Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Fr. Houdini vanishes

The religious order that has staffed our parish church for more than a century recently pulled up stakes and left town. They sold off the monastery next door and informed the parish that, starting this summer, our spiritual needs would be tended by priests assigned by the Chicago Archdiocese.

It's a sad commentary on the state of vocations in this country that religious orders are no longer able to maintain parish churches, but it's the truth. And it's not as if the Archdiocese is teeming with priests that can fill the void. So it's a very unsettling time for all of us in the parish.

It's a particularly unhappy time for us in the Curmudgeon home because we've become very fond, over the years, of Fr. Ed, the departing pastor. I served with him on the parish school board many years ago and my wife and I worked with him on other parish projects; he married Younger Daughter and Olaf and he provided pre cana counseling for Oldest Son and Abby and Hank and Older Daughter, too. He's a prickly, stubborn German and he's always rubbed some people in the parish the wrong way but he's been here, as pastor, twice as acting pastor, or as associate pastor for close to 20 years. He's probably pushing 80 -- but, if he's taken to fibbing about his age, he truly does have the energy of a much younger man. And, like a much younger man, our pastor has not been wild about being put out to pasture.

There's been talk he'd be allowed to stay on as pastor emeritus but he seems to have pushed his superiors in his own religious order once too often for this to be graciously allowed. I hear he's looking for a job.

Meanwhile, we had a grand farewell luncheon a couple of weeks ago at a local banquet hall. Many of the priests who've served our parish came back for the Noon Mass on June 30. The principal celebrant was the local provincial of the order that's pulling out. Our local bishop showed up to thank the departing order for its service and to reassure us that we'd still like our parish next Sunday, too. Fr. Ed was there, of course, but he and the admitted octogenarian who's been helping out this past year were consigned to the opposite ends of the long line of priests who gathered on the altar for the Consecration. Fr. Ed was a little late getting in line; he was helping an older priest in a walker get up the altar stairs.

I noted, at the end of the Mass, as the priests processed out, Fr. Ed lingered on the altar, tidying up. I wondered if there weren't some purpose in his dawdling; perhaps he was showing one and all that he was determined to stay on?

Long Suffering Spouse and I went to that final Mass and to the luncheon as well. We wanted to talk to Fr. Ed -- maybe even ask about some of the rumors about whether he would, or would not, be able to stay around. But there were thousands of people and we were not pushy. We'd find out something eventually; in the meantime, did it really matter whether we wished him well in person?

This past weekend was the official beginning of our parish's full integration into the Archdiocese. My mother-in-law attended the anticipatory Mass on Saturday evening and called Long Suffering Spouse with a full -- and highly critical -- report about the new pastor. "He didn't know what he was doing," she said -- repeatedly -- "and everything was different."

Note to non-Catholics: You probably don't see why that's funny. Well, the truth is, there is very little room for variance in the Order of the Mass. On any given Sunday, the prayers are the same, the readings are the same, the responses are the same in our church and in every church the world over. Only the language in which the Mass is offered changes. Some priests fudge the Eucharistic Prayer, I'm told, probably more because, even with glasses, they can't read while looking down at the Missal on the altar (it changes somewhat Mass to Mass) than from any intentional departure from orthodoxy. Fr. Pfleger, down at St. Sabina's on Chicago's South Side, somehow manages to make his Masses into spectacles lasting several hours, but I assume all the stuff he adds, including all the speakers we see on the Sunday night news shows, are placed after Communion when it is customary to make [much shorter] announcements (I don't know this for a fact, though someday I'd be interested in seeing for myself). But the bottom line is that there's not room for a lot of variety, and things couldn't have been too different, despite my mother-in-law's high dudgeon Saturday night. ("We skipped the Creed," Abuela fumed also, but lots of priests will skip that depending on how long, or overlong, their sermon went. And there was apparently some confusion about returning the unused Hosts to the Tabernacle after Communion. "I don't know if I can continue going there if things are going to be so different," my mother-in-law said.)

Long Suffering Spouse did her best to reassure her mother that things would be better, but Abuela was in no mood to be comforted. Eventually, she tired of repeating how different things were, however, so my wife could terminate the phone call and we could resume watching the White Sox lose. Again.

I told you yesterday how I began my Sunday morning. But, despite that, Long Suffering Spouse and I were only about 10 minutes late for 7:00 a.m. Mass (which, for us, is not terrible). We were interested in seeing how the First-Sunday-Mass-of-the-Post-Fr.-Ed Era might be handled, especially after Abuela's preview. We walked in the back of the church and discovered that the First-Sunday-Mass-of-the-Post-Fr.-Ed Era was being presided over by... Fr. Ed.

"Perhaps this morning we can talk to him," I whispered to my wife as we took our accustomed pew. She nodded.

The early Sunday Mass is the least formal of the Sunday Masses -- the organist isn't even there yet -- but Fr. Ed likes to sing. And unlike the octogenarian who'd been assisting him this year, he always liked to process down the center aisle after Mass, out into the vestibule, and to the parking lot entrance, there to greet parishioners. The altar servers, of course, always hope for a 'side out' -- a short walk into the Sacristy, where they could peel out of their gowns and race home to breakfast that much faster. At the end of Mass the altar servers stood on either side of Fr. Ed as he faced the Tabernacle, singing the final hymn a capella, waiting for the final bow that would signal their release. Without missing a note, Fr. Ed tried to signal that they should lead the procession down the center aisle, but they hightailed it for the Sacristy without a backward glance. Undeterred, Fr. Ed, still singing, headed down the center aisle and toward the vestibule.

It is considered good form to wait, in these circumstances, until the priest actually passes you before leaving your pew -- anything else would be leaving early. Since we always arrive late, we try never to leave early. Still, we left as soon as propriety allowed, intending to follow Fr. Ed out and chat him up a bit.

We hit the vestibule at a good trot -- and couldn't see him. Instead, inside the door to the parking lot, stood the new curate, offering to shake hands with any who would pause. We both stopped to take the new man's hand and offer words of welcome. But I was looking over his shoulder for Fr. Ed, and darned if I couldn't see him.

Confused now, Long Suffering Spouse and I stepped out of the church and into the parking lot, only to see the new pastor, also shaking hands with anyone who would pause. We paused. He noted Long Suffering Spouse's White Sox hat. "I'm glad to see that there are Sox fans up here," he said (our parish being firmly on the Cubs side of town). "There aren't that many of us, Father," said Long Suffering Spouse. I was still looking for Fr. Ed. I even had on my glasses.

"He's Houdini," I told my wife as we got back in the car. "He simply vanished."

"I'm sorry we didn't get to see him," Long Suffering Spouse agreed, "but I'm sure this was planned. The new guys were waiting while Fr. Ed ducked out."

"But where?" I wondered.

Our best guess was that he dove into the Ushers' Room -- it doubles as the Bride's Room, when occasion demands. It would have been on his flight path. Still, it was a pretty good vanishing act -- and a pretty good way to *ahem* usher in The-Post-Fr.-Ed Era. Meanwhile I suppose we'll catch up to Fr. Ed... eventually.

One footnote: Youngest Son, of course, did not join us for 7:00 a.m. Mass. But he did make it to the 6:00 p.m. "Last Chance" Mass. Youngest Son reported that the 6:00 Mass was presided over by the new curate. It didn't strike him as all that "different"....

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