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 Category:  General Fiction
  Posted: December 2, 2018      Views: 140

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 ABOUT
MARK VALENTINE 
"Like every book I never wrote, it is by far the best book I've ever written."

G. K. Chesterton

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A musing on this first Sunday of Advent
"The Last Mass" by Mark Valentine



Father Daniel Patrick McCarthy mixed the last of the peas on his plate with the remaining dollop of mashed potatoes. He’d been eating his peas like that since he was a child. He couldn’t remember how the ritual started, nor why it persisted, only that he couldn’t imagine it otherwise. He lifted the last bite of the mixture to his mouth with a little more solemnity than he might usually have, for this was no ordinary night, it was Christmas Eve – the last Christmas Eve.

Mercedes hardly touched her own plate as she sat across from him.

“Would you like some more, Father?”

“No thanks, I’d better put the finishing touches on my homily. It was delicious as always, Meche. Thank you. And Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Father.”

“What time are Lupe and Jack coming tomorrow?”

“Weather permitting, they should be here just in time for Mass. I hear it’s supposed to snow tonight. I’m hoping the roads will be clear by morning. They’re bringing the baby with them.”

“Wonderful!”

Father Dan’s eyes lit up at that last bit of news. The thought of a baby in the congregation made him smile noticeably for the first time in a long while.

“It’s good to see you smile, Father."

The smile that Mercedes returned had a maternal quality to it. Though she was thirty years his junior, and a paid caretaker, Mercedes Gonzales always treated Father Dan like a grown son who hadn’t quite learned how to take care of himself yet.

“Lupe was hoping you might have time to baptize the baby after Mass.”

Father’s eyes lit up again at this request.

“I’d be honored. You know she could be the last baby baptized – at least in the U.S. What name did they decide upon?”

“They’re calling her Esperanza, Father.”

“Esperanza. I like that. I can’t believe you’re a grandmother, Meche. Seems like only yesterday you were the high-school kid answering phones at the rectory in broken English. Thirty years later, you’re still here. Well, at least until Tuesday. What time does your flight leave?”

“Seven a.m. We have a layover in Mexico City, so we won’t get to San Salvador until late in the evening.”

Father understood that Mercedes and her family needed to go back to El Salvador, where they had extended family and where the practice of Catholicism would still be legal. He wanted to be happy for her, and felt selfish because his predominant emotion was sadness at his own loss. Having turned the topic of conversation to her departure, Father Dan was at a loss as to how to steer it in a less depressing direction.

Mercedes broke the awkward silence

“Here, let me take that plate for you.”

As Mercedes cleared the table, she did her best to keep her brave face on, but her heart was heavy with sorrow, the sorrow of an apostle at the Last Supper who had read ahead and knew what was coming. Or a weather forecaster who knew that the roads would not be clear tomorrow.

“You should get working on that homily, Father. I think we’ll have a good crowd tomorrow.”

Father Dan wasn’t so sure. The days of standing room only Christmas Masses were long past.  Even if the government weren’t banning the Catholic Church, there was a good chance it would have died by attrition before too long. A general secularization of society had resulted in attendance drops at nearly all places of worship. This general decline was accelerated in the Catholic Church by the loss of vocations, and, of course, by the sexual abuse scandals.

The scandals, and the “treasonous” stances taken by the Church on issues such as immigration, health care, stewardship of the environment, and economic justice had gotten it placed on the president’s list of “false religions”. The president was fond of quoting the only bible verse he knew, Romans 13:1: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”

The Catholic Church was by no means the only church out of compliance with Romans 13:1. As was the case with “fake news”, eventually the list of “false religions” expanded to include every institution except one – the state sponsored one. In the fall of the previous year, the Christian Church of America (CCA) was born. Its motto was “America Above All” and its emblem featured a risen white Jesus triumphantly hoisting an American flag. All other religions were labelled “enemies of the people”.

