Tag Archives: crucifix

Of Mr. Milewski, Pizza, and a Laden Cross

30 Mar

There are two memories I associate with Steven Milewski, my childhood chum. One is his dad, a taciturn man who worked the night shift and was rarely around when I was over at Steven’s house. Sometimes on the weekend, I’d be present when the man arrived home midmorning, bedraggled, weary, downcast. There’d be brief nods and greetings, and then a barely discernible shift in household atmosphere as the blue-collar warrior trudged upstairs for his daytime repose. Steven and I would keep playing army men or whatever, but we’d do it quieter, much quieter. No more grenades and explosions. No more total war on the hardwood floor.

Then, one night, and I’m not sure the occasion, Mr. Milewski took me and Steven out for pizza. It was the first time I remember indulging in that glorious riot of cheese and grease and meat – an epicurean epiphany. The setting was ideal: A local Jersey joint down by the Raritan, complete with red-checkered tablecloths, poor lighting, and boppy music on the jukebox. We ordered root beer – a treat! – but I had to be instructed in how to pick up the slices with my hands.

That first bite, that first bite! It burned the roof of my mouth, but the mingling of flavors and the Zenlike texture of yielding toppings on crunchy crust were well worth it. Maybe Mr. Milewski smiled when he saw my reaction, but probably not. Regardless, I now think back with great appreciation that this hardworking family man gave up a precious night off to treat his son, and I’m so grateful that I got to tag along. Offering hospitality as a shift worker is always challenging; receiving such is always an honor.

My second Milewski memory is the big wooden crucifix that hung in the main entry way of Steven’s house. Although I usually came in through the rear door since our backyards abutted, I’d still pass by the crucifix as I followed Steven up to his room. It was scary, to tell the truth, something utterly foreign in my staid, unadorned Presbyterian experience – much more foreign than pizza. At some point, I got up the courage to look at it more closely: The wooden Jesus, I could see, was actually nailed to the wooden cross. It wasn’t a one-piece molded affair – like the crucifixes on our plastic rosaries. No, this was an actual man affixed to an actual gibbet. I could see the three little tacks. “Why do you have Jesus on your cross?” I remember asking Steven later in his room. He shrugged – he didn’t know. He was Polish and Catholic and that’s just what they did.

Steven might not have been equipped to properly catechize his Protestant neighbor, but the image and implications of his family’s entry-way crucifix have stayed with me ever since. Now that I’m a Catholic myself, I’m particularly cognizant of those nails – the fact that the suffering Savior could’ve been pried free of his torture; that the corpus could’ve been removed to reveal a less disturbing empty cross. But empty crosses are not enough for us. “We preach Christ crucified,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians. It’s a baseline that all Christians must embrace, as Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon insisted: “So Paul…put his foot down, and said, in effect, ‘Whatever others may do, we preach Christ crucified; we dare not, we cannot, and we will not alter the great subject matter of our preaching, Jesus Christ, and him crucified.’”

It’s what the Milewskis silently preached with their family crucifix. It’s what my family now preaches with ours. It’s what you preach with yours. And we pray for the grace to practice what we preach.


Altar Server Surrogate

25 Apr

The role of server is integral to the
normal celebration of the Mass (

It’s Monday. I arrive early for the 5:30 p.m. Mass, settle down in a pew to read through the Gospel, and quiet my mind after a busy day.

Prayer, then drifting, eyes wandering over the sanctuary, the big Crucifix, the icons. There’s Fr. Dunkle, lighting candles on the altar – he forgot to light the Paschal candle. Now he’s carrGiacomo_di_Chirico_Ministrantying chalices over to the credence table.

Wait. Father is carrying the chalices and lighting the candles? Where are the altar servers? I’m fully alert now, and moving up to the sanctuary, a quick genuflection, a hand motion to Father – he’s carrying out the Sacramentary now.

“No altar servers, Father?” I ask in a whisper.

He shrugs. “Nope, I guess not.”

