Monday, September 22, 2003

Jonesy: So English! So Jesuit! So Insightful !

His name was Jones but everyone called him "Jonesy". He was VERY English and very anxious that this be known. He had a great bullneck surrounded by an Anglican-type clerical collar, two sizes too large. He had a huge bald head which came to a kind of point on the top. He smoked a smelly pipe which he kept between fashionably clenched false teeth. His eyeglasses were the thick egg shell variety surrounded by black tortoise shell rims. His cassock or soutane was the classic Oxford don style with twin tails flowing off his shoulders.

He was exceedingly intimidating to me, a very green,very inexperienced, freshly minted little priest just out of a hot house seminary in Washington DC. I had just disembarked from a 9,000 ton freighter after a 17 day voyage on the Atlantic. I had spent 17 boring and frustrating days watching flying fish,reading,eating big meals, chipping paint, listening to the pained declarations of happiness of a married minister as he screamed all day at his children and trying to learn French from three Marists Brothers en route to a difficult and primitive mission in Rhodesia.

Jonesy terrified me. Even after I saw him grovelling appropriately before the Irish Capuchin Bishop of Capetown, with his "Yes, me Lord. No, me Lord", I was still scared of him. He was not only a Jesuit, a factor enough to panic any dirty necked kid from the New York tenements like me, but he was also ENGLISH! As they used to say: "If he were any more English, he couldn't speak."

So when the Pastor of the very swanky seaside parish where I was staying awaiting transport into the " interior", asked two of his parishioners to take me for day tour of the beautiful Cape of Good Hope, I ran into my Jonesy problem. The two parishioners were very good looking young women, who, by happy chance, were also VERY wealthy.

Jonesy patently disapproved of this venture. He glared at me from his high station and muttered in a veddy,veddy English manner: "WELL.....I SUPPOSE WE ALL MUST HAVE OUR POUND OF HORSE (pronounced "hawse") FLESH, MUSTN'T WE??

I was shaken. What did this patriarchal figure mean? Was I doing something wrong in driving with these charming women? Was I demeaning an older priest by letting these two pretty gals take me out all day to watch the melding of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans? What was he telling me ? He couldn't be wrong. He was a JESUIT! And even more, he was ENGLISH!

It has taken me decades to savor Jonesy's meaning. He was instructing a callow and gossoon-like priest with two basic lessons of life.

1. Every one has to deal with temptation. Not just with concupiscience but with tendencies to greed,laziness,deceit,inordinate ambition,envy, human respect,non-compassion, mercilessness, unforgiveness, narcississm, over sensitivity,pride in its disguised forms,hardness of heart and covetousness. All of us are subject to Original sin. Jonesey was saying even young priests with high flown ideals and aspirations must be aware of their own fragility. He says, in effect, --remember that you are human and with humility admit that if we wish to lose "weight" we have to stay away from the symbolic food which could imperiously demand our adoration.

2. There is no such thing as real perfection in any human being. We all have our characterologic scars and spiritual warts and multiple soul wrinkles. Jonesy says that it is all right to be human and to admit that one is fallible. Hurrah! And one can be reminded that in the whole history of the human race, there have been only two perfect persons. Jesus, Who being God, found it relatively easy and Our Blessed Lady who by a singular theologic exception was without sin.

The gloriously liberating emotional result of this insight was simply:

"It is all right to have scars and wrinkle and warts. Join the club of Adam and Eve." As long as one is deeply and truly aware that Godloves him with and implacable love and that in return one tries to love God back with all one's brokenness and imperfection and even after many regretted sins, somehow --with the Lord--- it is all right!!!!!

It was to say that the Catholic Church is not a museum for plastic saints but a clinic for sinners!!!!! That means ---- all of us! Many years ago I had instructed a truly brilliant Jewish woman preparatory to Baptism. But she insisted, before entering the Church, that I declare to her that Hitler is burning in Hell. This I could not do--even tho' I,myself am half Jewish. My religion is the religion of the second chance, the perennial font of hope, the religion of forgiveness. My religion totally believes in the POWER of God's mercy and of the force of grace to reform and rehabilitate.

