All was quiet at the Fatima shrine on Monastery Hill in Brighton.
Soon a procession of the faithful would gather here to conclude the monthly rosary rally. But first, they were assembling at St. Gabriel’s up the hill for evening prayers and a sermon by some illustrious and eloquent keynote speaker.
Before the service I stopped by the shrine, sitting still in the dusk.
An elderly priest in a plain black suit and clerical collar walked in. He stood contemplating the statue of our Blessed Mother. Lost in thought, he tidied up a few devotional brochures, patting them into a neater stack. He removed a crumpled dollar bill from the brochure basket, and placed it gently in a collection box. He picked up a dropped rosary chaplet from the carpet, and placed it back on the table.
“Good evening, Father,” I stood up with a deferential bow. “Lovely chapel you’ve got here.”
Father blinked at me.
“It’s such a nice place.” I came closer. “Really. The chapel is such a gem. A real treasure right in the city.”
Father looked around at the sentimental statues and pictures, silk flowers, heartfelt prayer intentions jotted down on slips of paper. As with so many of our older parish priests, including the retired clergy in the parish house next door, this poor man looked amazed at hearing any word of appreciation.
Well, it was his turn to be appreciated today.
“Too often,” I monitored his blank reaction, “we worshippers step in for a prayer and we move on — with no thought of the devotion and care it takes to maintain a place like this. Electricity, snow shoveling, cleaning the leaders and gutters. But it matters — on a visual level, and on a spiritual level. For now, only God sees how it has helped: the answered prayers, the consolation, the fellowship.” I gave his hand a quick light shake. “Thank you, Father.”
Father looked carefully neutral, making no sudden motions; in fact, registering no real response at all. Only much later did the pieces of the social context fill in for me; I’d picked a poor time in church history to ambush a member of the clergy that way.
At a moment like this, many of our other Boston priests would have resorted to rugged self-effacing humor. They would have asked my name and home parish and spiritual director, and made sure that I was active in church and receiving the sacraments. They would have introduced themselves. Then they would remember me at all future events like this, with some teasing each time. “Here comes Inspector MARY. Mary, my wee Colleen — did you give our chapel the white glove test today? How am I doing, polishing those doorknobs?”
We were interrupted by a group of petite ladies in plastic folding chapel caps, speaking excitedly in what sounded like Tagalog. They rushed at the priest and fell upon their knees. Bursting into tears, they grabbed his sleeves. More women rushed in exclaiming in Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese. They gripped Father’s arm, touching their rosaries to his hands to bless them, all of them genuflecting to kiss his ring.
Catholics kneeling down? To kiss a priest’s ring? What? I backed out the door in mortified retreat, gathering dimly by the reactions of everybody else that I had must have failed to recognize a member of our hierarchical gentry, with no clue on what title or greeting to use anyway. (In retrospect it’s interesting that in all that pack of reverence and elation, only one person got his undivided riveted attention; that was the person who didn’t know him at all.)
In church that night he was our illustrious and eloquent keynote speaker, 70 years old but by no means bent on retirement. He preached about the intercession of our Blessed Mother in our lives. The sermon did not mention his future promotion to an important post at the Vatican.
Ah goodness; to him, a friendly intention wrapped in social cuelessness must have come across as derisive sarcasm! An interloper in an empty chapel accosted Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, Archbishop of the Diocese of Boston, raving away at him about the spiritual meaning in building maintenance of clean windows and driven snow.