The Best Wake Ever October 18, 2011Posted by J. in Genius.
On Sunday, we had a little get-together to say good-bye as a Parish to Father Albert. By “little” I mean there were so many people there that we were getting concerned that the Fire Department would shut us down, and by “get-together” I mean a tribute to a departing friend and priest that I won’t forget for a long time.
In Father’s own words, “It was the best wake I’ve ever been to.”
We laughed, we cried, we laughed some more, and we came together as a Parish family. I realized how blessed I am to be part of such a large, loving, welcoming community. My cup runneth over to an extent that I almost had trouble grasping. And when I consider that I might not have been a part of that if it hadn’t been for Father Albert, my gratitude knows no limits.
I’m hoping to get my hands on the video of the presentations we made. I made one speech on behalf of the Altar and Rosary society, and I helped with the choir presentation, and until I can get the tape of the event digitized and downloaded, I’m printing the text of my speech and the words to the song we wrote and performed by popular demand.
Bear in mind that this was meant to be read aloud, and while I was speaking I had audience reaction to feed off of, and of course Father Albert in the seat of honor making comments as well. It was a more enhanced version, to be sure. But here’s what I said, in a nutshell:
Eleven years ago, on a hot summer day, I was visiting with my Aunt Elaine at her house. At one point during our conversation, I found myself staring out her big front windows that overlook the rectory driveway, and I watched the guy mowing the priest’s lawn.
I’d already seen him out there a few times, always hard at work. He had on a sweaty baseball cap, a college t-shirt, shorts and sneakers, and I remarked to my aunt, kind of off-handedly, “It looks like the priest hired a new kid to mow the lawns.” She just looked at me, and laughing a little, said, “That kid IS the new priest.” I couldn’t believe it either.
If you had told me 11 years ago that I’d be standing here in this church today saying good-bye and thanks to Father Albert as a member of his Parish, I’d have been skeptical.
If you had told me that I’d be standing here in my official capacity as President of the Altar and Rosary Society, I’d have laughed in your face.
If you had told me eleven years ago that saying good-bye to him would be one of the hardest good-byes I’ve ever had to say, I’d have wanted to know what you were drinking, and could I please have some.
Because I’m here on behalf of the ladies of the Altar and Rosary, I asked them at our last meeting what it was they wanted me to say today, and I took some notes while they talked. Every woman in that room had a story, or some memory, or some thing she was thankful for.
They talked the most about his compassion. They talked about his kindness. Some told how he made them feel welcome here. They said a lot of really nice things about him and my plan was to capture those sentiments and share them now.
But when I sat down at my computer with my notes and started to put together a tribute, I’m not kidding when I say that I wrote thousands of words but none seemed to hit on what we meant. I mean, sure, he’s compassionate. And sure, he’s kind. But he’s a priest. Not for nothing, but it’s kind of in his job description to be compassionate and kind. It’s like thanking a firefighter for being good with a hose.
Then, as I sat staring at the screen, about to delete everything I’d written and just tell the joke about the priest, the rabbi and the horse, I finally figured out what was missing.
I remembered that I have the key. I know why it’s so hard to find the right words to describe what kind of a priest he is, and why it is we’re so very grateful that he’s been our pastor. And why it’s hard to explain in words exactly what we’ll miss about him. I know the secret to Father Albert.
See, if he decided today to chuck the whole thing, which at this point wouldn’t really surprise me, and send in his letter of resignation to the Pope–if he hauled his lawnmower and Family Guy DVD collection across the driveway to Robin’s third floor; even if he got his dream job at KFC, he’d still be the same guy.
He’d still be a daily, living example of Christ’s love in this world.
If he never again cracked a Bible, he’d still preach the Gospel every day just by the way he lives his life.
He would continue to be a model of compassion, kindness, and love, even if he traded in his collar and his habit for a hairnet and a name tag.
He is an amazing priest because he is an amazing person, and it is the person that we are going to miss.
