Tag Archives: Uptown

Toting Christ

11 Dec

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“It is not to remain in a golden ciborium that He comes down each day from Heaven, but to find another Heaven, the Heaven of our soul in which He takes delight.”
~
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

My bus ride took me west on Lawrence and then up Milwaukee Avenue to J.F. Morrow and Sons. This was some 30 years ago, and I was on a quest for a holy thing.

I’d volunteered to become an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion to the sick, despite being a baby Catholic convert. Frankly, I was amazed I was even eligible – I knew so little, I understood so little. But my parish, St. Thomas of Canterbury in Chicago, had many sick and home-bound members, and our lone priest couldn’t possibly visit them all. Moreover, the parish’s Uptown boundaries encompassed Weiss Memorial Hospital, so St. Tom’s was technically responsible for serving the sacramental needs of the in-patient Catholics there. My pastor needed help; I signed up.

After instructing me in how Communion visits were conducted, Father showed me where he hid the key to the Tabernacle, and then he set me up with the appropriate book of prayers and a pyx – that little gold disc of a container that priests and Communion ministers carry Jesus in. The one that my pastor gave me was standard issue – some kind of amalgam with gold plate and a bright religious design painted on the hinged cover. Probably he bought them in bulk – there were numerous ministers to the sick at St. Tom’s.

But that just didn’t set right with me. After all, I was going to be carrying around the Lord himself, and it was like we’d just met. So, I was thinking I ought to invest in a liturgical litter worthy of its occupant – or, at least, more worthy. These were my do-gooder days, and I had limited discretionary funds, but I scraped together what I could. Then, following the advice of my cradle Catholic friends, I made the trek to J.F. Morrow’s – the north side’s Catholic goods emporium.

To a neophyte, a place like Morrow’s is like an open-air bazaar in Marrakesh or Samarkand – enticing, exotic, and a sensory overload. There’s thuribles and monstrances, copes and candles, and piles of liturgical stuff that clearly had some sacred purpose – but for what? Who knows – and who cares? It was exhilarating, and my ignorance only added to the thrill. “Somehow, God is mixed up in all this,” I thought to myself. “And I’m a part of it now!”

Which is why I was there in the first place: I wanted to give back to the Church, and visiting the sick, comforting them, praying with them, bringing them the edible God, seemed like a decent place to start. The clerk directed me to the pyx bins, and I started pyx-2029597weighing my funds against my ardent desire to honor the Eucharistic Presence I’d be hauling.

Eventually, I settled on a simple 24K gold-plated design with a plain cross on the cover. It had a slight raise in the bottom, which I figured would make it easier to retrieve the consecrated hosts when administering Holy Communion. Nobody told me that I might’ve also purchased a silken burse with a loop of string to suspend the pyx from around my neck and under my clothing, close to my heart, for I would’ve without a doubt.

The pyx, though, was plenty. I approached the counter, handed over my cash, and left the store with my purchase – a mini-tabernacle – in an ordinary retail bag. For all anyone knew as I got on the bus to head back to Uptown, I could’ve been carrying greeting cards or a pocket calendar. Instead, I felt like I was carrying religious contraband – a little metal box that will soon enough contain Divinity himself. Me, a clueless convert, in possession of this exquisite, rarefied object. I could hardly contain my joy.

And that, in a sense, captured the gist of the astonishing labor I was intending to take up: Carrying the joy of the community’s Eucharistic celebration to those who were prevented from participating themselves, and then releasing it – like 10,000 balloons on a beach, like ticker tape over Broadway, but a 1,000 Broadways. There’s no hoarding involved, only transport – and then emancipation! What a privileged work – a Work of Mercy that Jesus himself enumerated, and thus an endeavor surely associated with spiritual benefits…but only after we discharge our Detainee.

Now, decades later, and worlds away from my Uptown Catholic beginnings, I’m a registered nurse and a nursing instructor – and largely due to my experience with that pyx.

Every Sunday, I’d retrieve the Blessed Sacrament from the church – maybe five, maybe six consecrated Hosts carefully concealed in my circular treasure box – and then, prayer book in hand, I’d trudge over to Weiss to track down the Catholics there. At the time, I was convinced I’d eventually go to seminary, yet, watching the nurses go about their duties, I remember thinking, “If I don’t become a priest, maybe I could do what they do,” for what they did seemed itself pretty priestly. The floor nurses were constantly engaged in things I associated with ordained ministry: advocating, interceding, attending, encouraging, and, most importantly, acting as instruments of healing. They themselves didn’t order the treatments and medications – the docs did that. Even so, it was the nurses who fetched the medications and brought them to the languishing and the dying and the ones who really needed them.

