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Mass a parade of souls that touched ours


I don't remember missing Sunday Mass when I was a child. It was as much a part of the routine in my parents' home as Saturday night baths and Sunday morning Polish sausage. There was never a question about going to church. It always happened. That continued as long as I lived with my parents, and the stability of that weekly concourse bound me forever to those people in particular and the Church Universal.

We were a relatively small community of believers in the town where I grew up. Mostly we were the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Polish immigrants who had found that the rocky, rolling farmland and the dark, cold winters of Wisconsin reminded them of the old country.

My great-great grandfather on my father's side dug the church basement with a team of horses. I'm told it took an entire summer. Every time I went down into the church basement for a funeral luncheon or a wedding feast, I was within inches of the sweat of that man. Every time I knelt at the communion railing, the same expectations he had rose in my throat and sometimes clung to the roof of my mouth. There was a sense of unrestricted continuity in all of us that was born as much from our genealogies as the unbroken chain of popes.

When I went to college things changed. There were reasons, I suppose, for missing Sunday Mass. None of them good, but they made sense to a 19-year-old. Even then, however, I remember finding the steeple of a Catholic church in a strange city a comfort. Home was never far away. In the end I missed the church too much and after four years I found my way back.

Now I sit in the presider's chair of our parish and I pray for the children who come to Sunday Mass. I worry about them in the same way my great-uncle laminated his patriotism with fond memories of the old country: There is so much possibility here and not enough stability.

Like good seed fallen on rocky ground, these children will be blown by the wind. They will never come within inches of their fathers' sweat in the foundations of their shopping malls nor claim the patrimony of sanctified table fellowship. They will never have the comfort of always being close to home and never know the sweetness of memories that are not entirely their own, for when they grow up they will all leave and probably never return.

Sunday Mass continues to sustain me by centripetal forces that draw me into mysteries that cannot be explained in the terms of their proposition. I rub my overgrown eyebrows in wonder -- as my father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather did -- when what concerns me is not in my power to resolve and when what restores me comes to me bound by the accidents of bread and wine.

I shake hands during the sign of peace and see so many nameless souls, past and present, that enter and join with me in that dark shining place where memory lives.

Before Mass

He loved to sit in the semidarkness that is the virtue of old churches. Even before Sunday Mass, the pastor kept the lights off -- to save money and to add drama to the beginning of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass by suddenly flinging on the lights and ringing the entrance bell. In this darkness the past always seemed more real and present.

On the third weekend of every month his family used to drive up from Chicago to northern Wisconsin, where his parents owned a one-room shanty on 40 acres of land. They called it The Cottage, but the structure was neither quaint nor located near any water unless you counted the swamp down the road. During these weekends up north, they would mingle with the extended family, cultivate a shabby garden and set a lot of mouse traps in the shanty. For lunch his mother would boil hot dogs in the soup they were going to have for supper. It saved on pots and added taste to the soup.

His father didn't believe in fixing up The Cottage. Over the years the paint peeled and the siding weathered black and crabby, matching the patched tar paper roof. His father said no one would want to break into a place that looked that bad. In truth his father was too cheap to spend any money on it.

After his parents died, he continued to return to The Cottage. He taught his wife how to boil the luncheon hot dogs in the supper soup and taught his children how to set mouse traps. He became chair of the family reunion and tied their memories and predilections in neat, secure knots of tradition invariably celebrated on the third Saturday of July.

When his cousin died, he canceled his classes at the university and drove up north for the funeral. Throughout the funeral Mass and the wake that preceded it, he stood in the back of the church quietly drumming his fingers on the last pew. He could not pray. They had turned the house of God into nothing more than a meeting room. The pastor and, he suspected, some of his relatives were not merely misguided but heretics. He did not go to Communion. On his way home, he drove by The Cottage to make sure it was still standing stark and secure against the roiling fall clouds. Tomorrow was Sunday. He would go to Mass and pray for them and her.

The Homily

His mother flew to Korea to secure him from an adoption agency. She brought him home to his father and sister, a square block of baby fat and will. He was baptized on the Sunday after Christmas with the name Paul, collapsing the irony of the short bowlegged man of grim determination, who first persecuted and then championed Christianity, into new potentialities.