The truth is, Father, and everyone in this room knows it, that priests come and priests go, but it’s the man inside the cloth that leaves his impression on a Parish, and you are forever an inexorable part of this place.
We are better for having known you because you know what is important, you live your life in the light of that knowledge, and once we know it too, we can’t help but follow. If we know Christ, it’s because you’ve shown us his face.
And as much as I wish the Bishop had completely forgotten that you were here and left you with us until we were both drooling into our tapioca, we all know that there are so many people out there still searching for that light, and like you did here, you’re going to bring it to them.
And if we seem to smile smugly when we talk about your new Parish, it’s just because they have NO IDEA of the blessing that is about to land in their front yard.
I bet they’re going to be as surprised as I was to find it’s mowing the lawn.
Despite not being sure it would happen, I managed to get through the whole thing without a single tear. I was strong, I kept it light, and I think two glasses of wine might be the key to me being a public speaker.
Of course, I had to catch my breath before going up to be a public singer as well.
Jeanne and I came up with the idea of changing one of the songs we do during Mass as a tribute to him, changing all the words to things that we’ll remember and miss. So we recruited Sistah and the three of us went over to Jeanne’s house one Sunday night, drank some margaritas, and once Jeanne hit on using our Lenten penitential litany, “Hold Us in Your Mercy” as the base tune, it was ON.
The song is comprised of 11 couplets followed by the community’s refrain. Jeanne sang “Hold us in your memory,” and then we set to work brainstorming things about him that were funny and would make good song fodder.
Then we just made them rhyme and fit the music, and in a couple of hours, I was half in the bag and the song was in its draft form. I tightened it up the next morning once my headache went away, Sue P. was brought in to sing it with me, and the rest, as they say, is Parish history.
It’s really meant to be seen, or at least heard, but for the people reading it who were there and wanted to see the words, here they are.
Hold us in your memory (Hold us in your memory)
Hold us in your memory (Hold us in your memory)
As you’re called by the Holy Ghost, (Hold us in your memory)
Here’s what we will miss the most: (Hold us in your memory)
Mass starts at eight, not eight-thirty; (Hold us in your memory)
It runs long when you get wordy. (Hold us in your memory)
Who just fainted in the back? (Hold us in your memory)
Blood sugar or a heart attack? (Hold us in your memory)
Christmas lights sure set the mood; (Hold us in your memory)
Public Service loves you too. (Hold us in your memory)
It’s fifty-five, I have a chill. (Hold us in your memory)
Did you ignore the oil bill? (Hold us in your memory)
So much incense I feel woozy; (Hold us in your memory)
I go home smelling like a floozy. (Hold us in your memory)
You dunk babies that we bring, (Hold us in your memory)
Then reenact The Lion King. (Hold us in your memory)
Four hour Vigils take their toll; (Hold us in your memory)
It’s our Catholic Super Bowl. (Hold us in your memory)
Brides and grooms don’t dare be late, (Hold us in your memory)
Your lawn and gardens just won’t wait. (Hold us in your memory)
Thou shall not sing Amazing Grace, (Hold us in your memory)
You’re all too white–it’s a disgrace. (Hold us in your memory)
Changing lyrics is a breeze; (Hold us in your memory)
Lift High the Scotch and Tasty Freeze. (Hold us in your memory)
The Christmas Fair we all adore; (Hold us in your memory)
It looks like Little Bangalore. (Hold us in your memory)
We’ll miss your Benedictine black: (Hold us in your memory)
Once you go monk, you don’t go back. (Hold us in your memory)
Hold us in your memory
Hold us in your memory
Hold us in your memory…
When I get video, I’ll post it. It’s really pretty funny. And rather poignant, because that litany is sung by Father Albert during Lent. He comes in and after starting the incense, he kneels before the altar and sings it with the choir and community singing the refrain. It’s really very powerful and beautiful, and someone at rehearsal said that this parody was going to ruin the song for us come Lent.
Jeanne pointed out that we might not be singing it this year at all, and that swift, sudden knowledge that we wouldn’t hear Father Albert lead us like that again led to a few unexpected tears.