Eventually, I went to nursing school and found out all these things for myself, but here’s pyxisthe funny thing – and the impetus for this little remembrance.

For many years, the healthcare facilities in our area have utilized sophisticated medication management systems to help cut down on errors and tighten up inventory. There are several such systems on the market, but the one that seems to dominate in our region is called… (wait for it)… Pyxis, put out by CareFusion. I’ve been getting drugs for my patients and my students’ patients from Pyxis dispensing stations for years, but the significance of its name never struck me before – how could I miss it? I couldn’t find any evidence that the connection was intentional, and it is true that “pyx” is simply Greek for “receptacle” – so maybe that’s the only touchpoint. Still, the Pyxis, just like my golden pyx, holds the substance required for recovery and restoration, and we nurses (like Extraordinary Ministers) return time and time again to replenish our supply of balms for those in our care.

Of course, more than the healing drugs we give our patients, it’s the presence and attendance and listening and compassionate care we give them that communicates the healing Christ. In so doing, nurses can be like Mary, carrying the Savior to the bedside inside their very persons – as do we all, particularly when we receive the Lord in the Eucharist. Communicated and sent forth, we’re all Marys, we’re all pyxes, we’re all harboring heaven. All that’s left is to let him go.
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Holy Saturday: On Looking Back and Peering Ahead

2 Apr

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“Something strange is happening….”
~ Bp. Melito of Sardis

This past Holy Saturday I had the privilege of sponsoring my friend Chris as he made a profession of faith and became a Catholic – Deo gratias! What a joy to stand with him, attest to his readiness, announce his new name – “Monsignor, this is Thomas Aquinas” – and then celebrate with him afterwards.

Easter VigilAnd he was hardly nervous – way less nervous than I was 31 years ago as I awaited the same watershed moment. For those coming home to the Catholic Church, there’s a daunting realization that nothing will ever be the same after Holy Saturday – that life will get harder, not easier – and yet for some of us, there’s also a fear that something will mess it up. “What if I say the wrong thing and it doesn’t take,” is how my mind raced. “What if I’m not properly disposed – or that my Presbyterian baptism wasn’t valid?” I wanted to be a Catholic so bad that I couldn’t believe it was actually going to happen.

Even so, it did happen, despite my scruples and paranoia – again, praise God! The Easter Vigil is always glorious, especially for converts – those joining the Church that night as well as those who’d already done so, whether the previous year or even decades before. The rising action of the liturgy and multiple readings, the darkness and fire, the bells, oils, and dousings – the entire Holy Saturday mystique conjures up our first enthusiasms for Christ and his Church, which in turn remind us why we made such a reckless break with our relatively sedate trajectories and safer worlds.

Yet even that foolhardy conversio – that radical turning around which leads to new passions, new futures, new living through dying – is often accompanied, in the best circumstances, by delicate connections to pre-Catholic histories and experience. They won’t be tethers that hold back, but rather echoes that signify continuity. Our Easter conversions do not extinguish our past selves, but rather baptize and elevate them.

For me, there were two such echoes when I joined the Church. One was my friend Kevin, who was a student at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute at the time, whereas I was in Uptown, part of a Catholic Worker extended community. I was so glad Kevin agreed to attend the Easter Vigil – to support me as a longtime pal, despite his evangelical reservations.

He came up on the subway and sat in the way back – it was standing room only that night at St. Thomas of Canterbury. Kevin and I didn’t get to talk that night he left to catch a late train downtown as soon as the liturgy ended – but I know it constituted one of the more bizarre worship experience of his life. As if the Easter Vigil liturgy itself wasn’t strange enough for a Moody student (let alone seeing an old youth-group buddy become a Catholic), the rich cultural diversity of St. Thomas was on full display that night: Readings, hymns, and preaching in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese; a congregation that included immigrants from Korea and Cambodia, Brazil and Eritrea; and representatives from every conceivable socioeconomic and ideological stripe, anarchists and John Birchers, retired professionals and homeless vets. Kevin’s prest. thomassence in that highly charged and holy setting embodied a true bridge between my old life as a suburban evangelical and this (evidently) wild, unpredictable Catholic life I was embracing, and it gave me great comfort.

The other echo happened earlier in the day. Following my midday visit to St. Peter’s in the Loop to make my first confession, I anxiously watched the clock, anticipating the evening’s climactic events, going over the profession of faith repeatedly, and checking in with my sponsor, Jim – “What am I forgetting?” Then, a knock at the door – the FTD guy with a bouquet. “Congratulations,” read the card. “Love, Mom and Dad.” It was a long-distance gesture, an affectionate embrace from my folks in Colorado – most particularly my mom. She’d been raised in a Masonic, anti-Catholic home, and I knew she was worried sick about her crazed, do-gooder son joining the big Popish cult. Still, in the end, her mom-ishness overcame her Masonic prejudices, and she sent me flowers – a clear signal that she wanted to love what I loved to the degree that she could.

