The time my Jewish mother influenced the Pope

I come from a storytelling family. We recount classical Jewish stories and stories of our relatives. And we organize the adventures in our own lives into stories and tell them. Sometimes stories grow in the telling, but sometimes they are summarized, which may do them injustice.

I was reminded of this at a restaurant dinner following my daughter's college graduation. I'd previously met some of her friends and former roommates who were there, but some of the relatives - whom they had heard stories about - were visiting the college for the first time. Some of those college friends couldn't help asking the relatives who appeared in those stories whether they were true.

And so one of my daughter's friends leaned across the table toward my mother, Evelyn. "Are you," she asked, "the grandmother who once bribed the Pope?"

My mother looked shocked, and sputtered. "Oh, my! What have you people been saying about me? Why, I never..."

I interrupted her. "Let's rephrase that, Mom. Did you ever arrange for a favorable ruling by a high Vatican official on a matter of canon law, that just happened to coincide in time with a large charitable contribution?"

"Of course!" she replied. "That sort of thing was part of my job."

My mother worked for a large public school system in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. Her title, Coordinator of Community Resources, covered a surprising variety of initiatives, including sometimes keeping an eye out for ways to solve problems that couldn't be solved if one stayed within the budget.

In the early 1960s, initial efforts were being made to "mainstream" disabled children - provide care and education for them in the public school system. One of the needs was for a properly equipped playground. But it needed to be in an area that was quite built up. Land there was expensive and difficult to acquire.

A developer owned a parcel in the right spot, so my mother needed to get to know him. What were his problems and his needs? It turned out that he had a daughter, a devout Roman Catholic, whose marriage had fallen apart. This was before either divorces or annulments were as easy to get as they became later, and the local bishop had been unable to solve the problem. The woman told my mother, "I don't think anyone short of the Pope can help me."

Mother's appearance of self-confidence was impressive. "Well," she said, "Let me call the Pope, and see what I can do."

It wasn't quite that easy. My father, a labor lawyer, was able to introduce Mother to a law professor at Georgetown University Law School. He passed her on to the Dean of the Law School, who in turn gave her a letter of introduction to the Jesuit Provincial, the regional head of the Jesuits, in Baltimore.

Evelyn met with the Jesuit leader, and described at some length the need for playgrounds designed for disabled children.

"Yes, I agree," he said, "but what do the Jesuits have to do with it?"

"Tell me," she said, "do the Jesuits have a legal staff in Rome?"

Not many months thereafter, the county received a donation: a playground, in the right location, equipped for disabled children. The daughter of the donor had received what was called in those days "a papal annulment" of her failed marriage.

I'm now at the stage of life when I am sometimes called on by fundraisers for my college and similar groups looking for a significant donation. My donations aren't that large: I can't afford anything like a fully equipped children's playground. But I do enjoy swapping stories with those gift officers. Some of them are pretty clever people with broad interests. Some of them know how to solve more problems than you might expect.

And, after all, I do know a little about their job: My mother was pretty good at it.

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