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.

Always the Shepherd

The Lost Sheep/Daniel Bonnell
The Lost Sheep/Daniel Bon­nell

Yes­ter­day I was look­ing at a video of a Domini­can event that took place in March, 2013. At the end of the video the cam­era panned the group of peo­ple in atten­dance. Then it focused on some Domini­can fri­ars stand­ing in the back of the room. And there he was, Father Michael, hold­ing court just like he used to do at St Vin­cent, hug­ging and kiss­ing up a storm. There was audio, too, and I could faint­ly hear Father’s voice. Gosh, it brought tears to my eyes to see, as real again, a  com­mon scene I have remem­bered and cher­ished. Sad to say, they were still tears of sad­ness, not joy. I watched the clip twice and and then decid­ed to just leave it alone. It’s not sur­pris­ing to me that these ‘lit­tle things’ still hold a very deep mean­ing. Lat­er I remem­bered that I had actu­al­ly called Father M that day, want­i­ng to know if he was ready to eat some pies after com­plet­ing his chemo. Well, he was out of state, he said, but he was anx­ious for pie upon his return to St Pius. It was exact­ly a year and a day before he died.

I want to focus on the pos­i­tive. So I’ve decid­ed that I will share some ear­ly mem­o­ries of Father Michael-before his can­cer diag­no­sis. I know that I have men­tioned that I came back to my parish to dis­cuss some spir­i­tu­al issues with a priest. It was not a mat­ter of con­fes­sion; there was more to it. After a long delay, I approached Father M and he was very wel­com­ing. First I emailed Father, then I vis­it­ed him in the sac­risty, then set up an appoint­ment. This is about my first appoint­ment.

I made the appoint­ment about a week before and was a lit­tle ner­vous, yet felt I had found the right per­son. I was so impressed with Father Michael, I thought “I just know he’s going to talk about the grace of Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion”. I was sure he would sug­gest that to me. I thought if I made my con­fes­sion to Father Michael, I’d be so emo­tion­al­ly spent that I wouldn’t be able to talk about all the oth­er stuff. So that morning,after Mass at St Vin­cent, I went to a close-by parish for Con­fes­sion. I knew the priests were avail­able right after Mass. So fun­ny, because I think I felt like I had to cleanse my soul before I dared face the very holy Father Michael. And yes, he did bring up Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion that day!

Well, I was on time for the appoint­ment, Father Michael was a few min­utes late. I knew he had been with a promi­nent mem­ber of our parish who had passed away. The recep­tion­ist had been on the phone “get­ting the word out”. When Father arrived, we went into his office and sat down. Even though I had eat­en, my stom­ach had been rum­bling away-prob­a­bly nerves. I decid­ed to just be open about it and apol­o­gize for the noise ahead of time. Well, Father M laughed and said “Oh you don’t know about me and my stom­ach issues. Girl, you and I will just sit here and gur­gle at each oth­er!” So that broke the awk­ward­ness for me! Father Michael then start­ed to give me a his­to­ry of his stom­ach issues,the cur­rent ones (which many ladies of the parish knew well-and dis­cussed freely) . He then told of the bleed­ing ulcer he had in Den­ver. He was Domini­can Novice Mas­ter at the time. He said the doc­tors had told him he had “24 hours to live”. He claimed he told them “Good, no dra­ma, don’t wor­ry about noti­fy­ing my fam­i­ly”. He nev­er said how long it took him to recu­per­ate or if his fam­i­ly were ever noti­fied. I asked what he thought caused the ulcer and he said “I kind of let every­thing get away from me”. I didn’t feel com­fort­able ask­ing him to elab­o­rate, though now I wish I had. In lat­er con­ver­sa­tions, he did say that when­ev­er his stom­ach would give him trou­ble, he’d just stop eating,sometimes for a few days. He talked about pos­si­bly hav­ing lac­tose intol­er­ance, irri­ta­ble bow­el syn­drome and mul­ti­ple bow­el obstruc­tions. Father M was very frank about this stuff- though he nev­er men­tioned a doctor’s diag­no­sis. And– he also allud­ed to some regret about not being stricter as a Novice Master-“when I hear how some of them are now.”

So after the stom­ach dis­cus­sion Father asked me about myself. He was so care­ful in how he asked about edu­ca­tion. It was clear to me that he was leery of offend­ing some­one (espe­cial­ly a woman) by assum­ing her lev­el of edu­ca­tion was low­er than she had achieved. I’ll bet he’d made that faux pas a few times! The cau­tion was actu­al­ly very charm­ing. But I only have a B.A. from Loy­ola-so he had noth­ing to fear. That’s pret­ty aver­age. Then Father asked more ques­tions about pos­si­bly stress­ful sit­u­a­tions in my life. I rec­og­nized all the queries as being pret­ty stan­dard about death, divorce, mov­ing, job, abuse, addic­tion. Father was very gen­tle and kind and ten­ta­tive in his ques­tion­ing. I think he just assumed I was hav­ing mar­i­tal prob­lems. He men­tioned annul­ments and remar­riage a few times. Well, my issue was none of these, but it took me three or four appoint­ments before I felt com­fort­able telling him. I didn’t want to be dis­cour­te­ous and shut down all his kind effort, so I went along with it.

