I have been privileged to meet many of the finest and purest Christians in the world, some of them Catholic and some not; mind you, most of the latter have since crossed the river or are standing on the side, gathering their courage for the dive. They have inspired me, influenced me, educated me, and changed my life.
But this and every Christmas I think of a person who embodied the spirit of love, forgiveness, sacrifice, and humanity more than anyone else I have ever encountered. Yet he wasn’t even religious, let alone a Christian. He had never really been taught about Christianity, knew little about Christian beliefs, and was convinced that the sand-paper of hypocrisy had rubbed away much of the splendor of organized faith. As for the Roman Catholic Church, he knew little and cared less.
He was a secular Jew, his name was Phil Coren, and he was my father. And he loved Christmas.
The season of magic began for me at around 2:00 am on Christmas Day morning. That was when I heard the distinctive sounds of the London black taxi cab diesel engine driving up the suburban east London street to my house where I lived and spent my formative years. To a child, work and income mean nothing, which is probably the way it should be. I didn’t realize, and my father would have been angry if I had realized, that he was not paid when he didn’t work—but that whatever happened, he would always devote Christmas Day to his wife and to his children, to what mattered most to him and to his family.
So he worked 14 hours or more on Christmas Eve. Hard, tough, and often challenging and difficult work. It was why he was always so sleepy when my sister and I ran into our parents’ bedroom horribly early and screamed about Santa’s generosity. “He’s been, he’s been,” we would cry. Dad didn’t respond much, and sometimes we almost resented his tiredness and what appeared as indifference. I wish I could hug him right now and weep my sorrow. I’m sure he would tell me not to worry about it. Very Christian, that.
My father had driven a cab for most of his working life, after his years in the RAF and time spent as a boxer. The armed forces in wartime, a tough sport, and a rough upbringing had formed him into a hard but wonderful person. He told off-color jokes, sometimes swore, and spoke his mind. Not the sort of person we approve of any more! When I met the woman I would later marry, I proudly showed my dad a photograph of this gorgeous girl, whose mother was born in India. He agreed that she was beautiful, but said, “A bit dark, isn’t she?” I shouted at him, and stormed off. Ten minutes later he found me. “Mike, I’m an idiot. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.” Not a liberal, professionally sensitive, and politically correct story, but a tale of fleshy reality. He was a product of his age and his environment and he had reacted rather than thought. But when forced to consider what he had said, justice smashed pride. Here was humility and kindness.
We are not Oprah clones but broken people. What defines us is not pretending to be perfect but acknowledging when we’re not. My father knew he was wrong, and made things right. Very Christian, that.
In 1985 I was received into the Roman Catholic Church. My dad’s reaction was, “Whatever makes you happy must be a good thing, but just don’t tell me about it.” But he was not saccharine man. When I emigrated to Canada and married my Canadian Catholic wife in a Canadian Catholic church, he said, “Mike, I love you, I’ll do anything for you, but I can’t come to the wedding, I can’t. It wouldn’t feel right, I’d be a fraud, a hypocrite, and it would be wrong.” But he cashed in all his savings and gave them to us so that we could buy furniture for our rented apartment. Four months later when my wife and I went to Britain for Christmas, he’d made a note of all of the local Mass times for us, and handed it to his son and daughter-in-law with a smile that illuminated the room. Very Christian, that.
Can people be good without God? Actually, it’s the wrong question. Better is, can people be good without knowing that God is working in their lives? Undoubtedly, the answer is yes. The atheists have it so wrong—even their denial is a product of a mind given by the Creator, and conscious and creative thought is no more an accident than was my father’s love for me, and my understanding that while I wish he had joined me as a believer within the Church given to us by Jesus Christ, the God of love will welcome him with open arms as broad as the ocean.
Phil Coren died on August 14, in 2002. He had had a second stroke, was suffering from cancer, and had nursed my mum through Alzheimer’s. It was not a good death, if any death can be described as good. Yet he never complained, he never blamed anybody for his suffering, he tried to make the best of it, and saw purpose in what was happening. The last time I saw him alive was when he came to visit us in Canada, and this time he came to Mass with the family and remained on his own while we went to receive the Eucharist. As I returned and sat down, I saw that he was crying. I held his arm, and thanked God for a father who, more than so many people who boast belief, taught me about truth. Very Christian, that.
Some of God’s creatures are in the Church and do not even know it, others are members in name only and take for granted a gift more precious than gold. Roman Catholicism is in the best sense “inclusive,” and God gave his Son to die for us to show the way to eternal life, to provide that supreme, sublime ladder back to the Creator. I think about my father quite often, and, truth be told, I feel guilt for not having shown my love and gratitude enough while he was alive and I had the opportunity.
If he saw what I had just written he would probably laugh or tell a joke to hide his embarrassment. He did what he did because he was my father. A small but shining ripple of the ultimate paternal sacrifice of sending a Son to us.
Dad, I miss you. I am sure that the seeds of my adult acceptance of the Catholic faith were planted by the goodness of you and mum, and one day I intend to thank you in the way you deserve. That will be when reality begins, after this life of shadows.
Very Christian, that. Merry Christmas, Dad. Merry Christmas to all of you.