Saturday, May 28, 2011

One to Go

(Given  May 27, 2011, at Our Lady of the Mount  in thanksgiving for the priesthood of Monsignor Leo Herbert, on the occasion of his retirement.)

I am rarely at a loss for words, but I find myself struggling to give voice to what  Msgr. Herbert has meant to my life.

Lucky for me, I am not above plagiarism.  I remembered a story I have loved for years.  It’s about a young Episcopal missionary.  If we leave aside the fact that the fellow  is an Anglican, and reform him in our minds as a young Catholic priest, this story gives voice to all the things I want to say about—and to—Msgr. Herbert.  So indulge me as I tell a little of it to you.

The story begins as the bishop is looking for a man to go and serve a community of Haida Indians in the Pacific Northwest  who have been without a priest for a long time.  He has several candidates in mind, and this is what runs through his mind as he considers whom to send:

The one who went to the little, forgotten Indian settlement in the Queen Charlotte Islands must choose it for himself  and with his heart or he’d be bushed in three months, to be plucked from the dock like an oil drum, drained and empty.

We here on the mountain like to think ourselves as senders of missionaries, not as being served by them, but we are.  Some forty-odd years ago a young Irish priest answered a call, from within and without, to come to a distant shore and be a missionary to us.  He left behind home, family, everything comfortable and familiar, to expend himself in the service of people he did not even know.  

That’s the first thing I know about Msgr. Herbert.  He is a missionary, and after a lifetime of serving God’s church in distant lands I heard him say, just a little while ago, how he hears the call in his heart to “give back” as he puts it, maybe by serving—yet again, in mission.  

So the young priest in the story heads out for his distant post and he arrives in an isolated spot, with no friends and no family, to begin to build something out  of his life and the people he serves.  Here’s what he thinks as he enters the ramshackle church for the first time: 

The cross was there with its hope and its promise and to it, he put his question.  Where do I begin?

That’s the second thing I know about Monsignor,  he is a man of the cross. Today’s Gospel reading at mass struck me as I was considering what I wanted to say tonight.  It’s a familiar verse, and especially applicable to priests:

Greater love hath no man, than that he lay down his life for his friends.

That’s not just about martyrdom, you know.  It’s about  what priests do.  It’s what we are all meant to do.  But we need the example of men living among us to remind us, and that is what Monsignor has done for me, for all of us.  It is at the cross that the story always begins.

Our young parochial vicar starts to serve his people.  The Indians are suspicious of him, a little reserved, he is an outsider, not one of them.  They come to church and they listen, but he senses that he is not yet reaching them.  The Constable explains what’s going on:

It’s the ritual they like.  What you say won’t matter much yet.  It’s what you are and what you do that will count.

And I know  Monsignor  is a man not just of the cross, but of the Eucharist.  For me, the cadences of the mass will always be the cadences of his saying it, the gestures that attend it his gestures.  I always listen, in the intercession between the Our Father and the doxology, for the little lilt as he says  “keep us free from sin and pro-tect us from all anxiety…” and I miss it when another priest is saying mass.

 When I first came into the Church, I remember going to Monsignor  to ask him for something I could read about the various—and very confusing—sorts of spirituality Catholics can tap into—you know, Benedictine, Ignatian, Franciscan, Carmelite, mystical, not mystical.  I remember clearly his smile, that self-effacing smile he sometimes has, as he told me “I can’t really help you very much with that.  My spirituality centers on the Eucharist.”

What better place to put one’s center than at the source and summit of our faith, that which makes us CATHOLIC. 

 Monsignor brought me into that gift and I will never be the same again.  He heard my first confession, received my profession of faith, anointed and laid hands on me in confirmation and gave me the Blessed Sacrament for the first time.  He is truly my Father in Faith. 

 I think of all those converts and first communicants who have received Jesus from Monsignor’s hands for the very first time, and all those who take food for their final journey from those same hands, and I am both awestruck and  grateful.

But the center is not the whole and  it is not enough just to feed the people.  The young parochial vicar in the story learns that soon enough:

He kept working to make the Indians his people.  He fished with therm. He called on families and always on the sick….That same month, Mrs. Whitty’s parrot died and he went over to sit with her in sorrow.  Mrs. Whitty was inconsolable.  She wept and wept and when she was done at last and mopping up, he made her a cup of tea.

It is in joy that families are made, but it is in sorrow that they grow.  There’s not a mother’s child among us, I don’t think, who hasn’t shared our grief with Monsignor, and had his comforting presence in the worst parts of our lives.  He was there when, like Mrs. Whitty, I was inconsolable over the loss of a family pet, and he was there when our Korean  bonus baby, Jade, lost an uncle to a freak accident half a world away and he has been there for all the joys and sorrows between.  Monsignor  shares our lives as a father always does and we are strengthened and enriched by it, and we shall miss that.

Eventually in the course of the story,  the bishop decides to visit the young priest and he brings with him Mrs. Clifton, the wife of the owner of the steamship line and the head of the missionary board.  She’s described by the Captain as a “good woman....they are always the most pestiferous.”   The woman noises about, tells the poor priest exactly what he is doing wrong and how to set it right.  At length, the bishop meets with the priest  in quiet after she sets off to set right the village, having rectified—at least in her mind-- its priest:

The bishop and the vicar went over the records.  The young vicar told the bishop all about it, and the bishop listened, and made suggestions, and he watched the young man.  The smile was the same, but on the face was the look a man earns only with discipline in some far place, and he would wear it for the rest of his life.

Ordination gives an indelible mark to the priest’s soul, faithful serviceputs one on his visage.  I know that look, for I see it in Monsignor’s face.  

As the story ends, the vicar and the chief of the Indians stand on the dock to watch the packet boat steam off with the bishop and the busybody in tow —and I have told you all that I have told you, in order to simply tell you this, the end of the story:

“My friend,” said the chief slowly,  ”What are you thinking?”

The funny  little smile took over the vicar’s face as he answered.  “I’m thinking the Lord uses some very strange people to do His work for Him.  Don’t you agree?”

The chief smiled.  They stood there nodding in complete agreement, but with a difference.  The vicar was thinking of the formidable Mrs. Clifton, who in a gruesome sort of way had turned out to be quite wonderful.

But the chief was thinking of the young vicar, and he did it thus:

Long after I am gone my people will remember this one.  In the fall twilights of the powwows they will speak of him and they will smile.  He couldn’t hunt.  He couldn’t fish.  He shared our joys and his heart ached with our sorrows.  How good he was and how stupid.  Can you believe this?   He was so stupid, he never knew he showed us clearly the love of the Great One who sent him.


Thank you, Monsignor, for showing us so clearly  God’s love in this distant place. Godspeed in your new mission, whatever that may be.

(The story from which this was taken is One To Go by Margaret Craven)

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