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.

The Words That Guide Us

Emulating Julian of Norwich?
Emulating Julian of Norwich?

Words can inspire and move. Words can teach and relay wisdom. Words can also sow confusion and discord. In particular, the words of a preacher in a homily are supposed to be chosen with care -and be helped along, God willing – by the Spirit. But, I’ve got to wonder at times. I’ve heard many, many wonderful things from the pulpit. I’ve also heard some ridiculous pronouncements, spoken as near-dogma, some unthinking, hurtful generalizations, and some repetitious personal themes, presented as the truth. Because I want to vent a bit, this post will be about the negative stuff.

We, the faithful, are rightly chastised for saying things that are insensitive and hurtful to others . Yet our priests may do the same thing, especially from the pulpit. Many times, though, the priests possess that element of authority and holiness that may make us feel reluctant to reject, question or criticize their words.

Even someone like Father Michael had his “bad days”. Yes, Father M was mostly excellent as a preacher, but sometimes he just blew it. When this happened, it was just a turn of phrase here and there-but to me, a few really stood out: One time he began his homily describing the return of someone who’d been away from the faith for a while. He talked about the man’s professional background and then declared “Oh, he was married, but the marriage was over. It had been over for a long time.” I was surprised by the flippancy of a Catholic priest using the words “the marriage was over” . I know that this is how our society would describe it, but I felt saddened and disappointed that a priest would refer to a marriage with problems this way. I instinctively felt empathy for the many, many couples(some surely there in church) who struggle through the bad times, to keep their marriages together. I thought these words were so thoughtless; they distracted me from hearing the rest of the homily.

Another time Father Michael was speaking about how he personally had the most trouble keeping his vow of obedience. In the course of explaining this he said “Sure, we all struggle with celibacy.”  Ok – we know celibacy is choosing to be unmarried and chaste. I think Father meant chastity, but whatever, once again he was flip about this-which set the crude tone for many loud and inappropriate conversations he conducted in the vestibule after Mass that day.

Then there was the time in the gospel where Jesus told of  getting the ox or donkey out of the pit on the Sabbath. Father Michael gave a few more examples showing common sense or kindness in conflict with ‘the rules’. He concluded his homily with a big grin saying “And so you see, my dear brothers and sisters, love ALWAYS trumps the law.” I looked up at him grinning there and just shook my head. We later had a discussion about this in our meeting. I told him I felt his generalization sounded nice, but was very misleading.  I gave him my own examples of how people, especially young people, could be influenced by a statement like that. Father M went on and and on about how  ‘we know Jesus was a man of the law’. And I said “Yes, of course , but you never said that !!!”  He was very upset, but he finally got the message. But those hearing the homily?  We’ll never know.

Another priest in our parish seems to have a penchant for using the words “anger, bitterness and resentment” in homilies. He often talks in his homilies about our hearts being full of those three emotions. It is a recurring theme that gets tired. Of course he always encourages us to rid ourselves of these attitudes. As a person who sometimes feels all three, I’d welcome a little instruction on combating them and a little compassion for what caused them in the first place.Scolding doesn’t do it for me. It’s just not that simple to say “Be gone !”  I think I am ripe for inspired instruction.

The same priest seems to equate an outgoing, chatty, ‘people person’  with the ideal Christian. He talks in homilies about how we should all be of service, and seems to feel that socializing in any way possible is the only sure way to the Kingdom. He doesn’t seem to understand that there are other, less ‘in your face’ ways to practice one’s faith.You know-like prayer-which he hardly ever mentions! If I had been alive in Christ’s time on earth and perceived Him as an over-the-top extrovert, I would NOT have followed Him.  Not everyone’s a party animal. That surely can’t be ‘the Way’.

And another priest tends to re-use the same homilies for some of the bigger feasts and solemnities. You would think he’d at least change the jokes. Those make the repeat homilies more recognizable! I remember the jokes. He also has a tendency to refer to the Prodigal Son story a lot. He talks about the older son ‘creating his own hell’ by deliberately separating himself from his father and brother.Good one to fall back on, I guess.

Well, that’s enough complaining, though I may do it again sometime as the Spirit moves me! FYI- the positives in preaching really do outweigh the negatives-most of the time.


Humble Preacher

At St PiusFather Michael was a great preacher. Once I returned to St Vincent Ferrer Church for Sunday Mass, I quickly learned to look forward to Father Michael’s homilies.  The first thing I noticed was Father’s rapport with the congregation. It often felt like a one-on-one homily, there was always something personal to relate to in it. All present listened attentively. Then there was humor, and many kinds of emotions. Father Michael often detailed his many visits to the sick of the parish. He was moved by so much and often got choked up talking of his experiences. He was sensitive enough to appreciate and convey how an attractive woman undergoing cancer treatment would feel about her altered appearance. He was taken aback by the extraordinarily humbling circumstances of peoples’ lives: Father Michael once visited a parishioner caring for two bedridden  family members in her home. He said he could hardly breathe, he was so stirred by the sacrifice and beauty of the love there. Nothing was lost on Father Michael. And he passed on his wise understanding in his preaching. And sometimes Father’s exquisite descriptions of these things took my breath away!

Father Michael was so observant and influenced by all he saw. He commuted to St Vincent’s three or more times per week. He traveled via the Eisenhower and got on it at  Ashland Avenue.  In one homily, he told of repeatedly seeing one homeless man, who always approached Father’s car near the ramp. Father Michael told us “All he wants from me is a buck. He doesn’t ask anything more of me. So I give him that buck”. The man was like a daily fixture that Father Michael looked for. One day the man was there but didn’t come to the car. Instead, he sat on sidewalk; he had a companion that day and Father Michael saw the man offer his paper bag’s contents to the other fellow. He told us “All I could think was how th

is was a holy man, that it was so important for him to share what he had with another. He was a holy, holy man”. Perspective…surely from the Spirit.

I remember one daily Mass where Father Michael appeared very shaken as he began his preaching. He was so upset. Apparently someone had made a remark to him about ‘real sisters’. The person had implied that sisters out of habit were not real. Well, Father Michael was not so much shaken as angry. He was so indignant and yet so controlled! He just went down the list of all the ways that all sisters were the very visible presence of the Lord in all their activities. I remember in particular Father Michael’s remarking about  the sisters’ devotion at Mass and at prayer each day. His voice was a little wobbly, yet so eloquent and loving! Father Michael truly appreciated all sisters.

My favorite homily has a Reconciliation twist. Father Michael had talked beautifully to us about the comfort and grace of that sacrament. Father ended with a story of a little boy who had just completed his First Reconciliation.  Father Michael gave absolution and told the little boy, “Well, all of God’s graces  and goodness and love are showering down on you right now!” The little boy looked absolutely delighted at this and enthusiastically replied “I can FEEL it!!” Father Michael,himself delighted, told the little one “You know, you have just made my day!”

So many beautiful homilies. I hope that somehow some of them have been recorded. I suppose there are many from weddings, if nothing else. I would like to think that some other events with preaching from Father Michael have been recorded and are ‘out there’. It seems like at least one person should have recognized that Father Michael had a very special gift. I certainly hope so. It is easy to take these gifts for granted and not expect to lose them….

Here is a link to Father Michael’s homily at St Pius on February 26, 2014, a month and a day before he died:

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Also, here is a link to a reflection Father Michael wrote: