by Mary Anne O’Donnell  

For the 18 years, I have worked at Catholic Charities I have experienced unconditional love every day by witnessing the work of our staff. I have also received unconditional love through interactions and relationships with clients; these clients have had a tremendous influence on my life and helped me to grow as a person. Several weeks ago one of the men who graduated from the Christopher Place Employment Academy died. This man had a difficult life of drugs and incarceration. He was able to change his life for short periods of time but maintaining change was hard. The family asked me to speak at his funeral so I decided to share a few excerpts from what I wrote because I think they are a reflection of unconditional love.

Over the past few days as I reflected on the man I knew for a short time three words came to mind: big heart, fragile, and love.

One day I was having a meeting at CP and I wanted to get lunch for everyone. I asked Julian to take me to get some sandwiches… he said come on Smiley (by this time in our relationship he had nicknamed me Smiley) I am going to get you the best sandwiches in Baltimore… (I am not from Baltimore. I had been here about 8 years). Off we went in the van to the Monument Market. I think that day I met almost everyone in Baltimore who knew “Footie”. He introduced me to everyone in the market and shared parts of his life story with me. He was so proud to tell people about the program he completed and where he worked and to introduce them to me. He offered assistance and advice and encouragement to everyone. So over two hours later and much past lunch time we arrived back at CP with the best tuna fish sandwiches in Baltimore. For me it was one of the most memorable days of my life. Julian made me smile. He had a huge heart.This huge hearted man was also fragile just like most of us are at times… his human vulnerabilities caused angst in his life. Change is hard; change is hard to maintain; we can’t always stay the course. We all tend to take on more than we can comfortably manage and many times we fall. Julian had those moments when his priorities got mixed up. He got worn down by compulsive activity and “busy-ness” that got him off track.  These are the times when I shed tears with him.  These were the times when he sat in my office having the courage to admit his vulnerabilities and try to move beyond them. These were the times that I had to use tough love hoping he could get back on course. As hard as these conversations were, Julian always thanked me for the honesty, admitting he didn’t always like the honesty but he respected it.

I would go months without hearing from him and then he would call and stop by to check in and talk, ask for help and fret about what he could do to make things up to people he had hurt. I always told him to ask for forgiveness. Forgiving ourselves and others will help us step into a new day as a free human being.

For a long time he would call my cell phone just to say hi and let me know he was ok or not so good… I really think he needed someone to listen to him. God knows I was not the person to give him much advice. But I think he knew I loved him and cared enough about him to tell him the hard stuff

My last conversations with him were about his love for you and his kids and grandkids. He wanted to try to do the best for all of you. He sat and told me stories about the activities you liked and how you were doing in school. He loved you so much but was not always able to show it. He wanted me to help get Christmas gifts for you, which I did but I also told him the greatest gift he could give was spending time with you and telling you that he loved you.

The last few times I saw him I told him I was worried about him and he said “I will be ok… I love you Smiley… you hear…”