On this Sunday when his parents brought him to church -- dressed in a navy sailor suit, and his sister, older by two years, in a calico print with a hat to match -- he came chanting a new song rooted in a grim obsession to have more chewing gum. "Gum, gum, gum. Gum, gum. Gum, gum, gum. Gum, gum."

After a great deal of shushing by his parents and sister, the family settled into the first pew and made it through the readings. They parceled out small bits of chewing gum to him, tearing thin sticks into tiny slivers, hoping against hope they would have enough to last the entire Mass. Fearing a shortage, they began to ration it just as the homily began.

In a pique of temper and determination, just as the priest made the point of the homily, he yelled for more gum. Except, of course, by this time he had so much already in his mouth it came out insistently, "Dumb, dumb, dumb! Dumb, dumb!"

Someone in the assembly began applauding and then the entire congregation. The priest said no more but thought to himself: "The way God works these things out, some day that kid will be a priest."

The Collection

Of the 200 people in church that Sunday evening, he was by far the most pious. He had spent the day at the family cottage getting it ready for winter. The storm windows had been put on, the TV and VCR hidden away in a dark corner of the basement, the water lines drained, the refrigerator emptied, cleaned and left open to air. The two-hour ride back to the city had been filled with the self-satisfaction of late fall. The few leaves sticking stubbornly to the trees attested to a vigorous summer, a bountiful harvest and a good life. He was still young and already he had outdone his parents.

He was grateful as he carefully made the sign of the cross and knelt with perfect posture while the rest of the assembly shuffled noisily waiting for Mass to begin. Even after the cantor announced the opening song and everyone else had stood, he remained kneeling. He wanted God to know how grateful he was.

He stood, finally, for the opening prayer and then sat as the reader proclaimed the first reading. His mind wandered to tomorrow morning's schedule and a luncheon meeting with his stockbroker. He was making plans for his children's education. The psalm, second reading, gospel acclamation, gospel, homily and Creed slipped past him, although no one would have guessed it from his posture or the subconscious ability to speak and not mean what one is saying.

When the collection basket was handed to him he passed it on to the person next to him, noticing how worn and faded it was. It reminded him of the lawn chair cushions he had stored earlier that day. He made a mental note to replace them next spring.

The Eucharistic Prayer

The week had brought its share of troubles and joys. She had come to Mass not so much conscious of them as of the aching need to be alone. Tugging against the adolescent resistance of her only child, she brought the girl along for company in this solitude and out of the firm belief that some day this child of hers would love God as much as she and would find comfort and strength in this assembly when her mother was no longer alive to ensure its availability against the certainty of its need.

Together they settled into the Mass in much the same way they lived together: the warmth of their bodies radiating to their outer limits and then blending.

Together they mumbled the responses, lost the story line of the first and second readings after the first few lines, made only a slight, croaking attempt at singing the alleluia, wandered aimlessly through the assembly noting bad hairdos and odd piety during the gospel and homily, dug into their purses for loose change and crumpled bills at the collection, couldn't remember reciting the Creed or one of the intercessions.

They were a pair, these two, but only one believed and that belief had been hard won.

Years ago when she was her daughter's age, she had gotten it into her head to ask the Virgin Mary to help her love Mary's son. She didn't like Jesus, couldn't relate to God, and the Holy Spirit ... a fluttering dove? Well, that seemed like such a bizarre addition to the family-like pantheon of the Godhead. But Mary had always seemed real. Now she believed in the power of prayer, even the prayer of the unbeliever for faith.

As the priest began the preface, she grew attentive to his words: "So that with loving trust we may turn to you in all our troubles, and give thanks in all our joys." "Yes," she prayed. "Good Lord, let my daughter learn to turn to you in all her troubles and all her joys."

Her daughter noticed a young man from her high school singing in the small group at the piano. She made a mental note to find a way to meet him.

The Sign of Peace

Her father sent her off to a Catholic university 35 years ago with the admonition: "Women don't need to go to college, so you'll have to earn your own way and figure out a good reason for you to be there." She got a job as the chief hog entry clerk for the state agricultural department and studied theology. All the while she cataloged pig pedigrees, she learned the divisions of grace. There were no jobs waiting for her when she graduated and no suitor to make a home for her. She stayed on with the agriculture department.

