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.

 

Sensing the Spirit

worshipHere is a true sto­ry. It is one of the high­lights and fond­est mem­o­ries of my life.  It was either late  fall 1980 or ear­ly 1981. I was expect­ing my third child , due in late Feb­ru­ary 1981. I had an appoint­ment at my obste­tri­cian for my reg­u­lar check­up. It was cold yet sun­ny out­side, but there was no snow. There had been some mois­ture which turned into small ice patch­es on the side­walks and streets.

At this peri­od of my life, we owned one car which my hus­band need­ed to get to and from his two jobs. It was a rough time, when he had to go imme­di­ate­ly from his full time job to the part-time evening job. He saw the kids only on week­ends. So any­way, I had to use the bus or cab ser­vice for any com­mutes beyond walk­ing dis­tance. On this par­tic­u­lar day, I had enough mon­ey to pay for a one-way cab trip to the doctor’s, but would have to take the bus back home.

I called the local Blue Cab num­ber and soon there was the sound of a horn in front of my house. I head­ed for the door near­est the curb, but the dri­ver told me to “Come around to the street side.” I got in and set­tled direct­ly behind the dri­ver-a young man wear­ing a base­ball cap. A talk radio sta­tion bab­bled as back­ground noise. He looked at  me in his rearview mir­ror and asked “Where are you going?” I gave the address, a dis­tinc­tive build­ing, about four miles away-a fif­teen minute ride .

Gosh, he was a talk­a­tive young man! He quick­ly turned the radio off so he could talk to me! I was always pret­ty qui­et and didn’t usu­al­ly open up to friend­ly cab dri­vers. But this guy was so engaging,so cour­te­ous. He talked and talked. We had an “eye to eye” con­ver­sa­tion, look­ing at each oth­er in the mir­ror. I couldn’t see his face, only his eyes. He asked a lot of ques­tions. One was: why I was head­ing to this par­tic­u­lar build­ing? I said “Well, I’m going to the doc­tor”. He replied with a “Oh no, are you ill?” “No”, I said ‚“just preg­nant! It’s a reg­u­lar check­up”. He con­grat­u­lat­ed me and then start­ed talk­ing about fam­i­lies, fam­i­ly size, school­ing chil­dren, types of preschool edu­ca­tion, Catholic edu­ca­tion. Such an inter­est­ing and informed young man!

He explained to me that he was ‘com­plet­ing stud­ies’ and won­dered if I wouldn’t mind answer­ing some ques­tions as it would help him with his research. Well, he had won me over with his kind and engag­ing per­son­al­i­ty, so I said sure. I real­ly want­ed to help him, he was that charm­ing. I spec­u­lat­ed that he was study­ing social work, psy­chol­o­gy or edu­ca­tion from how the con­ver­sa­tion had gone. I didn’t mind answer­ing his ques­tions. Some of them were sur­pris­ing­ly per­son­al, for exam­ple: “Why is there a five year gap between your last child and this new baby?”  Yes, that was one and the dri­ver  apol­o­gized for their nature , but explained again how they would help in his stud­ies .When I answered the ques­tions he would then pull over and write copi­ous notes on a clip­board.

While he ques­tioned me, he vol­un­teered some infor­ma­tion about him­self. He told me he was Cana­di­an and study­ing here in Chica­go. I told him I’d spent my hon­ey­moon in Québec. He was famil­iar with the Château Mon­te­bel­lo where we’d stayed and remarked that the G7 sum­mit would be held there the next sum­mer. I asked where he had come from in Cana­da. And I don’t remem­ber what he told me. I do remem­ber that as I ‘placed’ him geo­graph­i­cal­ly, I said ” Wow, you are a long way from home! ” He men­tioned his stud­ies here again and I asked if any of his fam­i­ly would vis­it or would be vis­it­ing (again I don’t recall if this was before or after Christ­mas) for the hol­i­days. But he said no, he’d had no vis­i­tors from home.

He began to talk fond­ly about his fam­i­ly in Cana­da. He missed them. It was a large fam­i­ly- again I don’t remem­ber the num­ber. But for me to remem­ber it as large; it would have to be at least sev­en chil­dren. I was sur­prised when he told me the age of his youngest sib­ling. Then he got quite somber and explained that his moth­er had died when he was in his teens . The youngest chil­dren were so very young to deal with the loss. I was so sad, hear­ing this. I asked if his father had had help from extend­ed fam­i­ly. He said “Oh yes, thank God for fam­i­ly and for our neigh­bors”.

So for fif­teen min­utes, maybe a bit more, I had this most engag­ing, inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion with a com­plete stranger. We con­tin­ued to chat as we arrived in front of the doctor’s office. I moved to the mid­dle of the back seat and leaned for­ward to final­ly look this guy in the face. He was writ­ing on his clip­board. I said to him “You’ve talked so much about your studies…what exact­ly are you study­ing?” I stared at his pro­file as he smiled and con­tin­ued to write. He said “Aw, you’ll nev­er guess.” So I kind of took this as a chal­lenge and I’m think­ing, ‘this guy is just so nice,seems so good, so kind, so spe­cial’. And it popped into my head, I hes­i­tat­ed, but some­thing insis­tent­ly told me ‘go ahead, say it !!!’  And I blurt­ed out “You’re study­ing in the sem­i­nary and you’re going to be a priest”. Well, he was so stunned, he slow­ly turned to look at me and then he just stared at me, eyes wide open. Didn’t say a word. There was no response. I then felt embar­rassed and start­ed to apol­o­gize, but he stopped me. He became so very seri­ous and qui­et. I paid him then, awk­ward­ly, but he wouldn’t take my tip.