Such were the echoes that connected me to my pre-Catholic life back when I was received, but what about now? Easter compels us forward – are backward glances still appropriate?

It’s an idea that came up as I was driving to Mass the other day, listening to Van Morrison on the stereo. “We’ll walk down the avenue and we’ll smile,” he was singing. “And we’ll say, ‘Baby, ain’t it all worthwhile?’ when the healing has begun.” That’s the song’s title – “And the Healing Has Begun” – and it’s from his 1979 Into the Music album. It’s bright and cheerful with a buoyant violin accompaniment, and all the restorative references seemed apropos to the Octave.

Yeah, sure, I know the song is not exactly about spiritual matters, particularly in light of its later, more lascivious images, but its jubilant tone is hard to resist, and I hummed along as I drove – then this line popped up: “I want you to put on your pretty summer dress,” the singer requests. “You can wear your Easter bonnet and all the rest.” OK, bonnets, joy, healing – maybe it is an Easter song, or at least I made it one for myself that afternoon.

A few bars later came a jarring moment, however, when Morrison gleefully tossed out an odd declaration: “I can’t stand myself.” Wait – what? But he kept right on going with his jaunty melody and veiled seductions, and I was left scratching my head. “‘Can’t stand yourself? Where’s the healing in that?”

peterAt Mass, Fr. Lapp seemed to pick up on the same theme in his homily. “The Easter feasting continues, and that’s as it should be,” he said. “But in the midst of it, the Lord is still calling us to repentance and conversion.” It’s like Peter in yesterday’s Gospel, out on his boat following the Resurrection – returning to his fishing occupation, a pre-Jesus safe zone. Suddenly, the Lord appears and calls out advice from the shore: “Cast your net on the other side!” – an acknowledgement, in part, of this occupational echo. The Apostle perks up and swims back in to face his Savior, leaving the fish, but dragging his past with him. This is the same Peter – the “Rock” – who denied Jesus three times, betraying him despite an oath not to. I can just see him rushing to the Master to be close, and yet hanging his head in shame – wouldn’t you?

Anyway, that’s me for sure – that’s me! It’s the painful part of Holy Saturday every year, for I know better – I’ve studied the Faith, I’ve received the Sacraments, and I know how I’m supposed to conform my life to Christ, but I still don’t. There’s Easter celebration, no doubt, but an awkwardness, a disgrace: “I’ve been a Catholic 31 years, and I’m still…this?” Like Van, “I can’t stand myself;” like Peter, I rush to the Lord, then hold back, abased.

There’s more to that seaside Gospel, however, and it comes later this Eastertide. We see the risen Lord simultaneously eliciting Peter’s repentance and enveloping him in healing. “Do you love me?” he asks three times, and three times a sign of trust, “Feed my sheep.” In the end, Jesus points ahead: “And when he had said this, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”

So, Easter looks forward and backward – it’s not static, nor is anything else static associated with this resurrected Messiah. “The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise,” goes the ancient Easter Vigil homily. It’s a look back, but then, ahead: “I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven.” He’s always on the move, saving indiscriminately, past, present, future – everything in his path.

We dare not duck.
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A version of this essay appeared in Crisis Magazine.

Salt of the Earth

23 Mar

salt_1364790cThe call came while I was out Friday night, so I didn’t hear the message until the next morning: Old Eddie had died. His apartment manager hadn’t seen him for a few days and found his body in the flat.

Eddie was the salt of the earth, and one of my heroes.

I met Eddie when he showed up at the Catholic Worker many years ago. He was a down and out veteran with an obscure story, but he didn’t reek of alcohol, nor did he seem like the sort to start a fight, so he got to stay.

Eddie was Polish – a dumb Polack, as he used to say – and so a Catholic, though I don’t think he was practicing his faith at the time. Whether he was or not, he certainly experienced a resurgence of piety after the Worker took him in, and he became very devout almost overnight.

The intellectual side of religion was of no interest to Eddie, so he shied away from the theological sparring that characterized much of our table-talk and porch conversation in those days. Instead, he loved to pray with anyone he could corner – the Divine Office, the Rosary – and he encouraged me in my efforts to get to daily Mass. Plus, Eddie started helping out at the soup kitchen, clearing tables and mopping up afterwards. For him, religion was something you did, not something you thought about.

