Letter to Harold “Hoot” and Annie Gibson cont. part 19
IF I WERE KING OF THE FOREST. MY LIFE AT OUR LADY OF THE LOONS
(Another disclaimer: I wish I were making all of this up.)
In 1986, after I had served as a curate in three parishes, I was asked to be the pastor of Our Lady of the Loons, a poor parish in the heart of Frostbite Falls. The parish had a large Asian population as well as Mass in Spanish and Gh’eez, a Coptic liturgical language. The Asians regularly blew off firecrackers in church to scare away the devil. I don’t know if the devil was frightened but the Lunar New year was definitely a trial for house pets. The Copts regularly used drums at their Masses and both used umbrellas for processional purposes. It was quite a place. The parish was also famous for the best St. Patrick’s Day party in the Frostbite Falls Harbor District. It also had the greatest concentration of the mentally ill and coincidentally, of liberals, in the diocese. It was the diocesan home of Catholics for a Free Choice, a pro-abortion rights group and it had a noon Mass that drew an interesting, and very forward looking crowd. The school children would regularly be dragged down to the lawn of the mayor’s house to protest something or other.
Upon arriving there, I was informed that I was not welcome to say the noon Mass. They had their own priest, Fr. Gustave, who did not use the words “Father” or “Lord” when referring to the Divinity. He was a former brain surgeon who lived his religious order vow of poverty admirably, but seemed a little less clear on his vow of obedience, a likeable fellow who never said much. I was also greeted by the representatives of “el comite,” the Spanish-speaking counterpart to the Liturgy Committee which ran the noon Mass, and pretty much everything else in the parish. “El comite” would allow me to say the Spanish Mass, but they took up the collections and made the announcements. There was one other Mass at which the sermon was regularly preached by a former Augustinian seminarian, husband of an ex-nun. God had called him to preach, just not to be ordained. At this point, you may be saying, didn’t they appoint you the pastor? Yes. They also gave me a key to the rectory, where I had access to a bedroom and a bathroom and not much else. The rest was public space.
My immediate superior, Monsignor Wuetigarzt, was much enamored of the dynamic young people who ran the Noon Liturgy Committee. Both he and they were very much involved in the movement to free Tibet, hence these heroic young people could do no wrong in his eyes. Politics is the art of the possible, and these days it is fairly easy to remove a pastor, so I did what I could and endured the rest. I had no clout, neither high nor low.
Not long after my arrival at the parish, I got a tearful call from a woman who taught religious education and preparation for First Holy Communion. She asked “Why had we bailed out Diego?” We were always bailing out someone who had been arrested for some heroic anti-government activity. I asked “Who is Diego?” It turns out that Diego was her live-in boyfriend, another religious education teacher. Apparently he had been unfaithful to her and had been arrested for a long list of illegalities. Having been bailed out by the parish, he had robbed her blind, jumped bail and had returned to his home in Tierra del Fuego. I soon discovered that quite a few of our religious instructors didn’t worry much about sacramental marriage. To say the least, I was surprised.
I’d had enough. I called a meeting with the “el comite” and announced, “No more special collections that I don’t approve, and no more announcements that I don’t write and deliver. I remember Anita Comino, the leader of “el comite,” fixing her icy gaze on me and saying that “We got rid of one pastor. We can get rid of you.” (My predecessor had been driven out of the parish. He had left the active ministry and was resting quietly somewhere.)
That’s when the excitement really started. “El comite” doubled as the choir, and every other Spanish speaking parish organization. The choir quit, the strikes and the protest marches started, and slowly normal Catholics started to return to the parish. The progressive agenda had gotten the congregation at that Mass down to about 75 people. Finally, one Sunday, “el comite” stormed the pulpit at the end of the Mass and started to read a manifesto about my misrule. Having blessed and dismissed the congregation, I left the church and the congregation followed me. The “comite” was left haranguing an empty building.
On to the English-speaking Masses. I often sat in the back at the noon Mass. Remember, I was not allowed to say that Mass. The celebrant was a very creative man. The congregation wrote its own creed. It was really quite nice, except that it left out the resurrection, the divinity of Christ and the Church. In the same progressive spirit, the celebrant made up the Mass prayers. I think he usually had some form of the words of consecration. He always sat in the congregation, and shared the preaching schedule with other men and women, though not with me. He never wore a chasuble, only an alb and stole, and when he made his way to the altar he was always accompanied by lay men and women who stood at the altar, as if concelebrating. It was always very moving. I can still hear the opening words of the liturgy “In the Name of the Fathermother, (one word) son (or daughter) and Spirit” or “In the name of the Creator, savior and sanctifier” and if things Native American were being highlighted, especially at Baptisms, the four winds and the earth mother might be thrown in for good measure. I remember a man who was trying to return to the faith who told me that he had been to the parish three weeks in a row before he realized it was a Catholic church.
One fine Sunday, as I sat in my pew in the back, wondering what would happen next, a young woman took to the pulpit and urged the congregation to go to a march downtown in support of a woman’s right to abortion. That was it. The end. The hill I would be happy to die on. Finito, Kaput. Over. When it was just liturgical silliness that my superiors were happy to permit, that was one thing. But when it was something that would result in the violent deaths of the most defenseless among us by murder in the womb, I could take no more. I went to the front of the church as they sang the closing song and said that I wanted to meet with the Noon Liturgy Committee immediately. So began a series of negotiations that ended in open ideological warfare.
