Archbishop Raya in front of Haifa's cathedral

A Treat for His Feet

by Fr. Ron Cafeo

 So much could be said about the larger-than-life Lebanese, Melkite Rite archbishop, who was a member of Madonna House and spent many years in Combermere. These memories, these stories, will give you just a glimpse of one facet of how he lived.

***

On most of our trips to the Middle East, we would stop in Paris, coming or going. Madonna House had a house there in the downtown, and when we were there, we would often go to the Place de Vosges, about a fifteen-minute from the house.

There we’d walk to a house that had a plaque with the words, “Domain de Victor Hugo.” This was where the author lived when he wrote the novel, Les Misérables.

It didn’t matter if there were others walking about or not. The archbishop would raise his arm and say, “Thank you, St. Victor!” (He would thus sometimes informally canonize a person who had brought great beauty to the world.)

When the archbishop was a young man, he had studied in Paris and read the novel. He was most moved by the character of the bishop who gave the former prisoner his silver.

We were able to attend the musical stage play of Les Misérables, and at the part where the bishop gave Jean Valjean the two silver candlesticks from the table, Archbishop Joseph poked me and said, not too quietly, “Ron! Watch!”

This kind of largesse and forgiveness was a very deep characteristic of the archbishop’s way of living.

***

One day, as we approached the corner of a downtown street in Ottawa, a man with a beard and shaggy white hair approached us. He was carrying a Bible.

“Reverend, could you bless my Bible,” he asked. “I just got it this morning from the Salvation Army.”

“Have you read it yet?” asked the archbishop.

“Oh yes, Reverend.”

“Then that is all the blessing it needs.”

Silence.

“Do you have a dollar for a cup of coffee?”

“A dollar!” said the archbishop. “That’s not enough for a cup of coffee!” He gave him a five-dollar bill and said, “And get yourself something to eat with your coffee. God bless you!”

***

One day when Archbishop Raya and I were visiting Madonna House Washington, we went walking in the beautiful restored train station, looking at the shops and all the people.

As we passed a shoe shine stand, the “proprietor,” an African-American man probably in his sixties, called out, “Shoe shine, Reverend?”

“Yes, sir,” said the archbishop, “My feet have been carrying me around for more than 80 years, and I think they deserve a treat.”

This was probably the first time the man had ever heard such a reply, and with a broad smile, he helped the archbishop climb up to the high seat of his stand.

As the shoes were receiving their last buffing, the archbishop said, “Have you had your lunch today?”

The man pointed to a small brown bag on the stand and said that he was just about to take his lunch break.

“Let’s go and have something to eat,” said the archbishop.

We went to a nearby eatery and had a meal. The archbishop ordered quite a few extras for the three of us to enjoy. Mostly he asked the man about his family, what was happening in the lives of his children and relatives. As we ate and talked, the man seemed to grow taller and younger.

The shoe shine man asked the archbishop if this was his first visit to Washington. The archbishop said no, that he had been there in 1963 when Dr. King had given his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

“I was there, too, right up front,” said the shoe shine man. “And where were you?”

“Oh,” said the archbishop, “I was working at the soup kitchen where people could come for a break and something to eat and drink.”

The eyes of the shoe shine man filled to the brim with tears, and then they overflowed down his cheeks, and he said, “I thought there was something familiar about you.”

This kind of meeting was very common in our travels. And so, as you can see from these stories, was his generosity.

If someone admired something he was wearing or an object in his house more than once, he would give it to them. By the time of his death, the archbishop had very little left of his own; he had given everything away.