Once he started receiving disability checks, Eddie got his own place – at the YMCA at first, but later on his own apartment. By then, I’d moved on from Chicago, but Eddie kept up with me, sending me Mass cards for Christmas and Easter, always with a personal note to the effect that he was remembering me in his prayers.

Later still I married, and Eddie’s prayers just multiplied along with my growing family. Every year, without fail, Eddie would send us Mass cards – Christmas, Easter – and every year a personal note.

So, Eddie is dead, but it’s hard to be sad, for I have a pretty good hunch that he had been been given a hero’s welcome on the other side. Like I said, Eddie was the salt of the earth, and I suspect Jesus always makes room for the likes of him.

Still, the news of Eddie’s death got me thinking: Salt of the earth – what does that mean? Usually the term refers to simple folk whose natural goodness is not necessarily matched by gifts of intellect or sagacity, but that seems too patronizing, even vaguely insulting, when applied to people as golden as Eddie and those like him. pope francis

Instead, I prefer the image that Pope Francis outlined in his homily the other day: “The Word of God…is alive in the hearts of the simple, of the humble, of the people of God.” In other words, the salt of the earth – the simple, the humble, the people of God – are those in whom the Word of God is energized. Referring to the day’s Gospel, in which the masses protected Jesus from the intellectual Pharisees bent on revenge, the Pope went on:

That simple crowd — that followed Jesus because what He said did their hearts good, warmed their hearts — this people wasn’t wrong. They…listened and sought to be a little bit better.

That’s an apt description of the salt of the earth, an apt description of my friend Eddie. He encountered Jesus, it did his heart good, and he sought to be a little bit better. No spectacular feats, no flashy accomplishments. Just a warmed heart, a bit of sweeping and mopping at the soup kitchen, and a whole lot of prayer. Eddie’s life was quiet and unassuming, but what he added was a richness that was palatable.

In fact, the Pope could’ve been thinking of old Eddie when he specifically referenced salt in another homily about a year ago: “When salt is used well, one does not notice the taste of salt…. What one tastes is the flavor of the food: salt helps improve the flavor of the meal.”

That was Eddie. He humbly and quietly improved life’s flavor for me, my family, and countless others. Rest in peace, old friend. Your subtle seasoning will be missed.

Love Lessons in Uptown

16 Mar

Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
~ Gerard Manley Hopkins

The propped up coffee-table book caught my eye as I was leaving the library. The cover photo of a man raising his gnarled hands inUptown_Cover prayer was itself arresting, but what really froze me in my tracks was the title in gold caps: U P T O W N.

I grabbed it, checked it out, and re-entered a world I’d left behind some 30 years ago.

The book, subtitled Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s, is a collection of black-and-white photographs by Robert Rehak that evokes the raw grittiness of that urban neighborhood with an eerie precision.

Although I arrived in Uptown on Chicago’s north side about a decade after Rehak took his photos, the landscape he depicts and describes was largely the same one I encountered. Uptown was unusual for the wide variety of ethnic and cultural groups represented within its borders. Also, many of the de-institutionalized mentally ill had made their way to Uptown, along with the poor who were pushed out of other neighborhoods experiencing redevelopment. “By the early 1970s, Uptown had the second highest population density in Chicago and high unemployment,” writes Rehak. “It had become skid row.”

A skid row was exactly what I had been looking for.

At the time, I was a wet-behind-the-ears, suburban-raised, angst-ridden and disillusioned Evangelical trying to rediscover Jesus in the inner city. The ‘L’ train deposited me at Wilson and Broadway, and Jesus wasn’t there to greet me – a disappointment, but not really a surprise. What did surprise, however, was the sensory overload that engulfed and enraptured me, and which I came to know intimately after I embraced Uptown as my home.

First, the smells. There was plenty of smoke, because everybody smoked everywhere back then. And the whiff of chili, garlic, and curry, fried meats and broiled cheese, bizarre combinations of spices and foodstuffs representing every manner of international cuisine hanging in the air oScan-130908-0086utside storefront restaurants and street level apartments – not to mention the accompanying tastes!

But the first smell to hit you was the acrid odor of the city itself. You didn’t quite know what to make of it – where it emanated from, what it was – but you’d never forget it. After moving on, years can go by, even decades, and you still expect that sour scent to envelope you when you visit again, and you’re never disappointed.

The smells hit you first, but the sights went right along with them, and you can get a pretty good idea of what the sights were like back then from Rehak’s book: A bleak and crumbling infrastructure, dirt and trash and broken glass, shuttered businesses and empty lots, and people. Lots and lots of people, and every sort imaginable. Black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. Young, old, men, women, and babies. Poor, very poor, and destitute – so I guess not every sort imaginable, because the rich didn’t come around all that often, at least to stay.