The things I’ll miss keep coming up like that…hitting out of nowhere and taking me by surprise. One minute I’m fine, and the next minute I’m sitting here with tears running down my face. It’s getting better, I swear. And I know it won’t be long before I’m thinking of other interesting things to write about.
But if one can’t be self-indulgent on one’s own blog, what’s the point? Right?
Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen October 9, 2011Posted by J. in Genius.
How do you say good-bye to a friend? Personally, I’ve always like the way the French say à bientôt. It’s less of a “good-bye” and more of a “see-you-soon.” It’s a hopeful phrase, one that lets the hearer know that this is good-bye for now, but not forever.
After eleven years in Belmont, Father Albert has been transferred to a new Parish. It happens. A dozen years is really pretty much the maximum shelf life for a priest in any Parish anywhere, and I guess we all knew in some way it was coming. It doesn’t mean we’re ready. He’s going to a Parish that needs him, and he has to go where he is called to go, and while I know that and I know it’s selfish of me to wish that he could stay here until we’re both old and senile…well, fuck it. I’m selfish. There. I’ve said it.
How do you say good-bye to someone who has been your priest, your neighbor, and your friend for eleven years? I can tell you from where I sit, it’s not easy. Not easy at all.
If Father Albert had been only any one of those things, perhaps I’d feel differently. Perhaps my heart wouldn’t feel so terribly sad right now. I’m reminded of one of the final lines of Charlotte’s Web, when the narrator tells us “It’s not often that someone comes along who was a good writer and a great friend. Charlotte was both.” I find myself overwhelmed by the knowledge that it is truly a rare blessing when someone comes into your life who is a great neighbor, an amazing priest, and a true friend. Father Albert is all three to me.
I met Father Albert when he was newly assigned to St. Joseph…well, that’s not entirely true. We didn’t exactly “meet” for some time. In fact, one day when he was fresh on the scene, I was visiting with my Aunt Elaine at her house, which is directly across the shared driveway from the rectory. The lawnmower was in full swing across the way, and I looked out the window and casually mentioned that it looked like the Parish hired a new kid to mow the lawns. Aunt Elaine just looked at me in that are you mental way she had honed as a teacher, and said, “That’s the new priest.”
You’re kidding me. Riding around on the lawnmower with his baseball cap and his college t-shirt. Really. He’s wearing shorts. Priests don’t wear shorts. Do priests have legs? I’m pretty sure even thinking about a priests legs is a sin in some way. *crosses self* How old is he? This guy’s not old. Priests are supposed to be old. And they sure as hell don’t mow their own lawns.
But yeah, that was him. The New Guy. I got to know him as a neighbor first, and I’ve really come to believe you can take the measure of a man by how well he shares his driveway with you.
I was happy enough just to find out that he was friendly, but it was within only a matter of months that we found out that his easy-going and warm personality was outmatched by his generosity, and there are kindnesses you don’t easily forget. It’s why his first winter here sticks in my mind most of all. It wasn’t too long after he arrived in Belmont, Aunt Elaine fell and broke her hip. The next day, in what has gone down in history as the scariest Halloween ever, my dad had a major heart attack. I’d stop by the house every day to check in with Aunt Elaine to make sure she was okay and take care of little things she needed done, and she would tell me about her day: how she was feeling, who had dropped by and stuff like that, and she’d always tell me when Father had paid her a call. He stopped in pretty regularly, just to say “hi” and see if she needed anything and to see how she was healing up.
During one of my daily visits just before Christmas, I noticed a new poinsettia plant next to her on a table, and as it was a really beautiful specimen of plant in a color I’d never seen before, I complimented her on it. She said Father had brought it to her. And he told her that with Dad out of commission and unable to move snow around, and herself temporarily grounded, we were not to worry about clearing the driveway. He told us that he would see to (and pay for) having it plowed, and there were many snowstorms over that winter that he and I would be out there together after the plow had come through, bundled against the cold, running our snowblowers in tandem and shoveling out the tight spots. We’d lean on our shovel handles to catch our breath and complain about the snow, but right about the time we were both starting to threaten to move to Tahiti, Spring always came.
