One day, I attended Mass at the cathedral and, according to the bulletin, it was the diocese's "Life Sunday" during which the Archbishop had asked all his priests to read out a letter to women.
For some reason, I had trouble concentrating on my devotions and instead, took up my notebook and wrote down a few observations of the Mass. I later wrote it into a chapter of a story I was/am thinking about/working on, about a psychotic woman who claims to be able to see daylight in a world where, for 25 years or so, all the world has been engulfed in a mysterious twilight. In the story, a faithless NewChurch priest is called on to "minister" to the woman to try to convert her to sanity, to try to get her to see the twilight that everyone else lives in.
“The Lord is with you,” sang the beaming priest, his hands held high. His amplified voice boomed through the old neo-gothic church. He smiled warmly. He certainly was warm.
“And also with you,” replied the unsteady chorus of parishioners.
Standing amidst the potted plants, he began the Mass with the approved improvisation.
“Good evening everyone.” Smile.
A smattering of muttered “good evening father”s came indistinctly from the pews.
As the lively chatting in the pews died down, the priest surveyed his congregation from behind his microphone. He stood at a wooden ambo decorated with a cloth hanging matching the green wide-weave polyester of his vestments. Fifty feet overhead the bloodied and gilded saints gazed down on him from their painted blue vault and from a previous age. The stern faced Pantocrator held out his arms of all-embracing Justice from the dome of the apse.
“I’d just really like to thank you all for coming this evening and for your wonderful singing responses...” pause, “you really are a wonderful choir.” A smile. A slight nod.
The congregation rewarded him with a collective sigh of pleasure. The Lord truly was with them, they knew.
“This evening’s readings remind us of the mercy of God for everyone. He forgives and heals and wants us to be happy.” He paused, gauging his audience’s readiness for a piece of bad news.
“As you may have seen in the bulletin, today is Life Sunday.” He caught the shuffling of feet. “And the Archbishop has asked all the parishes to read his letter to women, telling of God’s love and forgiveness and asking everyone to show that mercy and to heal divisions in the Church and the world.” The shuffling faded.
“So, I’ll be reading the letter...” pause... “right after hour two of my homily.” The priest led the appreciative chuckling.
“And on a personal note,” he said with relief, shaking his head a little to throw off the effect of the impending letter, “I would personally like to extend a warm welcome to all the fathers in the congregation this Father’s Day evening. That’s all fathers, grandfathers, uncles, step fathers, foster fathers, godfathers, step fathers...did I say that one? So, all the fathers here, including priest-fathers...” Chuckle.
“Now,” he raised his arm towards his head in a dramatic gesture, “let us begin in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
“Now,” the priest went on, “I invite you to be seated and listen to the wonderful word of God.”
The evening Mass was always well populated and tonight the church was almost half full. The Philippinas brought their grandchildren and the students dropped in to hear the organ, which was world-class. Father Howard Miller sat in robed polyester splendour sweating under the floodlights trained on the newly restored marble sanctuary and potted palms. The lights reflected cheerfully off his glistening bald spot.
He was fifty-six, the star of the show, and if he was under oath and facing the rack, the wheel and the entire Spanish Inquisition he would never admit that he was tiring. He was getting tired of the smile.
While the congregation pored over their paperback misalettes, Fr. Howard took inventory. Mrs. McHenry was in her spot, scowling at him as usual from under her mantilla. The large collection of middle-aged and rotund Philipinas created the impression of a flock of restless pigeons as they fanned themselves furiously between rustling about in their plastic bags, handing sweets, holy cards, toys and rosaries to their equally restless charges. The few men under fifty – three tonight – scattered about were balanced by a small collection of the Young JPII Conservatives, clearly students, earnestly hunched over their missalettes. They huddled in a clump, all carefully dressed in pressed shirts and khakis sitting appreciatively next to their short-skirted law school girlfriends.
Three young women sat together on the tabernacle side; the vocation girls from the new group. To all these were joined a smattering of older working men who came to the last Mass on Sunday evening to fulfil what they still referred to as their Sunday obligation.
Once a week, Fr. Howard heard the confessions, the same ones every week, of the Young Conservatives and the mantilla ladies. He baptised babies, usually in the summer and not very often these days. He rented himself and the church out for weddings and took the stipends, most of which, to his credit he thought, ended up in the parish accounts. He kept his hands off the boys in the youth group and was relieved that these days so few boys presented themselves to be altar servers. It was mostly girls now who wanted to carry the processional cross and book. They were easier to handle and train too.
He brought communion to the hospital and the nursing home and had dinner twice a month with the sisters. He liked the old nuns who still knew how to treat a priest and never asked him for personal advice. He tried not to think about having nearly twenty more years until mandatory retirement.
“The Lord is with you,” he said again with arms stretched wide. The gospel was an easy one tonight.
“And also with you,” they lobbied back.
“Tonight’s reading is from the Gospel of Mark.”