That’s very unusual for St. Matt’s. We have superbly trained altar servers at our parish, and at least three are scheduled for every Mass. There’s a nice division of labor as they assist at the altar – the Bell, the Book, and the Cross they call themselves – but if one or two don’t make it for some reason, all the essential jobs can be undertaken by a single server in a pinch.

“Can I help?” I offer as I follow him into the sacristy. I haven’t served Mass for a long time, but after watching my own kids learning the ropes throughout the years, I thought I could handle it.

“That would be good,” he says. “Even just to carry things over from the credence table.”

“Should I wear an alb?”

“No, that’s OK,” he replies. “Let’s go.”

To be Christ’s page at the altar, to serve Him freely there,
Where even the angels falter, bowed low in reverent prayer.

We process out of the sacristy and genuflect toward the tabernacle. Fr. Dunkle walks around and reverences the altar with a kiss, and then we both proceed to the side of the sanctuary. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Let’s see, he’ll need the Sacramentary for the Collect – when do I fetch it? Distracted, not tuned in to the penitential rite. Then I see Father put his hands out in the Orans position: “Let us pray.” Oh, right, that’s my cue. I retrieve the Sacramentary from the niche by the sacristy and stand before Father with the book open on my hands. He prays; we sit; the lector moves to the ambo – calm, quiet, listening.

To touch the throne most holy, to hand the gifts for the feast,
To see Him meekly, lowly, descend at the word of a priest.

First reading, St. Stephen’s trial (think, think, what’s next); Psalm and response (do I need to be remembering anything?); alleluia and acclamation, stand up – the Gospel. I lean toward Father and murmur, “Do you want me to accompany you with a candjohnberchmansle from the altar?” He shakes his head and makes his way over to the lectern. John 6, Bread of Life discourse preliminaries, homily – focus, focus, listen.

Father returns to his seat, pause, then we stand – intercessions. “We pray to the Lord.” Lord, hear our prayer. At the second intercession, I return to that niche for the Sacramentary and the pillow it rests on to prop it open on the altar. After setting it in place, I head over to the credence table – two chalices, paten, linens – and then return to the altar. Corporal open first, right? Which way does it go? The Chi-Rho is upside down – a quick switch and all is well. Chalices in place, paten – Father is done with the intercessions and moving in this direction. The cruets! I forgot the cruets! The priest and I pass each other exchanging grins as I head to the sacristy.

Wine, water – there they are in the mini-fridge, all ready to go. Father is done with the first part of the Offertory – I’m just in time; he turns to me. The stoppers – remove the stoppers. I set the water down on the altar and open the wine cruet before handing it to Father. After I unstop the water, we swap cruets – lavabo next. I’m on the wrong side of the altar – should I just walk behind him to the credence table? Father hands the water cruet back to me, and I scoot behind him to make a beeline for the basin and towel – no doubt a liturgical faux pas.

To hear man’s poor petition, to sound the silver bell,
When He in sweet submission, comes down with us to dwell.

After Father dries his hands on the towel, I replace the water and basin on the table, and then return to the side of the altar – prayer over the gifts, Preface dialogue, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.” Holy – Sanctus – Sanctus bells next. We kneel for the Canon, and I put my hand down on the ringer. When do I do these again? I miss the Epiclesis signal, but I get ready for the Minor Elevations – I won’t miss those. EP II: “For this is my Body, which will be given up for you.” (Jingle, jingle, jingle – hold still.) “Do this in memory of Me.” (Jingle, jingle, jingle – silence them on the carpet.)

Finally (*sigh*), that’s it. The rest is all matter, form, and minister – my ancillary duties are more or less complete. I default to interior drift, eyes wandering again, but this time behind the altar, immediately below the huge Crucifix that dominatesmatthewcath our Sanctuary. I look up – the Lord’s feet are right above me, nailed to the wood, bleeding and beautiful. “Through Him, and with Him, and in Him.” I’m transfixed – servers see that every day. The Lord’s Prayer. “Agnus Dei.” Every day our servers have this exceptional perspective on ultimate surrender and mercy. Holy Communion.

No grander mission surely could saints or men enjoy;
No heart should love more purely than yours, my altar boy.