Spring meant it was time to work in the garden, and back then he tilled one small garden just behind his house. Aunt Elaine cultivated her own garden, and as Mary grew from baby to toddler, she shared their love of digging in the dirt. Aunt Elaine passed away in 2003, and Father took over planting her garden, and quickly put in a second one next to his first one. Eventually he added a raised-bed plot near the back door of the house as well, and between the four gardens, the riotous flowerbeds that ring the rectory, and keeping the lawn neat and tidy, he spends as much time puttering in the yard as he does in his Roman collar. Maybe more, even. His hard work has kept the food pantry full of fresh vegetables for a blessed few months out of every summer and fall, though I’m almost certain at this point that the number of zucchini plants he put in every year was exactly calculated to get the maximum effect in what can only be described as a twisted bid to piss off the neighbors.
The man is a zucchini ninja. He sneaks around in his black habit, skulking around after dusk, and leaves zucchini where you least expect them. On your porch. Inside your house if you’re careless enough to forget it’s zucchini season and wantonly leave your door open. I’ve found them on the front seat of my car first thing in the morning. I believe, though I have no proof, that he has hidden in his office somewhere a complex spreadsheet of elaborately numbered schemes and Venn diagrams full of creative ways of foisting them on us.
At first I used to be worried that my kids were bothering him as he went about his work. He’s a Benedictine monk and I know that prayer and work–ora et labora–are their two “things” and I didn’t want them getting in his way or interrupting his time with God, if digging in the dirt was indeed how he was communing with God. Honestly, who can tell with monks? But I’d go out to the garden to check in and possibly retrieve my little interlopers if necessary, only to find him patiently guiding their hands, showing them how to dig the hole, set the plant in firmly, then loosely pack the soil to “tuck the plant in and put it to bed.”
My kids have spent hours and hours side by side on their knees in the dirt with him. I’ve never heard him talk down to them. Even when they’re talking about the things kids like to talk about, he discussed it as if it was the most serious concern he had at that moment. When they had questions, he answered them, and always in a way that they could understand, but also in a way that gave them something more to think about. Sometimes they would be out there playing in the dirt, just being silly about the things kids are often silly about, and he would fall right into line with them, adding his own brand of silliness and teaching them some really bad jokes.
It turns out there are lots of different ways to pray.
Because Mary was only a baby when they first met, and she had only seen him working in the gardens or on the lawn, her toddler ears heard “Farmer Albert” instead of “Father” and by the time she was three, half the Parish referred to him as Farmer Albert.
I don’t remember him ever being too tired or too busy for them.
My favorite days were the ones when I’d walk up the lawn and at the crest of the hill, just out of sight but within earshot, I’d stand and listen to them singing. My kids have my freakish ability to remember the lyrics to songs, and Father’s made it a point to enlarge and expand their repertoire for me. He did admit to me just recently that perhaps Emma might have been a bit too young for some of the vintage Blink 182 he shared, but he figured that since it’s in Dave’s IEP that I want his first sentence to be “Go to hell, Lois,” he was probably going to be cleared of any wrongdoing in the Court of Mama. At the very least we are surely going to share a seat in the handcart.
They’ve acquired a colorful vocabulary, for sure. One Sunday morning, Emma woke up grumpy and spent the whole time we were getting ready for Mass with a hair across her ass. I don’t know why, or what it was about, but she was cranky. We took our place in the front pew and Emma got a pen from my purse, and using the missalette as a lap desk, she bent over her children’s gospel activity page and with furrowed brow, began writing. I prayed, and read the bulletin until the kids’ whispers next to me got heated and more frantic.
“Give it to me!”
“You have to show it to Mama.”
“NO. She’ll be mad.”
“I’m going to show it…”
I interrupted and hissed through clenched teeth for Emma to give me the paper. Teary-eyed, she handed it to me.
