A few weeks ago I participated in a funeral Mass for a 96-year-old woman named Harriet Colvin.
Aunt Harriet, as I called her, was a longtime friend of my mother, and the last surviving member of my mom’s peer group.
The folks in that circle were a part of what Tom Brokaw has dubbed “the greatest generation,” the generation that stiffed it out through the depression of the 1930s and the Second World War.
But they were “great” for more than their resilience in the face of adversity.
They were steady, loyal, devout people who were satisfied with what they had and were grateful for it.
Of course, I didn’t analyze them while I was growing up among them, but if I had to characterize in retrospect how I felt when I was with those people, I would say that I felt safe and I felt valued.
In one way or another they all had a powerful influence on me, my parents and their friends, but Aunt Harriet stands out in that regard.
Harriet had a gift: when she engaged you in conversation she created the impression that at that moment you were the most important person in the world.
She fixed her eyes on yours and even subtly leaned forward as though she expected to hear something very interesting or very important.
Talking to her was an unusual experience for a boy young enough to be her son. I was a nerdy kid, interested in history and classical music, playing the violin, writing in composition books for hours on end, haunting our parish church.
Whenever I saw Aunt Harriet, she wanted to hear about those things.
Since I admired her, loved her, her interest in me elevated my opinion of my own worth.
In this respect, Aunt Harriet anticipated Pope Francis, who often encourages us individual people, and the whole Church, to avoid thinking of ourselves as the center of all that is and venture instead out into the lives of other people.
Many years ago, a co-worker told me to notice the tendency we all had to avoid eye contact when we passed each other in the newsroom, offices, or corridors, even though we worked together every day — in some cases for decades.
What were we hiding from? Were we afraid of what me might see in the eyes of another human being, or afraid of what those eyes might ask of us?
My co-worker didn’t mention this to me as a random thought.
She stopped me and made this remark as I was about to walk past her without looking into her face.
I’d like to say that I was converted on the spot, but it wasn’t so.
I think it’s safe to infer that when Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, to Zacchaeus, to the woman accused of adultery, his eyes were fixed on theirs, and they had his whole attention. And they became aware of their intrinsic value and their potential; their lives were transformed.
As he did in other ways, Jesus set a challenging example in that way.
Whether or not she thought of it those terms, Aunt Harriet followed that example and deeply affected my life.