Finally, the sounds. There was the rumble and screech of the ‘L,’ of course, and the constant din punctuated by shouts and crashes and laughter at all hours. And the United Nations of faces and ethnic cuisine was naturally accompanied by a Pentecost of spoken word, from Polish to Portuguese, from Eritrean to Hmong.

Nevertheless, English was still the lingua franca, but with a twist that was startling to my untrained ear:An augmented, earthy vocabulary, and, hence, a challenge as I continue to relate this story. Writing requires words, and the words that I’d like to employ in this regard are, shall we say, an acquired taste.

But, I’ll do my best.

After disembarking from the ‘L’ and wandering through the Uptown streets for a bit, I made my way to the St. Francis Catholic Worker on Kenmore Avenue. After climbing the rickety wooden stairs to the expansive front porch, I got up my courage and knocked on the door – again hoping to run into Jesus.

jimmyNo one answered my knock, so I rang the bell. After a moment, the door was flung open, and a torrent of foul abuse spewed forth. It was a magnificent display, almost like a verbal fireworks finale at an Independence Day picnic. The greeter/verbal artiste’s name was Rosalie, and although we would eventually become pretty good friends, Rosie made it unerringly clear at the time that, in her opinion, I deserved not only death, but damnation as well for making such a racket just to gain entrance to the building.

And that was just the beginning. Jimmy was another Catholic Worker denizen who had a constant mumbling patter that was peppered with spicy phrases and exotic words. And there was old Zeke in the basement, who declared himself God the Father (making the more common claim to be Christ or the Blessed Virgin seem almost trite by comparison), and who accordingly pronounced all manner of colorful denunciations from his smoky corner La-Z-Boy in the St. Francis House basement.

Then there was Love.

Love used foul language the way Matisse used color, mixing and playing and pushing the limits. Plus, Love had a very subtle British accent – whether natural or a pretense was hard to guess – and it only added additional, ironic sophistication to her salty rants.Matisse-The-Dessert-Harmony-in-Red-Henri-1908-fast

And here’s the funny thing about Love: She used the same language to express exasperation and kindness, derision and delight. One particular word was her favorite, and by altering her pronunciation and intonation, she could use it in a seemingly endless variety of ways, including the expression of her namesake, love, along with affection and even tenderness. Love was remarkable in that, her speech and unusual behaviors aside, she truly loved her friends, and she helped me begin to really see beyond appearances for the first time in my life.

I went to Uptown to find Jesus,and what do we know of Jesus? “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” St. John tells us. Jesus doesn’t come to us in spirit alone, but in the flesh, to know with our senses, and sometimes it’s not easy to recognize Him.

Dorothy Day alluded to this idea in her essay “Room for Christ” back in 1945:

It would be foolish to pretend that it is easy always to remember this. If everyone were holy and handsome, with “alter Christus” shining in neon lighting from them, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone. But that [is] not Christ’s way for Himself now when He is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth.

For those of us who sought God in Uptown, the disguises – and the salty language – were all part of the adventure. Too bad it’s only with hindsight now that we can recognize when He came by then.

That He had come by, however, is not in doubt.

After I leafed through Rehak’s book, I Amazoned a copy to my friend Jim in Chicago. Jim lived in Uptown long before I got there, and he lives there still, so I knew he’d appreciate it.

A week or so later Jim sent a postcard. He had gone through Rehak’s photos and shared them with others – including Paul, a mutual friend from those bygone days. Here’s what Jim wrote:

Thanks for the wonderful treasure of the Uptown picture book. Sure brings back memories and provokes reflection. Paul kept saying, “We were so naive.”

Were we though?

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Versions of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange and Oblation.

Of Chaos, Ushers, and Handing Out God

12 Jan

Get rid of row by row Communion during Mass. Not much of a rant there, come to think of it.
~ Fr. John Zuhlsdorf,  Wherein Fr. Z rants about Communion

Holy Communion at St. Thomas was always an unholy mess, and I loved it.

Back then, it was a hodgepodge parish comprising every conceivable socioeconomic sector of Chicago. There was Mass in three languages (English, Spanish, Vietnamese) every weekend, plus an Eritrean priest would come by once a month to celebrate a Ge’ez liturgy for the Ethiopians. Sunday mornings were always chaotic, with kids in the aisles and people milling around here and there, the Korean grandmothers telling their beads all through Mass, and men occasionally ducking out for a smoke. It was like a big messy family reunion.