I stifled a belly laugh, and hugged her tight to let her know that I was far from mad. Now, I have a mouth like a longshoreman. I admit it. You all know it. Have my children picked up some colorful language from me? Fuck, yeah. But “bastard” isn’t an expletive I toss around very much. Not much at all, in fact. No, I knew exactly where she’d picked that one up, and he was in full vestments getting ready to come down the center aisle.
When the Mass was ended, we filed out and waited our turn to shake hands with Father Albert as he stood just outside the open doors under the portico. The girls got hugs, enveloped as they so often were in the folds of his chausible, and then I produced the paper. “It seems,” I said in my most grave and stern voice, “that Emma was having a bad morning.”
He looked at it and laughed long and hard. “That one’s on me,” he confessed. “I take full responsibility for the introduction of the word ‘bastard’ into her vocabulary.” Not that I needed confirmation, but I appreciated the acknowledgement, anyway.
That was the summer of the woodchuck, and that fat, hairy bastard had been systematically eating vast quantities of cabbage and broccoli, and had been declared persona non gratis on Parish property. “Stewardship of all God’s creatures” be damned, it was no secret to anyone in the Upper Village that Father Albert considered the woodchuck a greedy, destructive bastard, and that son of a bitch had to go. There were other epithets for the ‘chuck, but as some of them were in Arabic or Greek and possibly had to do with the woodchuck’s mother’s virtue being questionable, I can’t repeat them here. I would, but alas, I don’t speak Greek or Arabic.
Dad eventually got the bastard with the .22, which is a minor miracle, since I have it on good authority that Father Albert was mixing up several molotov cocktails laced with napalm in the rectory basement.
All three kids have developed a bat’s hearing when it comes to knowing that lawn and garden equipment is in use. They’d tip their heads like a dog hearing a whistle, and on realizing they heard the tractor or the lawnmower, and they’d shoot out across the lawns to see what he was up to. No matter what he had to do, or where he had to be, he had time to put a kid on his lap and take a ride down the driveway, down the street, up our front lawn, behind Tanta’s house, and back to the garage. Each one of my kid’s growth can be measured in being too big to sit in his lap and steer. In fact, he was saying just this summer that Dave was barely squeezing onto the seat.
One hot, summer day, the girls had been missing for quite some time, and I hadn’t heard the tractor running in awhile. Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t worried. The kids have always had run of the property, and I knew they didn’t go farther than the rectory on any given day. But when my dad didn’t answer his phone, curiosity got the better of me and I went next door to see what they were up to. Dad was sitting in the barn in the shade, watching the waves of heat shimmer on the pavement. I asked where the girls were, and he pointed towards the rectory.
I walked in and Miss Adrienne was sitting at her computer, working. Miss Kathy was sitting at the long table, bent over a stack of paperwork. Father Albert was sitting on the office floor, a girl on each side of him and a box of chocolate donut holes open in front of them. With fists and cheeks full of chocolate-y goodness, they all grinned up at me from the carpet. “It’s donut time!” he said, as if this was what happened in the Parish office every afternoon.
Truth be told, I was to find out later, that he actually added things to his shopping cart just to have something on hand for when the girls would stop by and come over all peckish. After months of neither of them eating their dinner and wondering why they’re never hungry at suppertime, I finally weaseled out of them the information that they had snacks almost every afternoon with Father Albert. I mentioned it to him, and suitably chastised for ruining their dinner, he instituted by mutual agreement the Did You Have Supper Yet? rule so that they wouldn’t fill up on junk.
Emma, of course, would not be deterred by trifling things like rules.
One night, after pushing her plate away untouched and declaring that she wasn’t hungry, I
beat gently pried a confession out of her. Häagen Dazs individual ice cream cups. Casually, I mentioned it to him when I happened, purely by chance, to show up in his yard later that evening, kid in tow.
“I did ask,” he insisted, and turned to Emma. “You told me you had supper.”
“I did have supper,” she said. “Last night.”
They’re kindred spirits, those two. It’s hard to stay mad at either of them.