On Sunday she had come to Mass because her father was dying. She had spoken with him early in the morning, barely able to hear him, shocked that the man she once thought invincible -- the man who had made her earn her determination -- was passing away. There was little that was familiar in him anymore. He was already crossing into pure light.

The priest had been ordained only a few months. He was still awkward in his vestments. He held his arms straight out from his sides like a young boy who still thinks that if he gets it all right he will fool everyone and fly. His piety at the altar was determined. He had some picture in his head of what his face was supposed to look like when he was praying and he arranged his expressions appropriately. He modulated his voice to a level of sincerity unsubstantiated by experience.

At the sign of peace he sought her out, passing by several eager childish hands. He had seen her distress and misunderstood.

"Peace," he said kindly.

She hesitated and then looked at him straight on. "Yes," she said quietly, "May you rest in peace."


As he entered the university chapel he was set happily adrift in a sea of contrition and earnestness. He would drink no more. He would find a job. He would stop living on the streets. He would find his kids and call them. He would go to church every day. He would shave.

The others who had come together for the last Mass on Sunday evening were polished and clean-scrubbed even if their clothes had an intentionally well-worn look of the 60s. Tuition at this school cost their parents about $10,000 a year. Room, board, books, "expenses" -- another $5,000 to $7,000.

Some of them came out of a sense of curiosity peculiar to college students who re-evaluate everything once familiar and secure in their lives. Some came out of desperation. No matter how agnostic they claimed they were to their friends, when they were in trouble there was no place to go but church.

Some came because their parents nagged them and some came because they had always come and would always come. A small minority came out of principle. Churchgoing matched their young conservatism. It went along with watching Rush Limbaugh and reading The Wall Street Journal.

The priest-presider that night was relatively young, given the graying of the clergy. As a professor on campus he had the reputation of falling into different voices to accentuate his points. His classes were good for a laugh and a little learning. Most students were happy with that.

He saw the drunk head for the front pew, shoving past three university students so he could sit by the aisle. He noticed the glazed and happy look in the man's eyes and the enthusiastic attention to his every movement.

When it came time for Communion, the drunk was the first in line. He crossed himself three times before taking the host and then headed eagerly for the cup minister. The cup minister looked hesitantly toward the presider for some clue. Should he give this drunk the cup? The presider caught the nearly imperceptible appeal for guidance out of the corner of his eye and with equal subtlety nodded.

The man drank quickly and completely from the cup of gladness. When he finished he returned to his pew and knelt motionless as relief spread slowly through his body. For a brief moment some of that relief slipped into his soul as well and he believed God could forgive anything.

Going Home

She grew up the unfavored daughter of three, only one of whom married. The other two, she and her sister, lived forever together in the house their father built and left them. She never made peace with her place in the world. Even as they grew old together, everyone liked her sister more and avoided her when possible.

She clung to the righteousness of God in whose justice everything certainly must be leveled out. A sin-counter, she kept a ledger in case St. Peter slipped up: Her sister was careless at prayer, known to skip a Hail Mary or two when leading the rosary; occasionally she ate candy during Lent; she laughed in church when the new priest came and told jokes during his homilies; she owned a dress that fell above her knees; she talked to sinners. She knew her sister's sins as well as she knew the Creed.

On Holy Thursday the two of them kept the final hour of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, she straight-backed and grim, her sister slouching and drowsy with a faint peaceful smile. They were alone with the Lord who loved which one best?

On Easter morning they lingered after Mass making their consecrations and adding prayers to the source and summit of the Christian life. Then they made the round of the sanctuary lilies, pulling out the yellow parts of the newly opened flowers, preserving their virginity and insuring a longer life. As they left the church she turned to her sister and, removing a speck of lint from her coat, said: "Happy Easter, dear." Her sister replied, "And I love you too. Happy Easter."

The sun did not shine brighter, nor did peace break out in the world, but the balance of justice tipped in favor of redemption once again.

George Szews is a priest in the LaCrosse, Wis., diocese. He works in campus ministry.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 1997