Uncle-Steve-Religious-Family-Incarnate-Word

Having flown in from Italy to be with my family on the day of my uncle’s sudden death, I was now surreally using his old phone in order to help with funeral arrangements. When a message popped up on this phone, I could not believe what I read.

It was a message from the doctor, the one who had treated him for cancer. This doctor had been able to eradicate the cancer with chemotherapy, but side effects of the treatment had proved fatal. The short but poignant exchange read as follows:

Sat. April 18, 9:48 pm

Dr. Michael, This is Steve Miola and I wanted to thank you for your help in discovering and treating the cancer. Your kindness and concern helped me so much. As you may know, I am losing the battle against the bleo toxicity, but I remain grateful to you. thank you

(the doctor responds)

–I am aware of the bleo toxicity issue. What is the current status?

 –Not long to live day to day here at Fox Chase. Resorted to oxygen just to get by tonight, spiritually prepared and ready to meet our Heavenly Father any time now

 Uncle Steve had not written to seek medical advice or relief, nor to vent anger or blame, as some patients might, nor did he say that he was dying, until the doctor explicitly asked him. No, he was writing to thank the doctor. The sincerity of his thanksgiving was starkly pure, and to be perfectly frank, shocked me to tears. What kind of man is this who, on his deathbed, numbers the doctor who had served him the toxic medicine, among the dear people to contact, bid farewell, and thank? According to Cicero, “gratitude is not only the highest of the virtues but also the mother of all the rest,” a point that seemed to be verified here before my eyes. It is the type of thanksgiving to which Christians are called.

Uncle Steve’s first cross

Steve was not initially happy in 2005 when I told him I would enter the convent. He shared the pain of my father, his twin, who seemed to be losing a second daughter to religious life (my sister Fiat had entered four years earlier). Yet U. Steve never opposed me, perhaps due to the same principle of family loyalty. He began to attend feasts and even came to the Novitiate to visit when I was a postulant. On one such occasion, in the warm atmosphere of our dining room, a light struck U. Steve as sharp as a bolt, passing by almost imperceptibly. With a mind ever active, he lit on my cross of Matará, the only part of the habit I had at the time, and began to ask many questions about its strange depictions.

A few months later, U. Steve appeared on the day of my Investiture with a cross of Matará that he had carved in wood, complete with its precisely incised symbols.

Silver-Cross-SSVM-Uncle-Steve Silver-Cross-Matara-SSVM-Uncle-Steve IVE-Shield-SSVM-Uncle-Steve Silver-Cross-Matara-SSVM-Uncle-Steve_1 Silver-Cross-Matara-SSVM-Uncle-Steve_2

Soon after, he learned about the symbolism of the IVE shield and created a beautiful wooden and painted version. What began as an artist’s fascination grew into a sign of his affection for my sister Fiat and myself and of support for our religious vocations. Once, when a well-meaning priest politely offered to pay U. Steve for the wooden IVE shields he requested, our uncle quickly replied that he could have the shields, but that he would accept no pay, as long as he could engrave his nieces’ names on the back as he did on all his work.

IVE Central

But these crosses and shields became much more than a momentary token of affection; soon all his free time was occupied in producing IVE insignia for missionaries around the world. Surely each member of the Congregation has come into contact with at least one of his shields, crosses, cards, or signs in some mission or house of formation. The inventory of his work, like his workshop, was itself a work of art. It spanned 37 pages, 80 typologies, and thousands of items; it included measurements of his pieces, photos in color, dates, descriptions of material used, and comments on both how and to whom each piece was delivered. Anyone who ever met U. Steve will remember how he almost never visited without giving at least one presentation of such gifts; it was not simply a matter of pride in his own work, but a moment to flesh out symbols, ponder their meanings, and complete the thoughtful gift. He devised ways for his work to be multiplied and distributed in ways useful to the Congregation. For example, he created his own machine with needle-thin blades whose sole function was to incise the uppermost section of the cross of Matará, a work too fine for ordinary chisels and blades. He sent multiple copies of items to us for our superiors to distribute as they saw fit.