It’s hard to figure out where the line between him just being a good man and being a dutiful servant of God is, though. He wears his vocation so easily and so casually that I’ve found it nearly impossible to separate the two. He is a man who has been gifted with a great faith, and as I’ve grown to know him as my Parish priest and as a religious brother, I’ve come to realize that even when we’re laughing hysterically at completely inappropriate things at wildly inappropriate times in truly inappropriate places, I still know I’m in the presence of someone who truly understands what is important and who lives every day of his life in the light of that knowledge.
I caught the first glimpse of that in a very profound way after Aunt Elaine died. He had come to know her in his first three years here and the two of them had had casual, friendly visits in the way that neighbors do. She passed away on Holy Thursday, and I didn’t know it at the time, but the period of time between Holy Thursday and Easter Sunday, the Paschal Triduum, is the busiest and most demanding time of year for Father Albert. Robin and I had a short meeting with him to set up the funeral details and he scheduled the funeral for Easter Monday. Then he went back to what I would later find out is the Herculean task of getting the Church and himself ready for the biggest day of the liturgical calendar.
On Easter Monday, we gathered at St. Joseph’s and for the first time I heard Father Albert celebrate Mass . In the midst of my grief, in all the hubbub that surrounds a loved one’s passing, I found peace.
When he delivers the homily at a funeral, he steps off the altar and talks right to the family members in a very personal, compassionate way. He came down and stood right in front of our spot in the front pew and he spoke to us of Aunt Elaine and shared some memories of her that he held dear. He spoke of her as a friend and a neighbor, and since we had told him that she was Catholic (information that surprised him immensely since she had never thought to mention it to him) and had spent time in a convent, he captured parts of her spirit I don’t think I would have caught, and I knew her my whole life. He reminded us of the Easter promise and assured us that Elaine never forgot it in her own life, but he did it in ways that weren’t couched in official Church-speak, and without using any of the tired, trite, words that we tend to fall back on at times like that. He spoke with surety of her resurrection and place at God’s table, and was sure that whatever differences she and God may have had, they were certain to work them out, and that in due time God would come around to her way of thinking.
He made us laugh, and he made us cry, and he cried with us a bit. Letting us know that his heart hurt too was one of the best, most meaningful things he could have done for me as a priest.
After the funeral, perhaps a day or two later, Robin and I were standing out in the driveway of the big house talking. Father saw us and came over. He told us how on Saturday, on the day when he’s running around like a madman trying to get everything in place for the big Easter Vigil, he had some extra flowers left over after finishing the planting outside at the church. He said he was halfway across the driveway with a flat of plants that he thought Elaine would like for her flower bed, before he stopped in his tracks because he remembered, as he said, “Oh. She is risen.”
He said it so matter-of-factly that it caught me off-guard. He didn’t say, “I suddenly remembered that she’s not here” or “she died” or “she had passed.” No. In his mind it was a simple matter of fact that she was indeed risen. He said it in the same way he would have said, “I suddenly remembered she was on a cruise.”
She is risen. The combination, I think, of the fact that those words were the first ones he chose to describe why she was not at home on Holy Saturday, and the absolute certainty that those words were true, was the first real indication I had of what kind of a priest he is.
If he had shaded the words even a bit differently, if I had felt that he was saying something comforting for our benefit, I might not have noticed it. If I thought he was saying what he had been trained to say as a priest, I would probably have let it slide by in the way platitudes usually do.
But he didn’t. He wasn’t trying to make us feel better, I don’t think. I think he was just sharing a little bit about what losing his neighbor meant to him to two people who knew how he was feeling. I think he was letting us know that he was still adjusting to her not being at home, too. He was her neighbor, popping across the yard to let us know that she’d made an impression on him and that he missed her.
After that funeral, I guess you could say that having had a taste of the kind of Mass Father Albert celebrates whet my appetite for more. In the midst of the funereal circus, he had made an impression on me. Not in a “Hey, that was cool!” kind of way, but in the way you leave a fingerprint in wet clay. I was changed and it was only the beginning.