Of course we talked about oth­er things, most notably fam­i­ly, Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and the Eucharist. But most inter­est­ing­ly, Father Michael gave me a lit­tle lec­ture on the pow­er of the sense of touch. He explained that when he was a fresh­man at Dal­housie Uni­ver­si­ty, he and his old­er broth­er had attend­ed a sem­i­nar or lec­ture by a very famous sci­en­tist. The lec­ture was all about the sense of touch and how impor­tant and mean­ing­ful it was. I found myself think­ing “I am a wife and moth­er of three, why is he telling me this? If noth­ing else, I am ful­ly aware of how impor­tant this is for bond­ing moth­er and baby.” Well, Father talked for over ten min­utes on this sub­ject. I was fas­ci­nat­ed at his great emo­tion in relay­ing his thoughts with such con­vic­tion. Father end­ed his talk telling me of the new wid­ow he had just left. He described poignant­ly how she had stroked her dead husband’s arm over and over. And he showed me just how she did this. He choked up and teared up as he described his awe being in the pres­ence of such a great love.Quite an unex­pect­ed turn in our talk, but as I grew to know Father bet­ter, I learned that using touch was a hall­mark of Father Michael’s being.

Then we spoke of the Eucharist. I’ve writ­ten about this awhile back. For some rea­son Father Michael was impressed by my words that day. I still wish I could remem­ber what I’d said. In any case, Father M start­ed talk­ing about the way peo­ple received the Eucharist , peo­ple who would just grab IT from him, those who approached dis­re­spect­ful­ly, those who would receive and just walk out the door. He lament­ed that poor cat­e­ch­esis  had result­ed in peo­ple ‘who didn’t have a clue’. He was tru­ly sad about this. Then Father shared the expe­ri­ence of cel­e­brat­ing Mass in Cana­da with those very close to him. He quick­ly gave a run­down of those who were no longer prac­tic­ing Catholics and those extend­ed fam­i­ly who belonged to dif­fer­ent denom­i­na­tions. With big tears rolling down his cheeks, he said “I feel so bad about their receiv­ing Com­mu­nion, but I don’t know what to say.” Wow, was I sur­prised about that!!!!  After all he was a priest-and a good and holy one- who wouldn’t lis­ten to him?  I was con­cerned and empa­thet­ic, see­ing again this great emo­tion show so quick­ly. I said “Father Michael, I can under­stand that you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feel­ings or start a war, but maybe one of your broth­ers could explain this in a non-hurt­ful way”. Father just shook his head, he felt tru­ly help­less about the sit­u­a­tion. Father was unique in open­ly show­ing his vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and I was priv­i­leged to see this in sig­nif­i­cant mat­ters of faith. When he vis­it­ed Cana­da, I prayed that he might have peace about this.

In my ear­li­est posts, I’ve writ­ten about oth­er aspects of this meet­ing. I won’t repeat them here.The meet­ing end­ed most pleas­ant­ly. And I felt that God had giv­en me a great gift in lead­ing me to Father Michael. It is so nice to rem­i­nisce. So much was so mean­ing­ful.

The Feast of Corpus Christi

Aquinas :EucharistFather Michael was so keen­ly aware of the Gift of the Holy Eucharist. We spoke of this in one our first con­ver­sa­tions. I was talk­ing about how much my view of the Eucharist had changed in my life. I spoke of how as a First Com­mu­ni­cant, I was focused on meet­ing Jesus and hav­ing Him become part of me, a per­son­al vis­it and union. Then I told of how, post Vat­i­can II, the focus was so much on the Peo­ple of God, Church as Christ’s Body and we its mem­bers, our neigh­bors, that union- I remem­ber very lit­tle remain­ing of my child­hood view­point. But I told Father Michael I felt that as an old­er per­son I had come back to my child­hood view, but now keep­ing the com­mu­ni­ty in the pic­ture.

Father Michael just beamed as I spoke. I did some addi­tion­al explain­ing of how I was think­ing and Father  became most seri­ous as I talked. I wish I could remem­ber what I’d said.  Father M then stat­ed “Well that is a beau­ti­ful expla­na­tion of  amaz­ing­ly sound The­ol­o­gy!!”  with some sur­prise in his demeanor. I said “I know”, but won­dered why he was so sur­prised. Father said “But you don’t real­ize how many peo­ple don’t have a clue!” I replied “But Father Michael, I have six­teen years of Catholic edu­ca­tion, I should know this stuff.” He would often men­tion to me lat­er, as he fought his can­cer, that I was tru­ly blessed with under­stand­ing of the Eucharist.

I was aim­ing to have Father Michael become my spir­i­tu­al direc­tor at that point. He sug­gest­ed some read­ing about St Char­bel and to study some books on the Eucharist. We nev­er got around to the direc­tion because Father Michael’s can­cer showed up. Father was too sick to have the meet­ings. For quite awhile I didn’t see Father Michael at all. What a dis­ap­point­ment!

But I remem­ber Father M’s pure delight in dis­trib­ut­ing Holy Eucharist to all of us. He always smiled as we approached him, eyes gleam­ing. He radi­at­ed such warmth and reflect­ed a qui­et delight in giv­ing this great­est of Gifts to us, his parish fam­i­ly. Today is Cor­pus Christi and I think of Father Michael’s love for the Eucharist. Father’s beau­ti­ful being and pres­ence, his gen­tle­ness and holi­ness- all bore wit­ness to the exquis­ite nour­ish­ment pro­vid­ed by Our Lord.

And through the same Gift, we are all still togeth­er:

‘Now with glad thanks­giv­ing, praise Christ glo­ri­fied;
He in us is present; we in him abide.
Mem­bers of his body, we in him are one;
Hail this sacred union, heav’n on earth begun!’