Thursday, January 10, 2019


A strange experience the other day.

Once or twice in the week I attend daily Mass. (Never would have dreamed I would, but there it is.) Once in a great while, but more frequently of late because of the shortage of priests, Mass is said by an elderly and very delightful Father who is too frail to descend the altar steps to receive the offered gifts, and too frail also to distribute Communion himself. He leaves it to the eight or ten lay ministers who "rush the sanctuary -- mostly females," as other and crabbier bloggers snort, while he sits and contemplates either from the chair beside the altar or from his tall hidden stool just behind the altar.

Ah, well. The Church permits communion from "extraordinary" ministers, even though I call them lay because they are laypeople and they are not extraordinary, they are routine. It's the priest who is extraordinary. Was it really our own late Cardinal Bernardin who was responsible for creating Communion in the hand received from lay ministers, and is it owing to him that this one-off "abuse" became the norm around the world?

At any rate my difficulty is that when good Father W. says Mass, it is not possible to "get in the priest's line" as I always prefer to do to receive Communion. We must all get in one of five lay ministers' lines. For a short time I used to receive in the hand from either, not wanting to seem conspicuous or holier than thou upon first returning to Mass a year or so ago. Then I thought better of it -- plus I learned a little about the danger of the Host "fractioning" the more people handle it. I resumed my childhood practice of receiving on the tongue, which, from a lay minister, is rather a ridiculous proposition except that at least one is not contributing to any more fractioning. I have seen ridiculous things all round when it comes to the whole business of mostly badly dressed retirees and communion in the hand. I have seen lay ministers themselves, on the altar, receive communion on the tongue (then why are they distributing it?) and I have seen them cross their arms and bow the head to refuse, say, the Precious Blood, but still distribute that. I have seen Mass-goers kneel to receive the Host on the tongue from a fellow retiree. Basically it's a right old mess, as Basil Fawlty could say.

What I did not know is that it is possible to refuse Communion from a lay minister, and to wait for the priest, no matter how frail he is. (One reads of firmly progressive priests refusing to do anything but distribute in the hand, but this is a "grave offense against canon law," so says the internet source I suddenly can't find even though I just saw it ten minutes ago.) The lesson that the faithful may turn the tables has been shown me, twice now.

We have a Polish lady who attends Mass frequently at the parish. She used to come with two friends, whom I have not seen in a long time. One Palm Sunday they all arrived wearing red cloaks with a painting of Christ the King on the back, and the white eagle of Poland on one side. I looked it up and found out that a few years ago Poland dedicated itself to Jesus Christ King of the Universe, and those are the cloaks you wear to show allegiance. And then, months later when she was alone and frail Father W. was our celebrant, and I had learned his habits and was idly wondering how she must feel at being compelled to take the host from a lay minister, because of him -- she refused to do so, and waited. Boy did she wait.   

She got in line, bowed politely to whoever it was when it came her turn, firmly shouldered past her and went and knelt actually on the altar steps, in front of the Crucifix. I thought she might be going to say a prayer of spiritual communion and then return to her pew. No such thing. She knelt and waited. Everybody finished Communion. She knelt and waited. It began to be very embarrassing. She knelt and waited. The hosts and ciboriums (ciboria?) were returned to the Tabernacle. She waited. Then good Father W., at some point before ending the Mass, exclaimed that he hadn't seen her and toddled back to the Tabernacle, got a golden bowl, got a Host, and gave it to her, on the tongue. She returned to her pew with a small smile of triumph.

More months pass. The second time that life's lottery put this combination together, a few days ago, was more serious. There the Polish lady was in her pew, sans cloak, and I thought, good grief, I hope it isn't Father W. again. What if it is? Perhaps she will rethink her severity.

Eight o'clock. There arrives the frail priest, in white because it is still Christmas. He grips the handrail and climbs the side steps. Oh God. It's Father W.

Mass goes on and on. It's really only a few minutes to the climactic moment, but Father introduces everything with short, folksy, and thoughtful comments, so it seems like forever. She gets in line. Of course he sits again at the altar and contemplates. She bows politely to the lay minister, and kneels at the steps before the Crucifix. I think, Lord have mercy, I don't have her courage. Besides, this is the custom of the community, it seems rather prideful to snub it. I had said as much to a scholarly friend after my first go-round with this experience, and he answered, This lady comes from a very traditional country -- and besides, we are talking about receiving God himself!   

She kneels and kneels and it just goes on and on. The good Father does not look to right or left, from his position behind the altar. No lay minister approaches him and whispers anything in his ear. The Polish lady is stuck behind or to the side of a largeish poinsettia tree. It may be he cannot see her. But it goes on and on. Communion is finished, everyone is back in their pews. All the Hosts and the golden bowls are in the Tabernacle and the rest of the Precious Blood has been "reverently consumed" I suppose in the hallway near the exit. Near the table of hand sanitizer pump bottles. Father W. finishes Mass, blesses everyone and begins the frail singing of "Silent Night."

I am no moral warrior but I do find this outrageous. Not a single person breathes a word of support -- and we yammer, or we're yammered at routinely, about "the marginalized in our society." Bullshit. No gay, immigrant, or trans is as marginalized as this woman, and there she goes on kneeling, like a character in the old The Lottery movie that we were all made to watch in high school to learn about the hypocrisy and jungle cruelty lurking uniquely beneath middle-class American life. She was kneeling in a church, during Mass, at communion, ignored by her fellow suburban well-meaning open-minded Mass-going Catholics.

I'm no moral warrior, in fact I resent this woman making a spectacle of herself and me too, but during "Silent Night" I left my pew, went up with trepidation and knelt beside her. I said to her quietly only that I lacked her courage but respected it, and after a pause I said I hoped God would bless her. She seemed to be almost crying. She seemed to make a slight sibilant sound that might have meant "thank you" or might have expressed annoyance at my interrupting her prayer. Years ago I had a German neighbor lady who used to hiss at the birds and squirrels as she drove them away from her garden with a golf club. I returned to my pew and somehow she got her communion. So the good priest is not that frail. It all took, on my part, hardly more than a minute. I left flustered. The same gaggle of older men chatted in the narthex after, as if nothing had happened.

Strangely, in the succeeding few days I have had positively zero desire to return to weekday Mass. I am sure I will do so, but meantime I have known that complete, satisfied, not bitter but totally dismissive, suddenly-gelled carapace of confidence that one might feel after a bad first date or a failed first two weeks at a bad job. Wow. Not doing that again. That is not what I go to Mass for.

And yet the carapace must crack, one must go, even if it should be Father W. and the Polish lady at every single one including Sundays for as long as one lives. After all Mass is a thing unto itself, regardless how you feel about it. After all she showed the courage of the Christian martyrs, in a new and awful sort of arena. Witnessing this experience, you must face whether religion is a pleasant little interior hobby, to be caressed and played with like a kitten but put down when it scratches, or whether it is truth to face embarrassment for. I don't know of much that is harder to do than defying your peers. The foreigner, the missionary, kneels alone. 

Having knelt for half a second also beside the poinsettia tree, I can testify that it was not big enough to hide her. She was clearly visible from the altar.     

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