Saturday, June 9, 2007

Old Priests and the Mass

Early every morning a group of old priests (usually about 10) meet, in a beautiful little chapel on Manhattan’s West Side to concelebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. They range, in age, from a relatively young 72 to a mature 92. They use wheelchairs, walkers, canes or they shuffle, painful step by painful step to worship their God and to confront their mortality. Their infirmities and medical experience include bypass heart surgery, Myocardial infarctions, crippling arthritis, TKR (total knee replacements), cancer, vertigo, rotator cuff repairs and cataract removal. Almost all suffer from some degree of deafness, moderate to severe. More than occasionally, their brain synapses fire improperly. They are white haired and gray haired and very bald. They, laudatores temporis acti,[1] are men living long past their eras which were the Great Depression, the Great War of 1941-45, Bing Crosby and Frances Langford.

The Mass is in silence with no distraction from guitars or nasal rendition of New Age hymnody which most of them find not only unfamiliar but disturbing. Before the Mass, they gather silently in the darkened chapel before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament reaching for the recommended frame of mind enjoined on them at their Ordination so long ago. “Be like that which you handle.” The sanctuary lamp flickers in the darkness with no sound but the hiss of the radiators which warms in winter or the hum of the A/C in summer which shields them from the brutal New York humidity.

I, myself, am one of these old men. I join them at Mass that I, under God, might draw some strength, resolve and faith from their simple, uncomplicated devotion. I knew them all when they were young and energetic, when they had the proverbial Tiger by the tail. I knew them when they were full of vibrancy and wit. I remember when they were so popular, people would wait for days to see them, as if they were some kind of religious neurosurgeon with incredible skill to heal. Now, for example, one of these, a former clerical “star”, has, after Mass is completed, only three “things to do” to fill his day: Breakfast, lunch and dinner.

No longer do these creaky old clerics receive the wide eyed adulation and admiration of their active younger days. No longer do their phones ring requesting time with the Great Man. No one seeks him out for advice or affirmation or guidance. The applause is gone. There are no longer great crowds hanging on his every utterance making him feel like a King of the Universe. In fact, the lives of these old priests are quiet, sometimes boring and lonely. They watch Television which saturates them with insipid sometimes insulting shows. They read newspapers for hours, carefully noting the obituaries and ultimately the advertisements (with no intent to buy anything). They have, like so many others fellow humans, grown old. This means a loss of power, independence, control, opportunities for mobility and fun. This means peril to their self esteem and their confidence. Always, it can border on depression and unhappiness for the man of God.

One of them who died at 95 used to lament that no one sought his advice about the recruiting process for his Community. He had been an active Director of Vocations in the past, a War Hero, decorated for bravery, and involved in four terrifying invasions in Europe. He, in a fit of pique, once said to me “Why don’t they ever ask me my opinion…” I, now unhappy in retrospect with my words, replied: “Because they don’t care about your opinion….” Though inelegant, this response was probably correct. That is simply the way it is. We are all the same and most probably we acted identically in our own youth.

Against such a sad but realistic background one can appreciate somewhat why these ancients are so faithful and involved in the daily Mass. While it is a formidable and concrete expression of the human need for Community and the yearning for interaction with other congenial human beings, the meaning of the daily meeting is far more profound than the merely natural. Yes, obviously concelebrating the daily Mass is far more bonding than watching late night TV together or even perfunctory breaking bread at a common table. With a kind of Gospel spin[2] on it, we could say that the factual pagan can develop “community” at a sports bar watching the Jets and guzzling beer with the “guys.” Nothing wrong with that but hardly comparable to what happens when a group of priests, old or young, gather to participate in Calvary and the Last Supper. Obviously, these priests “see” Something.

The bonding at the Mass stems from a common belief. These old men, soon to face their God for their personal judgment, believe that they are actually re-presenting Mount Calvary and the crucifixion and death of Jesus, their Master Who, in fact, is God Himself. They believe that they, as Other Christs, ordained as such, are Instruments of something so ineffable that it escapes definition. After years of study, reading, listening, praying, intellectualizing, they cannot really understand but only believe that they instrumentally, as “in persona Christi” priests, bring down Christ Himself on that very altar where they stand. Not in the ordinary sense of Jesus among us by Baptism, prayer or good works, but in this unique Presence of the Lord we call the “Blessed Sacrament.”

A friend of mine, a hard nosed labor negotiator, told me as we were sharing some pasta e fagioli and Italian bread, that should I say the words of Consecration over the bread there, he would get down on his knees in the restaurant—before all other diners—and worship Christ in the “Eucharist.” Without assessing his personal eucharistic theology, he does reflect that sensus fidelium[3] about this Tremendous Mystery which so dominates the lives of old priests. He also reflects how these old priests see the Mass and themselves.

They believe, by their very words, that a change takes place. That which is just bread or wine now becomes the actual Body and Blood of Jesus, Himself. He, the Master is there before these old chaps through their words. Theologians try to explain this by fancy thinking using, for example, the term, Transubstantiation, change of substance and not of externals. But it is the Faith which illumines the heart. Believe it or not. That is what they believe and that is why they are there day after day. Hot days or freezing days. Every day. They are there to meet the Master in a way simply not possible in any other manner. In the Mass, a Sacrifice of the Lord for all of us, the old priests receive consolation and comfort, reassurance of His love for them and His gratitude to them for their years of difficult burdens for His sake. This Mass experience cannot be replaced. I recall the famous Protestant preacher, William Sloane Coffin, remarking “There is no substitute for the Mass…..” Preaching, good works, counseling, teaching, administering, organizing are all good things but none can equal the Mass. Dr. Coffin lamented, however, about Catholic priests, “If those guys could only preach…” He may be right on that but good preaching without the Mass can hardly compete.

But is it only old age that makes these old guys so faithful and loyal every morning? The older priest does notice that apparently his younger confreres do not share his view of the Mass. He asks why don’t the young guys show up for this concelebration? I wonder myself on those cold, cold mornings when my joints ache and I want to stay under the warm covers, why should I, at 86, get up? The young guys don’t. Do they know something I don’t? They are probably smarter and better educated than I, so why don’t they show up? How come they say Mass only when they are obliged to? How come Bishop A. Vaughan, rector of the New York Seminary, instructed his young priests to say Mass every day and not just attend it? How come they say Mass only if there is an assembly present? How come they disagree with Pope John Paul II who in his encyclical De Eucharistia # 31 encourages priests to say Mass daily-even if there is no one else present? How come old priests believe “private” Masses are not private at all but public before the very Court of Heaven with God the Father presiding? With all the Angels and saints? With Our blessed Lady smiling on the priest? Is this a question of catechesis? Or is it a reflection of a different kind of Faith about the Mass?

I don’t know. But I know that these old guys love to say Mass daily because it is the One solid, changeless, meaningful Love we have. Being old is tough enough but to be without the one ultimate support would be, in the words of the kids I knew on the street many years ago, plain “bananas.”

[1] They praise the past. Cyberspace, iPods and "Voice of the Faithful" do not interest them.
[2] Even the pagans do that!
[3] The sense of the Faithful—an instinct for theologic truth. Different from "Voice of the Faithful" which tends more toward political control rather than Catholic devotion.

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