Following the Dismissal, as the congregation recites the Prayer to St. Michael, Fr. Dunkle and I retreat to the Sacristy. “Thanks,” he says simply. “My pleasure,” I reply – who am I kidding? Not so much pleasure, but rather privilege, boon, outlandish extravagance. And pleasure? On the threshold of Calvary? To assist with the wrenching of Heaven down to earth? To drink in so directly unfathomable love?

“An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered,” Chesterton proclaimed, and “an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.” The trifling inconvenience of absent altar servers precipitated a monumental adventure for me. It should be I who does the thanking.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Head Nods, Hat Tips, and Empty Crosses

10 Aug

Indeed he is not far from any one of us.
~ St. Paul

As a neophyte in Chicago, I was blessed with an abundance of Catholic culture. The Windy City is an immersion experience for converts – the ideal mystagogy – and I relished all the new language, rituals, traditions, and Catholic quirks, absorbing it all like a sponge.

For example: Nodding my head any time the name of Jesus is uttered, a habit I picked up from my godfather. In previous generations, this was a normal part of Catholic etiquette, as routine as genuflecting before entering a pew. You can see it in action in this scene from the 1940s film The Bells of St. Mary, where the schoolchildren sing a Christmas “Happy Birthday” at the end of their Nativity play.

Catch that? All their heads made a determined bob at the mention of the Holy Name, as if it would be unthinkable to do anything otherwise.

“But that’s a movie,” you’re thinking. “Those kids were acting; they were coached and directed.” Yes! That’s the point! Leo McCarey, the director, surely coached all the child actors, regardless of their actual church affiliation, to make the nod because he knew the Catholics watching the film would expect to see it. Actually, it’s not that the nod would’ve been expected, but rather its absence would have been unsettling and weird – because it was so normal at that time.

And you can still see vestiges of this once universal practice at Mass to this day – watch the priest, depending on the formation he received, and older parishioners as well – but it’s not nearly as common as it used to be. That’s too bad, because it’s an important reminder of a vital truth. In the Biblical tradition, names were wholly representative of the persons named. By bowing the head when Jesus’ name is mentioned, we acknowledge His divine majesty and dignity, as well as our relative status as utterly dependent. Thus, even a quick bow when His name is uttered (particularly when it is uttered as an oath) fleshes out in miniature St. Paul’s universal imperative:

God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Another time-honored Catholic quirk I picked up in Chicago is making the sign of the cross and tipping my cap every time I go by a parish church. My mentor in this regard was Mark Miller, a longtime Catholic Worker in Uptown who had a deep-seated devotion to the Eucharist. I would occasionally accompany him in his truck A045_YouthTipsHatto pick up donated food for the soup kitchen, and whenever we drove by a church, Mark would lift his cap and cross himself. Eventually, I mustered up the courage to ask him about it. “Jesus is in there,” he responded flatly. “I’m just paying my respects.”

Of course, there are Catholic churches and chapels all over Chicago, which meant that we never went far in any direction without doffing hats and invoking the cross again and again. I didn’t mind, because it was an incredibly comforting gesture, especially to a convert. What a relief to be regularly acknowledging that Jesus was always close at hand, Really Present all over the place. Moreover, He wasn’t just present, but also waiting for me to come visit and offload all my burdens and worries and crud.

I starting performing the ritual right alongside Mark, and it quickly became a habit – eventually I ceased thinking about it much. And now, I do it automatically as I pass by the churches scattered here and there around South Bend. It has become routine, even perfunctory, like the head nod at the mention of Jesus’ name. Perfunctory, yes, and routine, but still a valuable sign – like a goodnight kiss between exhausted spouses. Not always heartfelt at the moment, but nonetheless an important sign of underlying commitment and relationship, not to be missed.

It’s the same way I’ve long felt about crucifixes in our home. I’ve ensured that one is prominently displayed in every room of our home, even though I know they eventually become part of the woodwork, so to speak, and hardly noticed in the bustle of life. But they’d surely be missed if they weren’t there – that is, I know I’d miss them.