At one of the meetings I said that “Perhaps you are right and I am wrong. Perhaps it is evil to call God “Father”. I don’t think so and I have a conscience, too. Don’t change the words of the sacraments, especially Baptism. People have a right to the sacraments and I have to sign a form that says that this child has been baptized according to the rite of the Roman Catholic Church. You have no right to force me or my successors to agree with YOUR decision of conscience.” The following week, a prominent member of the Committee, and a parish employee, had his son baptized in the name of the Fathermother son and spirit, and God knows who else. I said “I have no idea whether or not the baptism was valid, I will have to call the chancery.” Here I made my mistake. I called the competent authority, who told me over the phone that the baptism was probably invalid and they would deal with it. They called Fr. Gustave in and told him to desist. They called me to say that they had taken care of the problem. They called me. I should have gotten it in writing. They wrote the parents in question that they would be happy to know that their child had been validly baptized because Fr. Gustave’s intention had been to baptize in a Trinity of persons.
The Committee decided like “el comite” before them, that I had to go. A letter writing campaign started and the bishop would regularly send me copies of the letters he got demanding my removal. I would copy them and put them in a binder in the front office for people to read while they waited to see the pastor. The progressive nuns who lived in an apartment across the street would regularly come and steal the binder, and just as regularly I would put out a new one. It was all great fun.
The “inclusivist” community, as they sometimes called themselves, all youngish, Caucasian professionals, demonstrated and protested and wrote letters. I remember one particular event of which they heartily disapproved, a forty hours devotion ending with one all-inclusive, multilingual, parish wide Sunday Mass on Corpus Christi, and a procession of about a thousand people all dressed in their ethnic costumes and carrying their national flags to accompany our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. It was glorious as we marched, banners waving down to the docks and back. The “inclusivists” were furious that I had cancelled “their” Mass in favor of a medieval superstition. During the procession all fifty of them met in the church basement to discuss the direction of the parish. I could have told them the direction of the parish quite easily, it was marching west on Huguenot-Walloon Drive, and the back east again on Merganzer Boulevard. Something had to be done about the pastor! They boycotted the collection. The collection went up. They boycotted the soup kitchen. The soup kitchen flourished. They came to Mass less often. The congregation grew. My supervisor, Fr. Wuetigarzt, called me in repeatedly. “Why”, he would ask, “are you causing me so much trouble???”
Finally the last straw. I had begun to alternate with Fr. Gustave as celebrant of the Mass, provided he would do it by the book. I offered to have him say the other Masses in the parish. He was uninterested. One morning, as I sat in the presider’s chair, the choir sang that much loved hymn, “I fall on my knees, to the Maker of Jesus...” (Remember, they had decided that it is morally wrong to call God “Father”.) Without thinking, without blinking, I shouted in mid-verse, “Did you just sing ‘Maker of Jesus?’ If you’d say the creed now and then you’d know it’s ‘begotten, not made’. Now sing it like St. Paul wrote it!!!” They complied, packed up their guitars after the Mass and never came back again. The battle was over. The war goes on.
The attitude that the Mass is ours to do with as we please persists in the Church. It has nothing to do with the Second Vatican Council. It is the fruit of a renewed American Heresy that continues to infest the Church, its seminaries, its universities, its mid-level bureaucracies and many of its parishes. My predecessor at Our Lady of the Loons, no longer in the business of religion, was, and I imagine is, a good man, much more progressive than I. (But then again, who isn’t?) They treated him as badly as they treated me, perhaps worse. There is a saying, “If you manage to get rid of your pastor, God punishes you by sending you a worse one.” I was the worse one.
Theologically and liturgically, my predecessor was pretty much on the same page as the Liturgy Committee and “El Comite”. His only crime was that he was not the pastor who had gone before him. He once had a turkey dinner in the sanctuary on Holy Thursday, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper being offered in the midst of the “fixin’s”. Laity sat around the table as they re-enacted the Last Supper, Pascal Turkey and all. You laugh, or more properly gasp. In 2010, a prominent activist priest in a prominent city who happens to be my fellow alumnus from St. Rhipsima’s Theology School at Bathsheba Bible College, did pretty much the same thing. You may have seen the video on You Tube. It was lovely, one of the finest dramatic presentations ever offered to a congregation. Original script, wonderful stage set, breathy intonations, dramatic lighting, liturgical dancers waving diaphanous cloths, stunning. Simply stunning. However, I didn’t see same kind of Pascal Turkey at this second extravaganza. It’s all lovely. It just isn’t Catholic. It isn’t part of a Universal Church. And it has nothing to do with Calvary where the Sacrifice began. It is all Hollywood, all musical, no mystery, and in the long run it is boring, unless, of course, you can top it with something more amusing or outrageous next year. That’s show biz!
NEXT WEEK: WE’RE GETTING CLOSE TO THE END OF THIS THING, I PROMISE!