Generosity that gave without counting the cost

My sister and I observed that this affection had reached another dimension, and so natural love grew supernatural. Perhaps there was even some seed of this in his first contact with the cross.  Roughly a year ago, while looking about his workshop in the days before the funeral, I found a letter in his impeccably maintained archives (clearly, U. Steve had preserved every prayer card, letter, email, brochure, program, gift received from the IVE).  It was a letter I drafted as a novice, attached to an enclosed diagram that he had mailed me: an enlarged diagram of the cross of Matará marked with questions to connect each form to its meaning, which he later used to sharpen the precision of his understanding and his work.

Cross-Matara-Layout-Uncle-Steve-Servidoras

The folly that produced so much work grew ever more, and the mysteries that he carved with his hands left their traces in new places. He registered for a Masters in Theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and studied hefty books on the biblical tradition and eschatology. He began to pray a daily rosary for particular intentions (he had relearned this devotion by gluing the rosary beads onto the IVE shield), and he served as an acolyte at a traditional parish in downtown Philadelphia. His relationship grew with the Congregation as well; before long, he seemed to know more names of individual sisters and priests than I did, and took trips just to visit missionaries who had become his friends. After he passed, a sister approached me to tell me of a donation that he had made to help her pay off the loans in order to enter the convent, of which neither my sister nor I had been aware. He delighted in buying precious pigments and other fine artistic utensils to send to a gifted contemplative whom he knew painted icons, though he had never met her. While the cloistered life had generated quite a bit of initial negativity, the contemplatives ended up being some of his dearest friends in the Religious Family. He also rejoiced in the particular feasts of our Family and crafted celebratory items to crown anniversaries, ordinations, and special visits. He even made a Chinese pagoda to silently hang in the cloister of a monastery wall to honor a particular prayer intention. We were realizing then how this work from his hands had passed into those of the divine Artist.

I remember only once in the last 15 years that U. Steve became angry with me. It was after he had fulfilled a particularly large request of over 7000 laminated cards for a mission, and had to take a week off from work to complete it. Knowing that U. Steve never said no to a request, Fiat and I decided it was best for us to handle all requests from then on and filter them before they reached U. Steve. The following week I received a phone call from U. Steve, who had me know that this idea was not acceptable to him, and that he would directly handle his own requests; we realized that there would be no way to put limits on his generosity.

Omnia bene fecit

At “IVE Central,” as he called his home, only the most proper materials would be used. U. Steve looked high and low for items he thought were the best; spent endless hours researching for his projects, even drove half-way across the country to buy out the stock of imported Argentinian Ziziphus mistol so that he could use the same wood as that of our cross.  He began employ only gold-leaf for all shields, as well as restore the ones already made. He called his workshop “the stations of the cross” for the series of steps that went into the making of a single cross. He enlisted his faithful and exquisitely patient wife, our Aunt Paula, as “quality control,” whose job it was to check every single link of the rosary chain, one by one, ensuring that it was assembled perfectly.

Uncle-Steve-Rosary-Cross-Matara-SSVM

Tenderness

To be sure, he had particularly dear friendships, M. Anima, Fr. Diego Ruiz, Fr. James Ty, Fr. Cima, Sr. Annunciation, Sr. Wspomozycielka, Fr. Ayala, M. Caridad, M. Virgen Blanca, Fr. Brian Dinkel. But his love for the sisters and priests embraced all in the religious family indiscriminately, and they all called him “Uncle Steve.” He told everyone about us. One time a co-worker, perhaps a bit fed-up with all the glorifying chatter, challenged him, “Alright, Steve, can you just name one of these sisters or priests who isn’t smart, compassionate, charitable, joyful, talented, and wonderful in every way? Uncle Steve responded just as brightly as he had begun the conversation: “Nope!” It seems to me that God instills a particular, fervent tenderness that blazes in certain souls (like that of, for instance, Brunello of Segni). It is a beautiful gift of divine prerogative, a certain loyalty to truth that springs from loving the good and believing in ideals that the beloved one is capable of doing, even if he hasn’t done them. These souls love us to the death as fathers love their children. They fiercely defend us despite our faults, which do not seem to carry much weight with them, disappearing like insignificant drops in the sea of such tenderness.  “God loves us, not such as we are now by our own merit, but such as we shall be by his own gift[1].”

