Letter to Lee Turjiste, continued….
I am genuinely torn. I’m not kidding. I am torn between my desire to bring people to a saving knowledge of Christ and a desire to protect the integrity of the faith. Perhaps a few more horror stories will illustrate my dilemma.
A while back I was offering a funeral mass, and once again there wasn’t a person in the entire crowd I had ever had the pleasure of meeting. A young woman came up to receive communion in the assembly line that marchers quickly past the celebrant now that we no longer kneel for Holy Communion. I said “Body of Christ” and gave her the consecrated Communion Host. She smiled, took it and walked away turning it over in her hand, I followed her and asked, “Pardon me but have you made your first Holy Communion?” She looked at me and in all innocence and said. “Oh, I’m Jewish!” I said, “Perhaps you should give me that back,” referring to the Host. By that time a small crowd of young people had gathered by the coffin. I whispered “Perhaps you shouldn’t receive communion if you haven’t made your first Holy Communion. How about I give you each a blessing?” They seemed fine with it. Communion proceeded until an older fellow at the end of the communion line slapped one hand into the other and loudly said, “I’ve made my First Communion!!!” He was quite obviously displeased. I got two letters in the following week. One reamed me out for having embarrassed the family in front of its guests; the other complimented me for having the courage to do what I did.
Not long after that, another funeral was offered by a visiting priest who was more to that family’s taste than I was. Again Holy Communion and some black eye-lined, multi-pierced, young Goths stood in the assembly line to receive Holy Communion. They also looked at the odd little cracker they had just been given, I asked the first two if they were Catholic and had received First Holy Communion. They asked, “What’s that?” I said, “I’ll just take that from you.” So the far more tolerant celebrant and I got into a kind of rhythm. He would say, “Body of Christ,” I would say “I’ll take that.” “Body of Christ,” “I’ll take that.” “Body of Christ” “I’ll take that.” This went on for a while and no one seems to have been aware that it was not normal procedure.
After that I decided when I got a crowd that was clearly unaware of what Catholicism is, I would make a bit of an explanation about Holy Communion and who should receive it, namely a practicing Catholic who has received his First Holy Communion. If married, one should be in a valid sacramental marriage and believe himself to be in a state of grace.
Remember the circus Mass where the distribution of Holy Communion was highlighted by a cursing clown? At that funeral I took one look at the crowd of people with orange and purple hair milling about and thought I should explain the meaning of Catholic Communion. Communion went quite smoothly, except of course for a music stand swinging, cursing clown and a general melee in the sanctuary. I must admit to having been a little shaken by having had to dodge flying musical apparatus and comments about my mother’s marital status during the distribution of Holy Communion.
After the Mass, however, a woman came up to see me. I thought she was going to commiserate. It seems however that she was unfazed by the wrestling match that had just finished. She told me that she had been a Catholic all her life. This was the first time she had not gone to Communion. She wanted to express her solidarity with those oppressed people whom I had denied Holy Communion. She said that Jesus, the pope and the Cardinal, whom she new well, would never have done such a thing. She was furious that I had “bifurcated the community”.
I was taken aback! I was not sure at first if bifurcating in public was moral or even legal. I looked at her and said “Thank you. I am so happy for you.” She said, “You didn’t understand me. I am upset by what you said.” I said, “I understand. Perhaps it’s time for you to be a little upset by something a priest says.”
I imagine that I will be doing time in purgatory for that one, but it just sort of slipped out. I am still scratching my head that she believed I should offer Communion to someone who was casting imprecations on me and the bereaved family.
I have had groomsmen slip the Eucharist into the pocket of a rented tux, which I retrieved; I have had to chase people down the aisle at Midnight Christmas Mass as they slipped the host into their pocket. I think that was the same midnight Mass after which I found a certain product that can be bought at truck stops for hygienic purposes only and that is now distributed cheerfully at government high-schools. All I could think as I swept the church at 2:00 a.m. was how very disappointed some young man was going to be this Christmas. The church is crowded for grand events with people who have no idea what church is for. The only model they have to go by is the movie theater and what they’ve seen on TV. So they think this is a performance.
This brings me to one of my favorite topics: the eulogy. I endured a marvelous eulogy not long ago. A couple of young men got up and decided to share about Uncle Moe. They did a kind of tandem spontaneous roast. It seems that Uncle Moe could really hold his liquor and that sports was his life. We are not supposed to allow eulogies at Mass. The sacramentary allows for a few brief words of remembrance about the faith of the deceased. I suppose sports and liquor were pretty much Uncle Fred’s spiritual life. It took his nephews, Larry and Curley, twenty minutes to say it however. I wonder what Uncle Moe would have thought had he known that his long life would have been summarized in two short words: sports and booze. Rest in peace Uncle Fred, I hope Uncle Moe haunts them.
I heard another amazing eulogy a while back. An in-law came up after Communion to act as master of ceremonies for the after Communion speakers. After some adults spoke, each grandchild was invited to come up read a goodbye letter to grandpa. “I wuv you Pop-Pop and I am so sowwy dat I will neva see you again becauze you are dead. Hugs and Kisses, Baby Snookums.” This went on for one whole hour. The après-Communion show was longer than the funeral Mass and sermon combined. A celebrant must do his best not to stare at the 20 something bleached-blond granddaughter wearing the very little black dress with the black stiletto heels as she struggles with the second reading or sings an a cappella solo of grandpa’s favorite song which is usually some show tune or a football fight song. She minces up to the sanctuary, looks at the celebrant, takes the gum out of her mouth, points to the pulpit and says “Over there?” the celebrant nods, looks away and with great embarrassment and stares at the floor.
If one tries to limit or heaven help us, forbid the après-Communion roast/eulogy, there is hell to pay. Undertakers look distressed, people are enraged and they counter with, “Well, other churches allow it.” There is invariably the letter to the bishop about the substandard performance of the celebrant if he has any standards at all.
One more story. There was a funeral Mass here some years back at which the family insisted that the organist play “This old man, he played one, he played nick back on my thumb...” as the final musical selection. The organist questioned the wisdom of the song, but the priest, a kind old Irishman, in the mold of Barry Fitzgerald said, “Well, if it’s the family’s wish we should probably respect that.” The organist tried to “church up the song” with a few minor chords and baroque flourishes, but it was clearly recognizable, and the whole congregation chimed in singing what had been planned as an instrumental. As the coffin rolled down the main aisle the congregation joined in the chorus of the beloved children’s song, “This old man went rolling home!” And so he did.
This is the Roman Liturgy? I have given my life for the privilege of offering the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Why should I have to put up with people who confuse the whole business with a high school assembly presentation? The amazing thing about this is that I am expected to do this for people whom I have never seen before and will never see again. The reason is simple. I have to put up with it for one reason: I must be PASTORAL.
Heaven forefend that I should ever discourage anyone from liking the Catholic Church. Jesus never said anything unpleasant to anyone. We put up with the debasement of things that we supposedly hold sacred on the grounds that it is pastoral, forgetting that forbidden fruit is the sweetest. We somehow think that if we are just nice enough, they will all come back to church and the church will be full and the world will become truly Christian. We are like the heart-broken boy friend who says to himself, “I know it’s 3 a.m., but if I just call her cell phone one more time, perhaps she’ll pick up and I can convince her that I really love her and she’ll come back to me and we’ll be happy forever.”
This is what the world calls “loser.”