Then came Holy Communion. Unlike most American parishes, St. Thomas of Canterbury didn’t dismiss for Communion by rows. We had ushers, to be sure, but their main role was to take up and safeguardpews the collection, and then to intervene in case an inebriated or otherwise unruly worshiper got out of hand.

Instead of a nice, tidy, orderly march forward, the distribution of Communion at St. Thomas was more like a crush of surging humanity – like what you see on CNN after a natural disaster, and folks are crowding around those trucks handing out aid. The crowd is scared, they’re hungry and thirsty, and they’re not going to wait in a queue.

I get that. I’d be the same way.

There’s something seriously wrong with how we’ve applied principles of efficiency and uniformity to the Mass, especially when it comes to Communion. What is Holy Communion after all? Matthew Lickona plays it straight: “I have a secret. I eat God, and I have his life in me. It’s the best thing in the world.” Seriously, the Church is handing out God to anybody who shows up – for free! But we sit there, ho-hum, like we’re waiting for our number to be called at the BMV. “Free God, here!” we should be shouting from the street corners. “Come and get your free God!” If we did that, and folks could recognize their hunger for God, and they believed us, wouldn’t they come crowding the aisles to get some? And would we blame them?

That being the case, what’s our problem? Sedately we sit there in our pews until the ushers allow us to get in line – no cutting! Considering what’s up at the front of church, you’d think it would be more like midnight before Black Friday at Walmart – some urgency, possibly some anxiety that the priest might run out.

On the other hand, if we do happen to dillydally – maybe pause to pray a bit more than we should – what then? Nudges, nods, and then clumsy encounters as our neighbors dutifully follow the ushers’ directives, clambering over us non-conformists and troublemakers.

I can think of at least three reasons why the messiness of my old parish in Uptown was preferable to the standard orderly Communion seen in most churches today, and I discovered that the first two had already been adeptly delineated by one Rev. Paul F. Bosch, a retired Lutheran pastor and liturgy professor from Canada.

To begin with, dismissal for Communion by rows is a distraction – as Bosch writes:

It can shatter your revery. It can intrude on your meditation. Those hymns we sing in many churches as people commune: They’re intended to be aids to prayer.

The Mass is a prayer. Hence, those who participate in Mass ought to be invited to…well, pray! And what better time to be communing with God than immediately prior to receiving Him in Holy Communion. Again, Bosch:

Surely during the distribution of Bread and Cup it would be appropriate for worshippers to be encouraged to reflect, to meditate on the Day’s Prayers, on its Readings, on its Sermon, on its Hymn tunes and texts. And not dissuaded or violated in that attempt!

Perhaps some would protest that the confusion and disorder accompanying a random rush toward Communion would itself be a distraction, but consider that there is nothing in the rubrics themselves that justify the pew-by-pew approach. Nothing in the General Instruction, and certainly not in Canon Law. Not a peep, at least as far as I could find.

Instead, we have the Catechism instructing us this way:

To prepare for worthy reception of this sacrament, the faithful should observe the fast required in their Church. Bodily demeanor (gestures, clothing) ought to convey the respect, solemnity, and joy of this moment when Christ becomes our guest.

roman-catholic-mass-at-iwo-yima-1945-us-forcesOK, bodily demeanor conveying respect and solemnity, but at “this moment” – i.e., at the moment one actually receives Communion. And, lest we forget, the Catechism also advises “joy.” When I think of somebody joyfully anticipating an honored, looked-for guest, I think of my kids: Out in the front yard, craning their necks to watch for vehicles coming up or down the street in our direction, running around in excitement because they know the guest is almost here, almost here! But standing in a line and waiting their turn? Not a chance.

So, there’s distraction, but here’s a second objection to orderly Communion – again, in Bosch’s words:

Ushers at communion, escorting worshippers to the Table row by row, present an unnecessary and unseemly social pressure to worshippers sitting in those rows.

Dismissing the faithful in neat, tidy rows means that anybody who stays behind will be noticed! Thus, there’s a tremendous amount of incentive to go ahead and get in line with everybody else, regardless of ones disposition, preparedness, or even beliefs.

I remember this pressure myself back when I visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris as a Protestant teen. Now, the Europeans don’t normally dismiss for Communion in rows, but when everyone else went forward, I just got up with them – I thought it would be too awkward to be the only one left behind. When the priest handed me the Host, I took it back with me to my seat, heedless of the intense glares and raised eyebrows of surrounding clergy and congregants. Finally, my Catholic friends motioned to me to consume the Host – my controversial First Communion!  It was an innocent mistake that I’m sure is repeated often in this country, but it is one that could easily be avoided by adopting an unregimented Eucharistic distribution.