So the dri­ver got out of the car and walked around, fid­dled with my door and even­tu­al­ly got it open. He had tak­en his cap off and was hold­ing it in both hands, stand­ing there wait­ing. I stud­ied him quick­ly and imme­di­ate­ly thought he seemed old­er than the col­lege stu­dent I had assumed he was.As I got out he walked up to me and took my arm. He was a short­er guy, slight­ly built and I said “Oh no, I’m just fine”. But he said “No, it’s icy, you might slip” and gripped more tight­ly. So I walked along with him and I did slip and he braced me, so I didn’t fall. We got to the door and I said “I’ll be fine”. Ever since I’d said those words to this man I had lit­er­al­ly felt this ‘buzz’ for my bold­ness and then, too, for the obvi­ous, seri­ous effect they had had on this kind man. I was mys­ti­fied that I’d spo­ken those words aloud- so unlike me!

I went into the build­ing alone and stood by the ele­va­tors, still feel­ing the adren­a­line or some­thing. I want­ed to jump or yell or run.…some kind of very pleas­ant ener­gy. I wait­ed there a cou­ple min­utes. Sud­den­ly the dri­ver was stand­ing there beside me. He hand­ed me a post-it on which he had writ­ten the cab com­pa­ny num­ber and some weird nick­name ref­er­enc­ing Cana­da (which I can’t remem­ber). It was some­thing sil­ly like ‘Steve the Canuck’, or ‘Win­nipeg Joe”. I looked at him and smiled. He moved to stand in front of me and said “Please call and ask for me any­time you need a ride. I’ll be hap­py to take you any­where, no charge.” He was still very seri­ous in his demeanor, but again with such kind­ness. He then said he want­ed to return to take me home from my appoint­ment and that I should call him.But I felt I had shak­en him up enough for one day. So we said good­bye. A few months lat­er, I asked for him when I ordered a cab.…he ‘no longer worked there’ I was told.

That day, after my appoint­ment, I was still so wired, I walked all the way home!!!  I was so full of joy about what had hap­pened. As I walked all those blocks, I was often com­pelled to extend my arms up into the air for the pure joy of it. I kept think­ing “Praise God”. I just couldn’t con­tain my hap­pi­ness; it was as though I had wit­nessed a great thing.

For years I kept that post-it in my wal­let. I prayed for “Steve the Canuck” every time I saw it. I prayed for him at bed­time for years. I still pray for him and I often won­der what hap­pened to him. I am con­fi­dent that some day , in this life or the next, the Lord will tell me. I’ll bet it’s a great sto­ry.

Here is the Father Michael ‘connection’—from the day I heard Father called a ‘seer’ (see Blessed Seer), I also had the sense that I had met him before. In the vestibule, I saw him in pro­file and instant­ly felt I knew him from some­where. I know for that to be true a lot of dates/facts would have to gibe. From what I have tried to check and match up, I don’t think they do.

Long ago, I sent this sto­ry as an email to Father Michael. He nev­er respond­ed to it, not even with a “Gee, that was a great sto­ry” — which would have been the norm for him. Kind of odd.….so it leaves things open. I often won­der if the rea­son I saw the dri­ver as old­er with his hat off -was that he was los­ing his hair.

Isn’t it won­der­ful to think that this could be about Father Michael ? Some things were so uncan­ny. No mat­ter what though, I’ll always trea­sure my unique expe­ri­ence from long ago .

Father Michael would have turned 62 today.

”And How Are You Today, My Dearest, Dearest Darling ?”

A Simple Gesture

Father Michael loved his ladies. These for­tu­nate souls were usu­al­ly home-bound and received reg­u­lar vis­its from Father M. Some of them were quite elder­ly-in their nineties and even over a hun­dred years old. He loved bring­ing them Holy Eucharist and vis­it­ing with them. He admit­ted to being total­ly fas­ci­nat­ed with their life sto­ries and wise per­spec­tives. Father Michael often men­tioned how old­er peo­ple showed open­ly how their souls were prepar­ing to meet God. He told me that the vis­its tru­ly inspired awe in him. He approached them with rev­er­ence , respect and humor.

Father Michael had his own way of inspir­ing awe , to be sure. Many times I heard him say “And how are you today, my dear­est, dear­est dar­ling?” as he answered his calls or greet­ed some ladies after Mass. Father Michael was a preach­er to his very core. And I wit­nessed that charism spill over at times into reg­u­lar con­ver­sa­tion and every­day eti­quette. A few words from Father Michael could eas­i­ly be God’s grace to a needy soul. He just knew the right thing to say, or to make the sim­ple mean­ing­ful gesture.….always some­thing framed with love.

I once chal­lenged Father Michael about the “dear­est dar­ling” line. I said it kind of sound­ed like his Cana­di­an ver­sion of  Aun­tie Mame. Well, that didn’t change any­thing in his view; it stayed a VERY Father Michael turn of phrase. And he used it often-even on me! I have to admit that being addressed direct­ly like that  had its  warmth and charm . Those ladies were so blessed!

Father Michael con­tin­ued the vis­its to his ladies,as best he could, through­out his ill­ness. Call­ing on the lady friends while he fought his can­cer was priest­ly -and an effort­ful, holy thing. He cher­ished bring­ing them the Eucharist. He rel­ished their con­ver­sa­tions. Father Michael was always a priest, first and fore­most. Here is a text Father M sent me in Feb­ru­ary, about a month before he died:

I had a good nite! Thank God! I was tired after doing the funer­al of my 99 year old girl­friend. She and I were sup­posed to get togeth­er this Thurs­day since we hadn’t seen each oth­er since Xmas. Hope you are rest­ed as well. My objec­tive today is to go for a walk.”

Sec­ond nature to Father M; no big deal. Those dear­est dar­lings were sure­ly blessed. Yet they walked mean­ing­ful­ly with Father Michael in his ill­ness, and so blessed him.