As sinners, we are to respect all others. We are to hurt no one deliberately. WE are to try to do unto the other as we would have him do unto us. These are difficult lessons to implement when we understand the human nature that Jonesy trumpeted. So, it takes a lifetime even to approach such implementation. Such is a deduction from my Jonesy 54 years ago. So,hopefully, I will meet him in heaven and I shall cup my heavenly hands and shout over the din of the harps and whatever makes people happy "up there":

Hey Jonesy! I FINALLY GOT IT! As someone said somewhere, "better late than never..." Right, Jonesy?

Sunday, September 21, 2003

The Sacristan and the Altar Boys

His name was Stephen and he came from some mysterious section of an eastern European country. He smelled of garlic exceedingly and spoke with a kind of Bela Lugosi accent. He almost always wore a long black soutane with many food stains down the front. But most fascinating of all was his wig which was mouldy and old and seemed always to be askew and mismatching the natural hair on the back of his neck.

He was the Major domo of the altar, the sanctuary, the church and the sacristy. The linens were sparkling clean. The chalices glistened. The candles were "pruned" of wax. The choreography of assigning priests to the many side altars every half hour was his. And of course he RULED the altar boys.

He initiated us into the mysteries of lighting the thurible or tenser by swinging it in complete circles using the centrifugal force nature provided. He taught us how to ring the great bell used for the liturgical ceremonies-- a highly prized assignment for 11 year olds. He taught us how to pronounce the Latin responses, how to genuflect to the Lord in the tabernacle, how to fold our hands in the proper manner, how to handle the liturgical three pronged biretta or hat all priests used going to and from the altar. He was the Headmaster of a corps of kids who had a Marine-like pride in belonging. And he ruled by respect, fear and a touch of love.

One evening when a group of altar boys had gathered in what was called the altar boys’ sacristy, we engaged in a favorite past time. The lights were doused and we slugged whomever we wished. A kid named Hills was next to me and I delivered a beautiful right hand to his solar plexus in the classic Bob Fitzsimmons style. Hills was unprepared and he took my punch which almost killed him. He lay on the floor writing in pain, gasping for breath. With the lights now on and the kids all frightened at the sight of the pale body prostrate, Stephen arrived and demanded to know who was the assailant. I was too terrified to own up and I retreated into my cowardice. Stephen then with a real Dracula snarl announced that the boy who did this will have his right arm wither up from cancer which will drop off in three weeks. Each morning thereafter, I anxiously watched my ulna, elbow and wrist waiting for the inevitable because we all knew the power of Stephen’s curse. And after all, an eleven year near killer should pay for his misdeeds.

However, my reputation grew since at the next soiree when I began to mix it up with a bigger and stronger kid, he, having discovered his opponent to be "killer Lloyd", ran in panic from me.

When Stephen "trained" us for serving at the Holy Mass, he played the role of the priest. In so doing he amazed us. He didn’t walk. He glided. He didn’t formalize his genuflection. He seemed to pray it. Was it to impress us or did he really believe it? A rumor had it that he was an unfrocked priest from some tiny obscure rite. They rumored that he liked Girlie magazines. We didn’t know but we still revered and feared him. Some said that he "liked" boys. Once he hugged me VERY tightly and had aglazed, trancelike look in his eyes. I was neither frightened nor angry. I thought : "This guy is a kind of a nut." I just let it pass. We knew nothing of child molestation or sexual harassment. This was just Stephen.

He would take us in groups of four or five to Broadway plays--usually of a questionable nature, like The Dead End Kids. This was a bit racy in those days and afterwards Stephen would lecture us on the " social sins" and "whores". Neither of these topics could compare for interest with the fascinations of stickball or building model airplanes.

