Wednesday, September 9, 2009

RIP Monsignor

He had a reputation for being one of the more traditional and conservative of the pastors in our already conservative Diocese. This was one of the reasons he specifically asked members on the personal board for me to be assigned to him as his parochial vicar (assistant/associate). The other reason was that another priest who had served under Monsignor had highly recommended me to him. I had a reputation at the time of being very traditional and conservative theologically.

When I arrived at my new assignment, he was very gracious and took me under his wing. The Church was built in the Spanish Colonial style and had only suffered slightly during the “liturgical cultural revolution” which swept the Catholic Church in the post-Vatican II period. The parish was affluent and everything functioned like a Swiss watch. Everything happened on schedule, every day, every week, every month, and every season, year after year with no change.

Once a student from the Catholic school came into the office and requested to use the telephone. His ride had failed to appear to collect him. The secretary had the student walk around and placed a telephone before the student. He looked at it with incredulity and asked, “How does it work?” It was a rotary dial telephone. Monsignor’s mantra was “I left it the way I found it.” I marveled at his mentality and spoke to brother priests to try to find out why he had this attitude.

Turns out, Monsignor himself would reveal to me why he acted in this seemingly closed-minded way. Every night, before retiring for the day, Monsignor would invite me to share in “some Christian fellowship.” Like all else he did, this followed a regimented ritual. We would walk into the rectory kitchen and he would boil water for his tea. He would pour the scalding water into a mug and then drain the mug dry and refill the mug with a fresh batch of scalding water. He would add an aluminum tea “egg” containing tea leafs and let it steep while he opened up a box of Scottish shortbread imported from Great Britain.

Then, he would begin to speak. He would relate stories of Bishops, Cardinal Mahony (for whom he had no fondness), brother priests, etc. He once told me the story of how he came to America from Ireland. It was during World War II, on a convoy. He grasped my forearm for effect and said we had no guarantee we would make it across the Atlantic. Many ships did not, they were torpedoed by U-boats and countless souls went to a watery grave. We never expected to be able to go back and see our families again.

When we landed in New York, we prayed a “Te Deum” (a hymn of thanks to God) for safely delivering us to the New World. We boarded a train which would take us across the continent to California and ultimately to Fresno. When we arrived in Fresno, we were summoned to see the Vicar General of the Diocese (#2 man after the bishop who deals with various issues for the bishop). The three of us entered into his office and stood in front of his desk. After a moment, which seemed an eternity, he glanced up at us. Slid open one of his desk’s drawers and produced a postage stamp.

You see this, he declared, for the price of one of these I can replace the lot of you. So don’t give me cause. That was my welcome to the United States and to the Diocese of Fresno-Monterey. Monsignor and I had many evenings of “Christian fellowship.” He told me stories about how he had worked for years to build a parish in Seaside, CA. On the eve of the church’s dedication, the bishop reassigned him to a “hell-hole” in the middle of nowhere. His friend, who was on the personal board at the time, was named the new pastor of the parish Monsignor had built. His “friend’s” name is still on the bronze plaque to this day, listing him as the founding pastor.

Monsignor went on to tell me of how Mahony had placed him on a hit list of pastors whom he would remove from their parishes and then give to his supporters. He also used to say, “I was appointed, but never approved by the Senate.” This was a reference to some well-healed parishioners who would criticize and attempt to undermine him. He built a sign in front of the church, with the times for Masses, Confessions, etc. It was a brick sign, but the well healed of the parish did not like it at all. They criticized Monsignor vocally. After that, he vowed to make no more changes. “I left it the way I found it” became his mantra.

Yesterday, I received a telephone call informing me that Monsignor had died. I paused and shed a tear for the old guy. I thought about his life and thought how for him, death constituted a form of liberation. I think his body died yesterday, but a significant part of him died many years ago in that office in Fresno, when he was robbed of his parish at Seaside and when the people he served turned on him over a sign.


Leonard said...

Yes, spirits can be fragile.

RIP Monsignor, Amen

Jackie said...

Oh father Geoff, I cried for your friend too. What a terrible welcome to our country he had and such an un-Christian attitude he received from his superiors and his parishioners. What a sad, lonely life he must have had.
May he be with Jesus, surrounded by all the love that being a Christian promises.

Fran said...

That is one beautifully written and gut wrenching piece on many levels.

Mareczku said...

That was an intersting story. I hope that his love for Christ gave him comfort. May he rest in peace.

Anonymous said...

Parishioners have no idea of the wounds they can inflict by their uncharity. I was a pastor who was cursed and threatened, and who ultimately was "called downtown" to give an account of my stewardship - all because a small group of parishioners could not believe that it was necessary to close a school that had 63 students in grades K through 8. Am I bitter? No. Am I wounded? Most definitely. I received no real support from my local and provincial religious community. Any support I received came from a few brother priests, and from sane parishioners.

Why do I stay? Because I still have faith in God, and I still believe that I do some good. But I also must admit that I have no choice. At 58, without savings or pension, what am I to do? Your friend the monsignor found one way to survive. May he rest in peace.

Kevin said...

Great post Father, but sad! You can still be walking around and breathing, but have your spirit dead or at best, numb! You are right, when he met Jesus, he finally found peace!

IT said...

It's very sad that the RC church is as searing to so many of its clergy as it is to its people.

Anonymous said...

There are problems to be solved and complaints to be heard in every human interaction - at work, at church, in charity groups, everywhere. It is part of the human condition.