To Choke on the Word “Holy”

To Choke on the Word “Holy” August 30, 2018


I sat in the pew by myself.

Rose had asked permission to stand in the foyer, which is easier for her fidgety six-year-old self to manage for an hour, and Michael stood with her. We all miss our Eastern liturgies with all our hearts, but Christ is Christ.

This was Sunday,  not even 24 hours after the release of the Vigano testament. Last week the older priest passed out printed copies of the letter from the bishop addressing the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, and it was not a bad letter. His voice sounded downright frightened all through Mass, which I don’t blame him for in the least. He looked shell-shocked– also appropriate. I know I am. Everyone is.

The church looked significantly less full than usual.

That could be because the school year Mass schedule has started up again at Franciscan University, so it’s easier to get to an afternoon Sunday Mass without driving across town. Or, it could be that people have left and are not coming back. I don’t blame them either.

I sang hymns that weren’t bad. I like shapenote music, and we sung a shapenote song– albeit too slowly and along with a small spinet organ instead of that rustic, shapenote style. Organ music seemed so reverent and awe-inspiring to me, before I got used to Eastern a capella liturgies. Now it’s just a sound, not a bad sound.

Everything was not bad and completely commonplace, except that I was numb with exhaustion and shock, and not sure why I was sitting in a church at all.

I can’t remember if I was specifically, consciously praying “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” But my spirit was crying that or something like it. Maybe just “help my unbelief.” Maybe just “help.”

There were readings and a psalm, about which I couldn’t tell you much.

And then a homily.

The priest was the very young one, who looks even younger than he is. He could be a senior in High School, judging from his face alone. He was getting his bachelor’s degree when I came to Steubenville for my MA; then he went away to seminary, and now he’s back. He is a kind, friendly man but isn’t the most electrifying speaker– he reads his homily in a careful monotone from his notes, and rarely says anything you wouldn’t expect.

He read his homily in a careful monotone this week, as usual. His voice was so completely ordinary that I barely listened to the words. And then I did. And I couldn’t believe what he was saying.

“It might be hard, after the recent news, to say that the Church is holy, and to listen to a reading like this one. You might find yourself choking on the words of the creed.” I don’t remember everything he said, but it was words to that effect unless I was dreaming. And he read it off his prepared notes in that same careful voice, as if he were reading some platitude and not something extraordinary.

I was flabbergasted.

Nobody says things like that around here, ever.

If you think the Church isn’t all beauty and fun– if you think the Catholic church here on earth isn’t already perfect, and all evidence to the contrary a dastardly liberal plot– you’re a pariah even if you show up at Mass. No bruised reeds or smoldering wicks allowed.

The priest went on, beautifully. He told us that the Church herself is still holy and will go on, in spite of her leaders. He said that the current abuses were to be likened to a cancer on the Body of Christ– not a feature or what Christ wanted, but a severe and horrible sickness. He begged us to stay in the Church for the sake of Christ in the sacraments which are still valid and still real.

I was on the verge of tears.

You’re not supposed to say things like that.

It isn’t done.

It ought to be, but it isn’t.

I’m not sure how I kept from applauding when the homily was over.

It is reasonable to choke on the word “holy.” What we’re feeling right now is legitimate. The Church herself is riddled with cancer and suffering terribly, but Christ will save her. He will save me, and you, and the young priest who reads his homilies off paper and the old priest who looks so strained and afraid. The gates of hell will not prevail against us because Christ has made us His body. Here in the meanwhile, we choke on the word “holy” and hell sifts us like meal. Sometimes hell wears a bishop’s cassock or a biretta, or even a comically long cappa magna. Such things come to pass, and woe to them through whom they come. But hell will not prevail.

I hardly ever shake hands with Father after Mass; I always stay shyly in my seat. I’m scared to death of priests. But this Sunday, I made sure to shake Father’s hand and thank him.

Sometimes all it takes is for someone to speak the truth.

(image via Pixabay) 



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