I had at least three people come up to me at the after-funeral reception and tell me that they thought it was the most beautiful funeral they’d ever been to, and that it almost made them want to go back to church, ha ha.
There was no “maybe” about it for me. I knew I was going back to another Mass. I decided I was going to hit the 4:30 Mass that Saturday and check it out, see what a regular Mass at St. Joseph was like in his hands; maybe give the Parish where I received my own baptism another shot.
I found a spot kind of nestled in the middle there and tried not to look out of place. People were smiling and talking, shaking hands with each other as they found their seats, smiling at me in welcome. I hadn’t felt at home in my own Parish for 16 years, so the warmth I felt was refreshing, and the whole atmosphere of the place was far more embracing than I had felt within the walls of any church in a really long time.
I don’t know how to describe adequately what makes a Mass celebrated by Father Albert stand out from that done by any other priest. I think the best way to begin is by saying that one of the first impressions I had of him as a priest is that he must have had some theater training at some point in his life. That’s not to say that the Mass is a performance in any way, or that he’s “showy”, but rather that a liturgist, like an accomplished director and actor, knows that the Mass is a public celebration, and in the same way a good play draws the audience into the world it has created, the Mass was from the very first day meant to do the same thing. The community is meant to be a part of it, not a passive lot of observers.
Father Albert knows that every word of that Mass means something, and he knows exactly what. He knows how to say it so that we know what it means. He knows that every gesture he makes is there for a reason, and he makes each one deliberately. He does not rush, because he understands that the silences and the stillnesses are as important as the words and the motions. Bob remarked once at his ability to take us right to the very edge. Any more and it would be over the top and he’d lose us, but he knows just where that sweet spot is and he nails it, every time.
He has an incense fetish that might be bordering on the pathological, but he knows that sense memory is powerful. One whiff of Easter incense brings you back to that joyful season, and you recall the Easter promise all over again. When he sprinkles the congregation with holy water, he doesn’t dick around with a wee little splattering of water. As they say in the amusement parks, “You will get WET on this ride.” That water reminds of us our baptisms, that we’ve said “yes” to God. A delicate drop or two won’t do. If you’re going to say “yes”, SAY IT LOUD.
Father Albert is a master homilist. Or as Larry said, “I’ve never once wanted to take a nap during his homily.” Now that’s some high praise right there. That’s what you call a Ringing Endorsement from a man not prone to listening to speeches, sermons, or lectures.
The man can talk. I have seriously considered bringing my camera into Mass and secretly videoing his homily so that I can post it here. I can’t tell you because I’ve quite lost count of how many of those homilies have hit home in such a way that I really wanted to share it with the people who didn’t have the good fortune to be at Mass that weekend. I think he needs his own YouTube channel.
I don’t know what makes him so good at it. Part of it I think is just pure, unadulterated talent. God gives us gifts, and right before he was sent here to Earth, God touched this soul and blessed him with the ability to move people with his words. As Dave, my friend and fellow cantor said to us on the day Father announced his imminent departure, he always makes us think. We might not like what we’re being asked to think about, and we might not like what we find, but we cannot do any less.
As with my own kids, he never talks down to us as a community. He has an uncanny ability to address both young and old, bright and dim, educated and illiterate, and make us all understand what he’s getting at. But he also makes us work harder, too. He asks us to consider things beyond the basics, beyond the simple and the facile. He reminds us that nothing about the Gospel is easy, and that being a disciple of Christ is a pretty big job to take on. But somehow, knowing that he’s there to guide us, makes it seem doable.
And it is. Knowing Father Albert has helped grow my faith. After that first Saturday Mass during Easter eight years ago, I’ve missed maybe a handful of Masses, and all with good reason. I feel empty when it’s not part of my week. I believe that Christ is fully present in the Eucharist, and when we talk about being “nourished at the Lord’s table” I mean it. I mean every word of it. I know what it means, because that simple act of taking and eating, taking and drinking, feeds something deep inside of me. It adds fuel to a fire that was once only smoldering. Father Albert doesn’t know it, but he unlocked that mystery for me. I finally understood what I was doing. It was at his hands I realized what the word “communion” means after all these years.