Distraction and social pressure – two good arguments in favor of chaotic Communion. And here’s a third: The Sacraments by their very nature are meant to be messy, all sensory and corporeal and bodily and all that – water splashing about, and flame and fragrant oils, and spit and salt, wine and bread, breath and utterance and God made present. It’s crazy stuff, like the Church herself, and family life, and marriage and sex and having babies, and birth and death. Nothing neat and tidy about any of that. And nothing neat and tidy about eating God’s Body and drinking His Blood, that’s for sure.

All this calls to mind those unnerving lines in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where Mr. Beaver describes the lion Aslan in this way:

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.

“He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion,” Mr. Beaver adds later on. Dangerous lions were also in the forefront of St. Ignatius’ mind when he wrote these words about martyrdom and the Eucharist: “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”

Ignatius_of_AntiochThis is the very One we receive in Holy Communion: Wild, not tame, not safe; dangerous, in other words. That being the case, there is something strange about approaching Him like we’d approach a teller at the bank. It seems more fitting that Holy Communion would resemble a riot rather than a rank.

So, away with orderly Communion! Bring on the chaos. Of course, lest there be any doubt, we’d still need the ushers! Somebody will still need to take up the collection and intervene when there are disorderlies. But instead of policing the Communion lines, I’d recommend that they stand at the exits and remind Communicants Whom they’re carrying when they leave. And what that means – namely, this:

As then in the sad and anxious times through which we are passing there are many who cling so firmly to Christ the Lord hidden beneath the Eucharistic veils that neither tribulation, nor distress, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor danger, nor persecution, nor the sword can separate them from His love, surely no doubt can remain that Holy Communion…may become a source of that fortitude which not infrequently makes Christians into heroes.

Christian heroes? Think: Ignatius of Antioch. Think: Martyrs. Really, maybe the ushers should be warning folks about the Communion line. It’s not only messy; it can cost you your life!

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Versions of this story appeared on Oblation and Catholic Exchange.

Did He Show Up?

20 Oct

This is primarily a tribute to my friend Tim Roemer. Tim died last year just before Christmas, and I’ve been mulling over his death and life ever since.

It’s high time I got some of that mulling out of my head and into words, especially  with the first anniversary of his death approaching. I owe it to him, to his wife, Nancy, and to his kids, Peter and Anna. I owe it because, even though I’ll forever be in Tim’s debt, that’s no excuse to skip payments. Consider this a belated first installment.

A friend like Tim doesn’t come along very often, and he came along in my life at a crucial moment. He was fiercely loyal, embarrassingly generous, and extraordinarily self-effacing. Tim could also be infuriating at times (neglecting to pick up his wedding cake until an hour before his wedding comes to mind), and fantastically stubborn—just like the rest of us. In his case, however, it seemed like those were very small flaws compared to his many gifts and grand magnanimity.

Also, Tim was an idealist and a dreamer—a war tax resister, for example, and a regular at the Uptown Catholic Worker—so we found common cause as we stumbled around like a couple urban Don Quixotes, tilting at windmills and laughing at our foibles.

During this same time, I was discovering the Church, and, in time, embracing it, and my friendship with Tim gave me firsthand insight into what it meant to be a thoroughgoing Catholic. In fact, he was, along with my godfather and others in Uptown, among the first thoroughgoing Christians I’d ever encountered—thoroughgoing in the sense timthat Tim’s faith wasn’t an attachment or an addendum or just one aspect of his life, but rather it was his life, in a very natural, integrated way. So integrated, in fact, that he didn’t talk about it all the time, nor did he feel a need to draw attention to it. It was simply a given for Tim; it was assumed.

Three stories about Tim neatly summarize that integrated demeanor he modeled for me and which I’ve tried to emulate ever since. The stories all have Sacramental themes, and together they form a kind of catechetical triptych which continues to inform my own faith to this day. Maybe you’ll find them helpful as well. At the very least, if you’re a convert, you’ll appreciate these three Sacramental anecdotes, and why they helped me find my place in the Catholic universe.

First, Confession.

Tim loved to tell about battlefield priests during World War II who would hear Confessions of soldiers prior to major combat actions. “Are you sorry for your sins?” the priests would ask. “No,” would come the honest reply from war-hardened troops accustomed to less than saintly behaviors. Knowing that the troops faced the probability of death, and so anxious to grant them absolution, the priests would then ask, “But are you sorry that you’re not sorry?”

It sounds apocryphal, and maybe it is. Nevertheless, the story illustrates something profoundly true about the Church and her work of mediating the love of Christ to the world—namely, that He’s desperate to give it to us. Unlike the rather rigid formulas that most people associate with Catholicism, the God we encounter in Christ, the one we see in the Scriptures, the one the Church presents to us, is one who will go to any and every length to give us life and love and even Himself.

