For Christmas, Katie, Marian, and I attended Mass in a parish near my mother’s home in Vermont. From the modern interior of the building to the setting of each prayer to a Christmas melody, it was a bag of new tricks for this old dog. Sorry, but after four weeks without a Gloria, I don’t want mine set to “Greensleeves.” And even Father Barnes might have raised a clerical eyebrow at the Kyrie.
But what might have been the most distressing element of the Mass turned out to be the most moving. This helped me to remember that whatever the setting, however cold or warming the architecture, however good the music direction—without the priesthood we have no Mass, no Eucharist, no sacramental connection with Christ.
The pastor of this Vermont parish is the kind of person who bugs me most in all the world: a guy who looks older than me but is probably five years younger. I run into people like this all the time now, as I approach 60, and 50 continues to look like 70.
But this was not the potentially distressing element of the mass. For this Christmas service the parish priest, “Fr. Young,” had invited an older priest, “Msgr. Old,” to celebrate. And the monsignor was clearly suffering from the persistent and powerful tremors of midstage Parkinson’s disease. The older priest made his way up the center aisle flanked by two strapping altar boys, who would bookend him throughout the Mass. As he said the opening prayers and led the Kyrie (that Kyrie!), and as we sang the Gloria (that Gloria!), I began to wonder how the homily would go or what would happen when Msgr. Old’s shaky hands distributed communion to the faithful.
I needn’t have worried. Fr. Young read the Gospel and delivered the homily, which he began by introducing Msgr. Old, for those who didn’t know him. He explained that the monsignor had been his mentor at some stage and acknowledged his debt feelingly. My heart began to turn.
As the monsignor celebrated the Mass, I found myself leaning forward in my pew, my chin now on my hands, contemplating the beauty of the moment. There were hints of impending disaster, but all went well until the Our Father. Then the monsignor began the Lord’s Prayer and the congregation rushed ahead of his quavering voice. I thought immediately of Father Barnes, who has made it clear that the priest should be the one to lead the Our Father; the congregation should not rush ahead willy-nilly. This Christmas congregation in Vermont was both willy and nilly. But Father Young’s voice rose on the public address system (he was standing at the rear) and powered us through the latter half of the Our Father at his pace, which was also the monsignor’s pace.
Communion was served by Fr. Young and lay ministers of the Eucharist, while Msgr. Old sat benignly behind the altar. Then with a nearly invisible gesture, Fr. Young turned over the proceedings to his old teacher, who said the closing prayers and a gentle benediction. As we left the church through the back lobby, I noted that Fr. Young had disappeared and Msgr. Old was left to receive the grateful thanks of the congregation as we passed him. I took his hand firmly and wished him a Merry Christmas. I made a mental note: Based on the quality of his skin and the color of his hair, the monsignor probably was not all that much older than me.