Compassionate and Honest

Green Pastures/Megan Duncanson
Green Pastures/Megan Dun­can­son

I’ve remem­bered more from my first appoint­ment with Father Michael. I know some sub­jects car­ried over to the sec­ond and sub­se­quent appoint­ments. I sup­pose it real­ly doesn’t mat­ter- except from my per­spec­tive. That first appoint­ment was an intro­duc­tion to a stranger- a very holy man — who was full of sur­pris­es. One of the amus­ing things that hap­pened was that Father Michael kept try­ing to find out my age.Several times he men­tioned the year he grad­u­at­ed from high school and oth­er sig­nif­i­cant events of the ‘70s and asked me where I was when they occurred .  I final­ly real­ized that he want­ed to know my age, so I just told him. I don’t know why it was so impor­tant to him, but he seemed calmer once he knew.

Anoth­er dis­cus­sion was about my fam­i­ly, my eth­nic­i­ty, my sib­lings, my par­ents. I men­tioned that my dad had died in 1986. Father asked what my dad had died of and his age. I replied “He died of leukemia at six­ty-one”. Well, as soon as I said that Father said loud­ly and incred­u­lous­ly. “Six­ty-one? six­ty-one? Why, I’m fifty-nine myself!!!”  And as he spoke, he react­ed- he put both hands to his face, hold­ing them there for a sec­ond , then ran them up over his head a cou­ple of times. And he paced as he did this. He seemed tru­ly dis­tressed. And I was touched again by his vis­i­ble emo­tion. Then Father asked how long my dad had lived with the dis­ease. “Two months,” I replied, ” he died in remis­sion.” Again Father repeat­ed my words “Two months?????” and again he got very upset .

Now you know Father had mem­o­ry trou­bles; I’ve men­tioned that before. The scene above about my dad’s death was repeat­ed no less than four times in the two years I knew Father Michael. Each time, Father react­ed exact­ly the same way. It was like he took it per­son­al­ly, as though it were a mes­sage for him. It was this expe­ri­ence and sev­er­al oth­ers that bol­stered my belief that Father was intu­itive and ‘knew things’.

Before he was even diag­nosed with can­cer, Father would talk about things hav­ing to do with his death. Once I vis­it­ed him in the sac­risty and the first thing out of his mouth was that he had decid­ed that when he died, he was going to have Instant Lot­tery tick­ets spread all over the inside of his cas­ket. And then he said “but of course, I wouldn’t have them buried with me and waste them. I’d have them dis­trib­uted to all the mourn­ers before they closed the cas­ket”. I was amused, but said , “Father M, why on earth are you even think­ing about stuff like that??!!”  That time he answered that he’d been to quite a few wakes recent­ly where this had been done–and he liked the idea. He brought this up a sec­ond time also, freak­ing me out a lit­tle.

Back to the appointment.….Father talked about his fam­i­ly, his old­er broth­er, in par­tic­u­lar. Father was very proud of all his sib­lings. But there seemed to be a spe­cial bond between him and his old­er broth­er. I believe his old­er broth­er pro­tect­ed Father Michael as a child; he’d often spo­ken of being picked on. Father told of his brother’s edu­ca­tion, accom­plish­ments and wealth (yes, a lit­tle brag­ging). Then said “he is a won­der­ful, devout, pro­gres­sive Catholic”. Then a moment lat­er “and I am a pro­gres­sive priest”.

I kind of expect­ed that as I sur­mised it was part of the rea­son for Father Michael’s pop­u­lar­i­ty. But I am not pro­gres­sive, and I’d rather not label any­body or be labeled. When Father said this, he sound­ed so con­fid­ing and secre­tive, I imme­di­ate­ly want­ed to let him know that I thought dif­fer­ent­ly. So I asked to tell him a story.It was about the parish I’d belonged to before St Vin­cent. It was a pret­ty wild place. My two old­er kids went to CCD there. Two sis­ters and a dea­con pre­pared them for Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and First Com­mu­nion. I attend­ed the par­ent edu­ca­tion meet­ings and in the ones for First Com­mu­nion, I was tak­en aback by the lack of under­stand­ing of the sacra­ment. Peo­ple talked about, bread, wine, sym­bols; no one seemed to have any kind of grasp of the Real Pres­ence. The two sis­ters said noth­ing to enlight­en or cor­rect any­one. Noth­ing. I was shak­en.

The sis­ter in charge of the Com­mu­nion cat­e­ch­esis began to preach at Mass on Sun­day. It was near­ly every Sun­day. She was quite gifted,an excel­lent preach­er, no deny­ing that. The parish was inte­grat­ed with many African-Amer­i­cans com­ing to Mass because their kids attend­ed the school. Sis­ter, also African-Amer­i­can, real­ly spoke to them and their lives. And her per­spec­tive was cer­tain­ly enrich­ing to the rest of us.But I real­ized she should not have been preach­ing and it both­ered me.This con­tin­ued for a year and then the sis­ter began to wear priest­ly vest­ments for Mass. I tried to ratio­nal­ize that one out; I couldn’t. My gut feel­ing was that sis­ter was try­ing to enhance her author­i­ty by wear­ing the vest­ments. And though there were peo­ple like me who would think “who are you kid­ding?”, there were oth­ers who would not be aware of the false­ness. I just thought it was wrong.

I con­tact­ed the Office of Divine Wor­ship to talk to some­one about it. (Father Michael near­ly had a con­nip­tion when I told him this. He sat there lis­ten­ing, but steam­ing.) I had to doc­u­ment my obser­vances by let­ter, so I did. I had to describe the vest­ments she wore. The priest in that office made sure I knew that a pas­tor could give per­mis­sion for some­one else to do the homi­ly. He didn’t know what to say when I said ” But Father, it’s near­ly every week!” Well, noth­ing hap­pened. I left the parish and found St Vincent’s-a calm place. About ten years lat­er, a con­ser­v­a­tive bish­op had the sis­ter reas­signed. She became head of her order-no sur­prise there!

I made the point to Father Michael that the sis­ter who was so dri­ven to preach was the same one who didn’t both­er to edu­cate at all in the First Com­mu­nion class­es. He got that, but was irri­tat­ed with me for my con­tact­ing the Arch­dio­cese. He yelled at me, so angry that I would ques­tion a Dominican’s preach­ing charism. I yelled back “No, she was NOT a Domini­can, Father Michael!”  He was also cha­grinned that I would not auto­mat­i­cal­ly and unques­tion­ing­ly sup­port anoth­er woman. Father M must have been exposed to a lot of real­ly testy fem­i­nists- that’s all I can fig­ure. He act­ed like he was com­plete­ly in their cor­ner, but I feel he was try­ing to show sen­si­tiv­i­ty.

Any­way, Father Michael under­stood me bet­ter after that. Part of me didn’t want to ever hear that he might be at odds with church teach­ing. But now I often won­der what inter­est­ing sce­nar­ios he might have been part of, being pro­gres­sive “and proud of it” and also open to “trump­ing the law”. Our appoint­ment end­ed pleas­ant­ly and we con­tin­ued to meet a few times more, before the can­cer.

Once, on the phone, with Father Louie near­by, Father Michael stat­ed that Louie was one of a select group who’d ever seen him get angry. I refreshed his mem­o­ry about the expe­ri­ence I’ve just relayed. He was sur­prised and then remem­bered.

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