Because of Priests Young and Old

Posted by Webster
As Frank wrote here and here, Mass is Mass, wherever you go. But man—the local variations!

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.

"Vaya con Dios, Leonard; Rest in Peace."

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  • Anonymous

    Actually, 'Warren Jewell says' . . . On aging with grace, go with it. Nothing can make an aging old partisan feel his blossoming again than one grown older-looking and sounding too early in life. Nothing can charm like witnessing some thirty- or forty-something grump and harrumph through things.And, in how they are seemingly so distant from their Creator and Savior, they can look and sound decrepit! Take your eye off the One Who is our Destiny, and one gets lost in himself, meandering in his own (if Satan-colored to one degree or another) bewildering wilderness.One more Merry Christmas to you and Frank and your beloved, and the Spirit be with all of your readers. May the new year find you all better than ever.

  • Webster Bull

    Hey, Warren, thanks for this and Merry Christmas to you and yours, too! BTW, if you want to sign in as Warren Jewell in the future, go to the pull-down under the comment window: "Comment as." Pull this down to Name/URL and just enter your name. You will be able to sign posts as Warren Jewell from now on. Blessings, greetings, and salutations!!

  • jan

    This struck a note with me – maybe a whole chord, as I've found in my years as a cantor that strange or improvised music can really spoil the spirit of a Mass. The whole point is to facilitate the congregations' ability to pray through song. Well, aren't people in Vermont kind of weird, anyway? :-)You know, your don't look old in your photo; very dignified, I would say, and no, 'dignified' is not synonymous with 'old.' Merry Christmas, Sir, and Happy New Year!

  • Anonymous

    Careful. Main Entry: hu·bris Pronunciation: ˈhyü-brəsFunction: noun Etymology: Greek hybrisDate: 1884: exaggerated pride or self-confidence

  • Webster Bull

    Well, (2nd) anonymous, of course you are right, if I interpret your cryptic comment correctly: Hubris, or pride, is a trap for the blogger, especially one who wishes to offer thoughts and experiences about religious life. I have been reminded many times already, by people close to me and quite far away, just how often I "miss the mark." So I thank you for this reminder. What Frank and I are attempting to do is to put a human face on Catholic experience, speaking purely from our personal lives and understanding, not with any formal authority, not on behalf of the Church or its doctrine. So the experience of Mass in Vermont described here is my own and reflects on no one but me. If my report of this experience makes me appear proud, so be it. Perhaps I am. This is what I experienced.

  • James

    There's no place like home…

  • We got a new choir director last year and he had been asking for men to join. One day at Mass, he stood up and walked over to our pastor and said something, pointing in our direction. Our priest stood up and asked that whomever that was in that area with that beautiful male voice to come join the choir. Everybody turned and pointed at my husband, he turned almost purple he was so red. I pushed him and he went up, and whispered to our pastor , the pastor laughed, and although he whispered back, his microphone picked this up "You don't have to be a Catholic to sing!"I love hearing him sing with the other men, and he's made some possibly lifelong friendships. God works in mysterious ways. Even through painful experiences, such as hokey music. We are lucky, our choir master is from Germany and trained in all the classics and in what I call "monk-sing" (chant). My husband is a baritone who can hit some tenor notes, and to think he once dreamed of being a rock star, still has his guitar from the 60's. hehehehehe.Our choir director even gathered a country folk singing group together and is training their voices to a less twangy tone, and they are now making an album. After the last song, when most people are processing out after the priest and over to the gymnasium for coffee and donuts, I sit back down. The director moves over from the piano to the church organ, turns on all the bells and whistles, and lets loose with the most majestic powerful music. And all those people who left, miss it. My grandmother used to play like that, so it is like having my grandmother with me again and she died Nov 3rd '75.

  • Webster Bull

    What a great story, Theresa! We have several non-Catholics in our choir of 20-25, and I'm proud to say it's the best parish choir north of Boston. Choirmaster Fred does the same at the end of 10.30 mass: We, the choir, sit like schoolchildren awaiting dismissal, while he plays one last, totally gratuitous but always inspiring piece of music. He used to be the music director at Brown University, now retired, so we are very lucky to have him in our parish.