As Jesus said, God won’t be outdone by human fathers who generally provide good things for their families. Does a dad give his children stones when they ask for bread? Or scorpions when they ask for eggs? No, and usually he is working extra shifts to not only give them food and shelter and clothing, but cake and ice cream as well. Maybe even a trip to Disney World.

Yet human fathers are only a pale reflection of our heavenly Father who wants much more for us than treats and trips. He wants to give us heaven itself, and adoption, and eternity. He’s desperate to do it, and desperate times call for desperate measures. And that’s pretty much what the Gospels are all about.

Second, vocation.

This story hearkens back to the days when Tim and I were both wrestling with our life callings. Like him, I was oblivious to the painfully evident fact that God hadn’t called me to the priesthood. Tim figured it out way before I did—no doubt because, as a cradle Catholic, he was equipped to read the vocational tea leaves more readily. Nevertheless, until he finally relented and embraced his true vocation of marriage and fatherhood (in which both arenas he thrived), Tim had made halting progress in the discernment and seminary application process with the Archdiocese of Chicago.

During one of his interviews, my friend was asked what he thought about the role of women in the Church. Without any hesitation, Tim responded, and it was a simple, direct, vocation-squelching, yet wise classic: “Women’s role in the Church? Same as men: To become saints.” Clearly this wasn’t what the vocation folks in the chancery wanted to hear.

Rather, they wanted some nuanced and politically sensitive ramble about changing cultural attitudes, development of doctrine, and expanding opportunities for women’s participation in the liturgy and church governance. This was in the Cardinal Bernardin heyday, and the archdiocesan middle management was overwhelmingly “progressive.” Orthodoxy had to be gilded with a liberal patina in order to survive such vetting episodes.

None of that for Tim, however. He, like me, saw that the Church needed priests, and he pursued ordination accordingly—out of a sense of love and duty more than a sense of calling. But even if some fancy Jesuitical footwork could’ve enabled Tim to fly below the vocation office’s orthodoxy radar, it was a price too high, and that interview foretold the eventual demise of his priestly quest. That was a good thing, of course, because as Nancy and the kids can attest, his vocation lay elsewhere.

Here, too, Tim became a role model for me, as he took up marriage and fatherhood with the same tenacity and drive that characterized his do-gooder Catholic Worker-ism. “If God has called me to become a saint through marriage and family life,” I can imagine him saying, “well, then, dammit, let’s get on with it!” If he didn’t actually say those words, that’s certainly how he lived, and I took his example to heart.

Misa_Mosaico_SMarcosFinally, the Eucharist.

I lived with Roemer, along with our mutual friend and my godfather, Jim Eder, for a longish portion of my Uptown, Catholic Worker days. All three of us were daily Communicants, although we often went to Mass separately and at different times. Often I would go alone to the 8 am weekday Mass at St. Thomas of Canterbury. When I returned to our flat, I had a pretty good idea of what I could expect.

Eder would already be off to work, having attended the 6:45 am liturgy. Tim would be home, sitting in an easy chair and reading the Tribune amid the clutter and mess of our apartment. Entering our six-flat building and climbing the stairs to the third floor would involve enough noise that Tim would be alerted to my imminent arrival. When I entered our flat, Tim would invariably drop the paper enough to make eye contact with me and utter his favorite question deadpan: “Did He show up?” My answer, always in the affirmative, would be met with a grunt of approval, and the paper shield would be restored.

What might sound like sacrilege or, at best, irreverence always struck me as a preeminent sign of Tim’s secure faith, and I admired his comfortable familiarity with the miracle of the Mass and the wonder of the Church. He was truly at home in that vast Catholic Thing, and I envied him.

In addition, however, Tim’s seemingly flippant question was rooted in a profound insight regarding, first, our own utter dependency on divine grace, and, second, our dire responsibility as well. The humor in Tim’s daily query is that He always “shows up,” no matter what—it’s what He promised us, after all. “And, lo, I will be with you until the end of the age,” He told the Apostles just before the Ascension.

The real question, you see, is whether we show up—or rather, whether I do. He will always be there, no question, ready for whatever problems or difficulties or sufferings I might bring Him, and ready to give Himself totally to us, to feed us with His very self. Will I come to that encounter hungry for Him? Will I come ready with an open heart and a submissive will? Will I come prepared for what He wants to give me and do for me no matter what?

Rest in peace, my friend. Thank you for the Faith lessons you taught me: that God desperately wants to save us, that he desperately wants to sanctify us, and that all we have to do is let Him. Pray for me that, like you, I may show up whenever He does.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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