I believe that if it wasn’t for his skills as a liturgist and a homilist, I might not be a card-carrying Church Lady today. I walked in those doors for the first time with one tiny, smoldering spark of faith to my name, and he–just by being good at what he does–fanned that spark into a flame. That’s where it all started. He appealed to the part of me that responds to beauty and intelligence. Then he taught me by his example that being a Christian means more than just pretty ceremonies and standing, sitting, and kneeling at the right times. It means rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty. It means washing feet and serving other people with the talents you’ve been given, whatever they are. If God has given me a voice to sing, I should put it to His service and join the choir. That move changed my life in so many ways. If God has given me talent as a planner and arranger of things, I should perhaps step up and lead the ladies of the Altar and Rosary for awhile. If God has given me a love of theology and for His Church, I should set aside my fear and share my faith with young people.
Of course I know that all of that is just the Holy Spirit at work in the world. People come into our lives all the time, and while I don’t think the Holy Spirit moves them around like pawns on a giant cosmic chess board, I do think that He opens our eyes and ears and hearts and minds to the message they have for us.
She is risen. I took notice, and I have been rewarded and blessed over and over again because I happened to be paying attention.
Still, I refuse to go to him for confession. I pointed out that after all these years he already knows my best stories and has laughed with me at some of my best sins. My problem with confession is that at some point in the recitation of my sins I realize I’m just bragging. Hell, I’m not even sorry, so he couldn’t grant me absolution if he wanted to. And as he so succinctly put it one day, “Besides, you shouldn’t piss in the company pool.”
It sounds flip, but theologically and spiritually, it’s sound. Sometimes it’s not until later that he’ll come out with something like that and I’ll miss it the first time around, and then later when the house is quiet and I can think, his words come back to me and all of a sudden I’ll get it. And that’s only one catechism lesson I learned that was initially disguised as sheer smartassery. There have been so many more besides.
It’s testimony to him that as I sit here working all this out in the only way I really know how, part of me is looking forward to meeting his replacement. Father Albert has taught me by his example how to be a good neighbor. I’m going to go up to the rectory, introduce myself and my family to The New Guy, and welcome him to the Upper Village. I’m going to be myself, but better, because I know how to be that person now. He’s shown me how.
I’m ready as a Church Lady to help my new priest get settled into his routine. I know what is important now because Father Albert has taught me that. He set the bar for liturgy ridiculously high, but because I know that, because I understand what makes the Mass a beautiful celebration, I can find it now easily no matter who is presiding. That flame of faith is burning brightly, and it’s that faith that is going to sustain me. I know God holds me in his hands, and as He has always done when I’ve needed him, he will be there to help all of us deal with the transition. Especially Father Paul, God help him. The poor guy has no idea that knowing me is a dark ride, and you will get wet.
The hardest part of saying good-bye in all of this is saying it to the part of him that has become my friend. My friend. It’s the part I’m having the most trouble accepting. At the end of the day, I have no idea if our friendship is going to be one that he takes with him when he goes, and that uncertainty makes me sad and scared, and no matter how much I try to leave that in God’s hands and accept things as they unfold, I feel very much like I’m losing a friend, and it hurts.
The more I’ve thought about him leaving over the past couple of weeks, the more I’ve come to realize how big a part of my life he’s become. I don’t know if he fully understands what he means to my family…what he means to me. He’s someone I respect, admire, and have learned so much from. He’s been a spiritual guide, a teacher, and a hell of a good time. He is funny, so very smart, and as generous and kind as he is sarcastic and snarky. He is a contradiction in terms and I treasure every conversation we’ve had sitting in the grass beside the garden, the stories we’ve related standing in the church kitchen between Masses, and the laughs we’ve shared in the sacristy before Mass.
He is my friend, and I hope before he goes I’m able to tell him in my own voice just how very much I am going to miss him. I can’t just yet.
I’m not ready to say good-bye.