In 1996 this wave of solitariness washed up on the inner landscape, this cumulative wave of having stuff to talk about and process, but no one available to hear it. It was like spending the day behind a soundproof glass wall. Finally this idea from nowhere told me “St. Gabriel’s Church. Go.”
But St. Gabriel’s isn’t my parish! And, it’s the Passionist Father mission church, and I don’t know any of them. And, it’s over in Brighton, MA. And, I need to stay home and wash my hair. And, it’s night time in the middle of the week and they won’t be open. When your body leaps up and charges around getting ready though, you might as well tag along.
The church was packed. They were having a monthly Fatima Rosary rally. Just as I showed up, one of the Passionist priests took the microphone and talked about the life of Father Marcellus White, then 88 years old, who was sitting to the side of the altar. Our celebrant confided that our honored guest could not hear well any more. “If he suspected that this tribute is about him, he’d make me hush.” Then our speaker described Father Marcellus’s lifetime of missionary work and dedication to China, where in 1952 he was placed in solitary confinement for almost four years.
I sat trying to imagine that. No kind word, no letters, nothing to read, no idea whether help is ever going to be on the way.
But sitting up front near the altar, Father Marcellus didn’t look bitter or hurt or shut down by his experience. He sat at rest, in the pure enjoyment of watching the service and sharing the company of the priests and congregation.
In the Passionist Historical Archives there was a lucky find, pictures and an article about him. Apparently until his death in 2002, Father Marcellus expressed appreciation for prison and its “gift of absolute trust in God.” He spent his confinement in continual prayer. Every day he meditated on childhood devotions, seminary services, the Rosary, and the love of his fellow priests, family, and the Chinese people. By his account, in prison he was free to truly find God, because in prison he was truly open to letting God find him. That gift didn’t end with the prison term, and it didn’t end with his life.
After the service as the crowd filed past, Father Marcellus was amazed and delighted at how many people wanted to shake his hand over and over on their way out. “I’m right here at the rectory, why don’t you visit me some time?” he said to them. “No need to call. Just come.” In 1952 and 1996 he had no idea, how his use of lost and wasted years rippled out to people he didn’t even know.