceness, especially after our doctor assured us, per our request, that no embryos would be put at risk. In effect, the procedure--in the eyes of the Catholic Church--would be only "unnatural."
I was sitting in Beltway traffic, by the Georgia Avenue exit on June 5 of this year when I phoned Tommy, desperate.
"Buddy, come over," he said. "Bring Krista."
Krista, God bless her, knew the stance my uncle, a Catholic priest, would take. She went anyway. It would be two against one, but regardless, she chose to pick a fight with Tommy to stand up for the child she knew could grow within her womb.
In the span of two or so hours from the wooden deck of his shoe box-size rectory in Germantown, he changed our lives, melted the strife, and we felt like we were floating. Peace. Sweet peace. With a glass of cheap merlot in hand, he talked about carrying whale-size crosses. Martyrdom. God's will and the mystery of Christ's plan. He said he suffered with us and his watery bright-blue eyes weren't lying. He admitted a faithful surrender to God's puzzling plan seemed so futile when presented with the conquering powers of science. But he also said acceptance of even the worst of crosses would lead to unanticipated, wonderful experiences of God's goodness.
"Hard to understand, I know," he said with that smile of his. "But that goodness will be revealed."
He stopped poor Krista and hugged her on the walk to the car. "I'll be there for you," he said. "Throughout it all."
Two days later, in that rectory, he was murdered.
So here we are, staring Christmas down the throat again. This time, though, his family and countless friends are forced to confront this clumsy confluence of awesome joy and awesome void. This was the time of the year when Tommy was a giant.
You'd walk into his presence and go home wringing personality and cheer out of your clothes. This man, Monsignor Thomas Wells, heart of our Christmases past, is gone, though. So gone. What to do?
Luckily, so many people--thousands upon thousands, in fact--felt his light touch. Within days after his death, 10,000-plus people from around the country and beyond visited a Web site posted by a parishioner at Mother Seton Church in Gaithersburg, where he served as pastor at the end. Hundreds of flabbergasted Catholic and non-Catholic friends expressed grief with farewell notes and poems. Fire codes were broken at his funeral at Sacred Heart Church in Bowie, where mourners were bused in along Route 450, which had to be closed to regular traffic due to the crowds.
Simply put, Tom loved being a priest each day of the 29-plus years he served the church. He made it fun. Human. We could talk to him because he was us. He danced horribly at weddings. Perhaps as many as 100 times a year, he was invited to friends' homes for dinner. Often, without asking, he'd stroll into the kitchen and sample a meal still being cooked.
He blew up my dad's old station wagon in New Hampshire and brought home the license plate. "Here's your car," he said. Line up 500 priests in a row, and he'd be voted most sarcastic. Because of that humor, a woman in a Galway pub tried to pick him up while I watched.
He mastered the art of finding the human condition. He came at our problems from a constellation of angles. If we were serious-minded, he'd summon wisdom. Have a sense of humor? He'd rely on wit. Tommy's warmth so often found a way of flowing directly into the coldest parts of our soul. In an attempt to calm his suspected murderer, he reportedly offered him a beer.
So often in the aftermath of his death, our family--which has tightened to a knotted rope since Tom's death--has been asked what we think of his suspected murderer. We have a large extended family, but to the best of my knowledge, each of us harbors no anger or hatred. Tom wouldn't.
The accused, a 25-year-old tree trimmer who lived in a van, won't face the death penalty if he is convicted, and we are thankful for that. Apparently the murder occurred during a botched burglary. According to the suspect's mother, the young man was "high on drugs" the night of the crime, June 7.
Six months have passed. We have traditions at Christmastime that had Tommy at the forefront. For twenty-some years he stood by the tree on Christmas night as 50 of us squeezed into a living room to belly-laugh as he became comedian and master of ceremonies, calling out names and handing out gifts. Thousands will tell you humor was his greatest gift. But it wasn't. The night after Christmas, Tommy treated those nieces and nephews who were old enough to dinner. Somehow, throughout the course of those cozy nights, he managed, seamlessly, to make his way around the room to speak to each of us. Those nights were perfect. Thousands will tell you his warmth was his greatest gift. But it wasn't.
Each Christmas Eve we watched him catch fire as he celebrated Mass on the day when, according to John, "word became flesh and dwelt among us." He loved celebrating Mass. He did it every day he was a priest--from altars, motel rooms, picnic tables, living rooms, mountaintops. Wherever, whenever.
Some will tell you this was his greatest gift. And it was. These traditions have met the guillotine. And as the year moves on, we will come upon more dead traditions--traditions we will grudgingly relocate to the cold repository of irreplaceable memories. But few of us--family and countless friends alike--walk about this magical time of year bearing thick scabs of cynicism. I doubt any of us feel sorry for ourselves. "So stupid if you do," Tommy would undoubtedly say.
Since his death, 200 of Monsignor Wells columns have been published as "From the Pastor's Desk--Spiritual Reflections by Msgr. Thomas M. Wells" and can be purchased by phone (301-942-8000) or fax: 301-942-8500. All proceeds benefit the Mother Seton Building Fund, the Msgr. Wells Scholarship Fund and the Msgr. Wells Society for Vocations.