I grew up with wall crosses as a Protestant, but they were always empty. Like many converts to Catholicism, I was drawn to the novelty of the crucifix with its visible corpus as a focal point of devotion. The crucifix’s three-dimensional Christ is a stark and startling visual reminder that our God does indeed understand his creatures’ plight firsthand; that He is not a detached deity, but an incarnate Lord, who has mucked around right alongside us in our little corners of this fallen world, and has known human pain and suffering and death.

St. John puts it a little more eloquently when he wrote that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” – that He “pitched His tent” among us as the Bible scholars tell us. I like that image. I’m guessing that tent-pitching in a foreign territory can be frustrating, messy, and even dangerous – just like our lives. The result of that tent-pitching for Jesus, of course, was deadly indeed, but it led to new life. Consequently, for us to see Him on our crosses at home can give us courage and confidence to keep trudging ahead in our own struggles because we already know the end of th4_fpc_bouldere story. The empty cross points ahead to Easter triumph, to be sure, but the crucifix is an image of God’s consummate empathy in the here and now along with an underlying message of hope for the future tied in.

That idea was brought home to me a couple years after I’d become a Catholic and I attended a funeral at the Presbyterian church of my youth. It was a funeral for a young person who’d died under tragic circumstances, and the anguish of the family and others gathered there was almost unbearable. Everyone was reduced to sobs and tears, me included, and for consolation, I instinctively looked up to the front of the church, hoping to gaze on the Crucified One.

But He wasn’t there. It was a beautiful cross, framed by stained glass, and comforting in its own way, but He wasn’t on it. The empty cross offered hope of Resurrection and life and eternal peace, yet that’s not what I was looking for at that moment. What I wanted, what I needed to see at that moment of intense grief was God suffering alongside all of us, and I didn’t.

This is what Nancy Murray was getting at in a recent issue of American Life League’s Celebrate Life magazine where she wrote movingly about her mother’s courageous battle with mental illness. “My mother once told me that she kept a crucifix in every room,” noted Murray, “so she could see Christ on the cross at all times.”

However, I’ve had a change of heart about empty crosses. Not too long ago, Fr. Martelli mentioned in a weekday sermon, almost as an afterthought, that he appreciates empty crosses – maybe even preferring them, if you can believe that  – because they invite the faithful to picture themselves hanging there.

That caught me off guard. “Wait,” I thought. “What? Picture myself hanging there? Why?” I had to think about that one.

When I’m suffering through something, I already know it. In such moments, I’m looking for solace and comfort and understanding, not a mirror. Why would I want to picture myself on an empty cross when I can see God Himself up there as a sign of divine sympathetic rapport?Travel_1holy_name-255x255

St. Matthew records the answer. Jesus tells his disciples (and us by extension):

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

This is the revolutionary notion animating Chaim Potok‘s Asher Lev, an Orthodox Jewish painter, when he explains why he chose to depict his mother hanging on a domesticated cross:

For all the pain you suffered, my mama. For all the torment of your past and future years, my mama…. For dreams of horror, for nights of waiting, for memories of death…for all these I created this painting—an observant Jew working on a crucifixion because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment.

Fr. Martelli and Potok were getting at the same point: The Cross, as a symbol of suffering, is profoundly universal. Yes, we Christians find relief in our present sufferings by seeing God Himself hanging on the crucifix, but the empty cross has value as well for all people. It is a powerful, truly catholic sign of hope amidst hardship, particularly when it is embraced in earnest.

And if we can see ourselves up there? Why not others – as Asher Lev envisioned with reference to his own mother. Seeing ourselves on the cross increases our empathy for our neighbors as they grapple with their own adversity and misfortune. Sure, I’ve got my problems, my crosses, but so does the cranky cashier at the grocery store, the guy who cut me off on the bypass, my dentist, my coworker, my son. They’re all crucified, they’re all Christ in a way, especially if we take to heart the idea that they’re all carrying a divine imprint, regardless of their faith tradition. As a rabbinical saying puts it, “A procession of angels pass before each person, and the heralds go before them, saying, ‘Make way for the image of God!'”

Maybe I should be tipping my hat and crossing myself more often.


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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