When I reached the street wise age of 14 and was graduating from Grammar school, I took my "autograph book" to Stephen to sign. This was a subtle but effective way for graduates to wring from adults some quantity of silver coins, preferably quarters. Stephen slipped a DOLLAR into my book saying: "Remember Lloydy (his name for me LloydY ) not everyone will be as good to you as is Stephen." His gestures were not unnoticed. We all knew his generosity and goodness--even, God help us, the priests. The Fathers would unhesitatingly seek his advice on rubrics, liturgy, art and theology. Everyone joked about him and his crazy wig but everyone valued him and in some strange way respected him.

How does one assess this strange and complicated man? From my vantage point of 77 years, I am most aware of the "Don’t judge" factor so strongly stressed in Scripture. Who knows how he stands before the Lord? He trained and influenced two generations of altar boys. This encompasses literally scores and scores of young men who are now senior citizens or themselves in the bosom of God. Whenever I meet old and former colleagues of the Altar boy fraternity (and they are of every level and attainment) inevitably they speak of Stephen with humor and fun but also with respect and gratitude. All of these men are men with deep feeling for the Eucharist and the Mass. This is certainly from family background, tradition, Holy Cross sisters and the like. But the icing on the cake, the formulation of external behaviour (for many of us) probably comes from Stephen. God rest you, Sacristan. May you be recognized in the Celestial sanctuary for all you have done for the dirty neck kids from the West side of Manhattan and beyond.

What does all of this say? It says that all people are broken in one way or another but brokenness does not preclude doing good for others or even being a saint. My friend Stephen to me is a beautiful example of an old Catholic principle. God DOES write straight with crooked lines.

Saturday, September 20, 2003

A Personal View of Abortion

It was a well kept, hush-hush family secret that I ( as an embryo or fetus ) might have been on the abortion block. Were it not for the simple, clear faith and love of my beautiful mother, I might never have been at all. I would have missed all the fun I had as a kid playing stick ball and learning the fascinating discoveries of school. I would never have had the joy of being a Missionary in Africa or the excitement of hosting a TV show on NBC for 15 years.

I would never have known the warmth of human affection and appreciation of human beings. I would never have had the opportunity to feed GOOD into others’ lives as I have done. I would never have had the thrills of teaching in seminaries and graduate schools. I would never have had the belly stretching paroxyms of telling and hearing jokes. I would have missed all the exhilaration I have known in the " dining out" experience. I would never have known about the landing on the moon and computers and CD music. My personal list seems endless.

It places me solidly, obviously, in the Pro-life camp. I do not need any recourse to abstract statistical argumentations arid graphs. Nor even concrete argumentation. OUT FRONT I have enjoyed being alive. And absurd as it seems,if there were such a forum for aborted babies, I would have lodged a formal complaint with the highest court of that forum. I would have been VERY much upset if I had been denied life.

My thanks to my God and to my beloved mother who, though only 21 at the time, had the inerrant instinct about the value of a kid-- and particularly HER kid. Because of the fierce and irrational prejudices of the earlier 20th century one of my father’s family suggested abortion to my mother since she had already had one child who was obviously headed for the Christian family. Another would have been difficult to conceal from my Jewish grandparents who, likewise, were part of the family conspiracy of silence, This was a process where everyone nonverbally pretended that things were not the way they were.

The family member proposing what she sincerely considered to be the "sensible" way out of an inconvenience offered to pay the total cost of the procedure. Then all would be just Dandy. Except for me.

The human mind clearly is complex beyond words. When something confronts me which I find unpleasant, terrifying, inconvenient or difficult, I can --by the remarkable device called denial--simply not see IT. Case in point. The American Declaration of Independence posits certain inalienable rights coming from the CREATOR; the first of which is LIFE. Without life, nothing is possible. If I find that an embryo is inconvenient, perhaps I can look away or under or above or through but let me never look AT the truth of that little life which does deserve a shot like the rest of us.

My cousin David, good, intelligent, compassionate, could never agree with me. Nor could other countless and good Americans. So be it. Because this is, as stated, a PERSONAL view of abortion. Boy, am I glad Mom stood her ground !