We returned to my husband’s hometown parish for Mass this Sunday.
When I had first married him, this Our Lady of Perpetual Help church was where we worshipped every Sunday. And it couldn’t have been more different from the churches I was used to.
I had come from rather snooty ‘upper class’ parishes in the towns I grew up in and where I first worked before marriage, hundreds of miles from where I would eventually end up after marriage. Those churches I attended as a child and later, as a university student and working woman, were affluent churches where the rich and influential held every position of power in the church, and Sunday was the day to feel down and dowdy next to the stylish and exquisitely dressed womenfolk.
Not being endowed with beauty or style of any sort, I never fit in. So, at every available opportunity, I opted to travel long distances to inner city parishes where the poor were more likely to be found, and no one gave you the eye for the simple clothes you wore.
But the poor here were a distant and withdrawn lot. They were not unfriendly; they were just weighed down by money troubles and every other heartache under the sun. Being young, holding down a good job and with my whole life ahead of me, it never occurred to me to reach out, even with a smile, to tell those parishioners that they were loved.
The parish priest too kept to his own corner. A troubled parish that was struggling with their faith and with their life couldn’t have been all that welcoming of the pastor’s advices and occasional admonishments delivered with a firmness through his weekly sermons. So, priest and people warily kept their distance from one another. Always being late to Mass, I too fled the church immediately after Mass, not wanting to risk a hello to Fr, only to receive a likely rebuke about my tardiness from the good priest.
Again, it never occurred to me to accept whatever earful I might have gotten, just to spend short minutes lifting a tired priest’s spirits. I never thought that even a priest would need to be told he was loved.
Short years later, I learned that Fr had been suffering from renal failure. Yet, he had pastored a difficult parish, with no assistant priest to depend on.
Fr died soon after.
When I married my husband, his parish gave me the shock of my life.
It was a noisy, vibrant Catholic congregation that took a lively interest in everyone else’s affairs. Everyone knew the cheery and dynamic parish priest’s diary of meetings and movements. They knew his birth date and even news of his siblings. His family was theirs too. In fact, everyone was family to everyone else! No birth or marriage or illness amongst them escaped anyone’s notice.
No chance for anyone to skip Mass either – they’d have to run the gauntlet of embarrassing inquisitions from every church member.
It was a shock alright for an uptight me hailing from cold churches where no one really knew one another.
For many years, we enjoyed the warmth of worship in Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The young resident priest was soon posted elsewhere, and his place taken by another, who, in his own powerful way, continued to light a fire of holy seeking in his parishioners’ hearts.
But then, came a third, priest, troubled and lost, and something began to die in the most beautiful of parishes on the east of the country. Times were changing. Fortunes were changing. As Fr struggled with himself, his people lost a shepherd they needed. Personal problems, struggling marriages, wayward children and job issues began to darken the skies here. Soon, love for one another took a beating, and more and more often, I’d hear of squabbles and infighting among the members.
Where life once thrived, death crept in stealthily.
I was a witness to all this. I clucked and shook my head in disappointment. I was no longer a member of the parish there, because by then, with a growing family, my husband and I had to join a parish closer to our marital home. But on monthly visits home, I saw and learned anew of this dying. For a time, I prayed for the troubled priest. Soon however, I gave up.
I wasn’t too fond of the priest; I didn’t like that he was not being the priest I expected him to be. And it grew to be more satisfying to take the lower road and condemn the man for his failings.
For some years, that was how it was.
Three years ago, yet another priest was sent to replace the troubled one, and what was left of the dwindling parish warily eyed the new aging but resolute pastor, anchored in calm and quiet steel. By then, many of the parish stalwarts who had tried to keep the congregation together, had either died or aged to illness or moved away. What remained was a disparate remnant, angry with the world.
Condescending towards the new man of cloth.
Fr struggled mightily with his people.
They didn’t come to meetings, they bickered among themselves. They held back their children from being altar servers and from playing the organ for Masses. They ignored Fr when he tried to gather them together, they were greatly inclined to educate the humble, quiet priest on parish matters, believing themselves the wiser on church affairs.
Again, none of this escaped me. Yet, not once did I turn to God to ask, What would You have me do?
Today, three years on, returning home, sitting in the tired, old pew, I sensed a shifting. Something had changed. There was an undercurrent of life among the living tombs. A deep, deep peace permeated the church. I didn’t see outright love yet, but I saw smiles. In some eyes, joy had returned.
In a sudden moment, I looked at the old and worn priest, delivering his sermon with an inner strength that belied appearances. And I knew then that Father had won the battle. I whooped with joy inside me.
Later, as we were driving home, I reflected happily on the priest’s victory and the courage and faith it must have taken to win this.
About to snuggle into my seat in contentment, I began to feel a strange inner sadness. A gentle, feather-light Hand traced grey lines across my joy. I held my breath and waited.
Gently, the Unseen Hand lifted, and I felt the soft, sad words It had left behind,
You left him to do it all alone.