When I was a little girl, we moved from Madison to Milwaukee. Moving day was a turbulent affair — for my parents. For us children, it was a thrilling adventure. Looking back, I sympathize with my mother as she tried to make dinner on that first night in a new house, with boxes lying unopened in every room and tired children in dirty clothes around the table. The macaroni and hot dogs we had brought from Madison were boiled and ready to be served. But there were no forks or knives to eat it with. “Didn’t you put those in the box marked ‘Kitchen’?” “I thought so….”
We had to eat. So instead of the plain utensils I had used since I learned to hold a spoon, Mom brought out the reserves. Out of a box marked “Attic” she produced a velvet case that I had never seen before. She lifted the dark purple cover and began to set the table with old silver. These were curvy forks and elegant knives she had inherited from my grandmother. There were even demitasse spoons, which we begged my mother to put out and then used to apply ketchup to our franks. Macaroni tastes better on a silver fork. Sometimes, when the usual instruments are missing, you can rely on older, more precious ones.
I thought of moving day and grandma’s silver at Mass the other day. Now, I am a 34-year-old Catholic mom. I educate my children at home, so we have the luxury of going to Mass together every morning before launching into our schoolwork. Over the years, we have shifted Mass times and parishes pretty often, and I have become a sort of unofficial Mass monitor, with firsthand knowledge of what goes on in parishes in the weekday morning hours when most of the regular parishioners are in bed or driving to work. I have noticed a delightful phenomenon that few others see.
The good news is: Christ is among us. One of the guises He takes is that of an old priest. Perhaps it is a side-effect of the infamous “priest shortage,” but many parishes in our city have asked elderly priests fill in at daily Mass. Priests long into retirement who, in a different time, would have said Mass alone in their rooms, come each morning on shaky legs to the altar and pulpit. We don’t see these men at the big Sunday Masses, but among them are some sterling souls.
Take, for example, Father A. This priest is someone I don’t hesitate to call old. His voice is high and squeaky, but his words are encouraging and full of sweetness. Frail and slow of step, he still moves through the sanctuary with dignity. He never fails to pray for his old seminary classmates, many of whom, I would imagine, are long deceased.
One day, Father A.’s quaking hand placed the host upon my tongue only to have it fall to the ground. This had never happened to me before. I was stunned for a second. I would have picked the host up if given the chance — but I was not! Fr. A. fairly swooped into action. Before I could take in what had happened he crouched down, picked up the host, and consumed the sacred species himself. Then he placed a new host in my mouth. Father A. didn’t make a fuss. He did what he saw to be his duty, preserving the dignity of the Body and Blood of Our Lord. His love and devotion, mixed with fearless pragmatism, was an example to me.
Another priest, let’s call him Father T., is a regular celebrant at a parish in Wauwatosa. He is robust and cheerful in a little white beard. After saying Mass, he often walks down the center aisle and greets us with good wishes for the day ahead. Fr. T. is also the most tone-deaf man I have ever encountered — and I’m not sure he knows it. At daily Mass, there is no organ, so Fr. T. sings twice as loudly to pick up the slack. The people in the pews have learned that they had better sing out as loud as they can or the hymns are unrecognizable. An old nun once told me, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord — even if you’re a little off-key.” Fr. T. follows that advice with enthusiasm.
The beautiful thing about this priest is his paternal rapport with the people in the congregation. He notices and cares that each one of us is there. One day, we were too late to Mass to go to communion. With seven children, that happens. We were praying in a corner of the church after Mass when Fr. T. approached me. He asked me, personally, “Would you like to receive communion?” I answered gratefully in the affirmative and there, in his hand, was a consecrated host that he had brought just for me. Christ came to me that day in a tangible way — a way I would never have experienced if not for the special attention of this good minister.
The Church in Milwaukee is not perfect, but we have old silver in the attic. When you go to quiet Masses, you meet some hidden priests. And sometimes, o precious sometimes, you find a true alter Christus, another Christ, right here in our imperfect city.