There would be many more things I could tell you, my dear religious family, but

the true story of a soul is too long and too profound for a simple chronicle; I have tried to show just a few snapshots of a man who became uncle to us all.

I would like to close with a few words about the end of his life, when we found out just who our uncle Steve was. At the last stage of his illness, we found him a very changed man. Certainly he loved Fiat and me very much, but we realized that there was something that went well beyond us, a purer, supernatural love that filled him to the brim. He spoke of how he had grown very close to John Paul II and our Lady of Lujan, how he prayed for particular missions, sisters, priests of the congregation; in his last days he became an apostle of the active participation in the holy Mass. It amazed me how he had assimilated certain things not because we had taught or shown them, but simply because he was drinking of the same spirit.

Hours before he died, in the presence of my sister and M. Sacred Heart, he cleared his throat, and said with emotion that he was Uncle Steve, and he wanted to make one last presentation. He said, “I wanted to make a project, a sort of therapy during my fight with cancer. I reflected on what could I make, maybe some project with bikes or something, like I did in my youth. No, of course, not; it had to be something with the IVE. I settled on a mosaic of the shield of St. John Paul II. But you know, a funny thing started to happen while I was working on that shield. I started to get very close to John Paul II. You told me a long time ago, Fiat, that John Paul was special because at the end of his life he showed us how to suffer. So I decided to ask him to teach me how to suffer like he did. And he did. And then he brought me to Our Mother. So when you see photographs of me working on the shield, they don’t do the reality justice; there were really three of us working on it: Our Mother, John Paul, and me! I did this mosaic in gratitude for all the prayers of the IVE during my illness. I am so grateful and honored to be a part of this family, to be “Uncle Steve” to this IVE family.”

Uncle-Steve-Totus-Tuus-SSVM

This mosaic hangs in the SSVM Procura in Rome in his memory. He asked to be buried in the alb he used when he served Mass, and that he wear the cross of Matará to the grave.  The sisters embroidered a shield on the white alb, such that those who looked upon him saw both symbols of our religious family.

He remained thankful for God’s blessings to the end of his life, and he faced death with serenity, even confiding to my sister how he had a “secret happiness”, as he called it.  Secret, perhaps, in both senses, both hidden and profoundly interior.

Uncle Steve had said that it was his being “Uncle Steve” to others that made him strong in his hours of trial. And indeed, this must be true, if we believe that the spiritual communion between the members of our Religious Family is real—graces constantly dispensed and distributed, gained and received.

An email message sent to a Servidora just two days before his death expresses this idea in his own words:

I know that we are united as a Family strengthened and held together by our Faith and love of our Lord and for each other. We can only strive to obey his will as Jesus taught us. We’ll see where this all leads, but I know that I am not alone and that all of you are with me and that I can follow His lead with every confidence that I will be His obedient servant no matter what.

With much love,

Uncle Steve

God gave success to the work of his hands[2].

Uncle-Steve-Religious-Family-Incarnate-Word

Sr. María Panagía, ssvm

Those interested to see a selection of U. Steve’s work over the years may access it through this link (which he created):

http://share.shutterfly.com/action/welcome?sid=0QatmzJo4ZMWT8&emid=shareprintviewer&linkid=link5&cid=EM_sharview

[1] «Tales nos amat Deus, quales futuri sumus Ipsius dono, non quales sumus nostro merito». Concilio de Orange (529), can. 12; cf. Concilio de Trento, sec. VI cp. XVI.

[2] Ps 90:17.

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