Upon the creation of the CCA, non-Judeo-Christian religions were banned immediately. Jewish and Christian organizations were granted until the end of this year to “phase out their operations” as the statute worded it. Thus, in exactly one week from tonight, every church, cathedral, and synagogue in the country that did not bear the CCA Seal of Approval would close its doors.

There were of course some protests, but the resistance was far less than expected. In some locations people made plans to continue practicing their faiths in underground communities, but if the experience of the already-banned religions was any indication, those embers would be too small and too faint to offer any hope of rekindling a fire.

It seemed that the question had been settled: religion would end not with a bang, but with a whimper.

This same dynamic was being played out across much of the globe. The left wanted to erase religion, and the right, to appropriate it for their own ends.

Father Dan was saddened by both of these trends, but the worse sin, in his mind, was being committed, not by those who would erase religion, but by those who would turn it on its head. In America, and in much of Western Europe, it was as if God and Satan were changing places as compassion became identified with weakness, and racial supremacists cloaked themselves in the bible with government approval.

While not oblivious to its misuses over the years, Father Dan still believed that religion, at its best, provided a tether between the Imago Dei that is imprinted in each of us, and its ultimate Source. It encouraged us, in the words of one of the finest American presidents, to access the ‘better angels of our nature’. The current president, and the CCA, sought to engage people by activating the baser parts of their nature – tribalism, greed, bigotry. And it worked. Father Dan thought of the verse from Deuteronomy: “Today, I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life, so that you and your children might live.” The people of America had chosen death. Freely. Willingly. Blindly.

Mercedes could see the despair taking hold of Father’s spirit. She had seen it countless times over the past year. She saw it with increasing frequency as this day neared. Though she had extended the invitation many times before, and it had been politely declined each time, she couldn’t help but make one last offer.

“Why don’t you come with us Father? The Church is still active in many parts of El Salvador. There are still dozens of parishes and thousands of worshippers. A friend of my family, Father Gilberto, leads one of them. He would let you stay with him. You could celebrate Mass whenever you felt like it.”

Father held up a gentle but firm hand toward her, preempting the rest of the spiel.

“Thank you, Meche. You are very kind, and perhaps, if I were a younger man, I might go to El Salvador to fight the good fight. But I am old and must leave that to a new generation. I pray that Esperanza will grow up in a world that knows faith and love and truth – I hope she finds that world in El Salvador.”

“Faith will not die, Father. ‘El amor todo lo puede’. Isn’t that what you always told me, Father?”

“I’ve said a lot of things over the years. I’m not sure if I believe them anymore. But you have great faith, Meche. People like you and Lupe and Jack bring hope into the world.”

“We don’t bring it, Father, we carry it forward like a baton in a relay race. I took it from my parents – and from you.”
Mercedes knew that Father Dan had run track in college and was pleased at the analogy she had created. She continued.

“There is still great faith in El Salvador, Father. The military tried to kill it, but they couldn’t. The people take inspiration from our new saint. Can you believe Oscar Romero is a saint now, Father? He baptized me, you know.”

“Yes, I remember you telling me that. He’d be so proud of what you’ve become.”

Father paused for a moment as he looked admiringly at this woman who had come to be as close to him as anyone he knew. He first met her when she was a high school student who answered phones at the rectory. He presided at her wedding ceremony and baptized her children. When her husband became ill ten years ago, he helped the family make ends meet by hiring Mercedes to look after the rectory and tend to the Church office. A year later, when her husband passed away, he said the funeral Mass.

He loved her.

Father got up from the table, walked into his study and came back with a small package which he handed to Mercedes.

“Since we’ll be busy with the baptism after Mass, I thought I’d give this to you now.”

Mercedes protested,

“I thought we said no presents.”

“It’s not a Christmas present, it’s more of a thank you. My mother gave this to me when I was ordained. You’ve been like family to me, and I can think of no one better to pass it on to.”

Those words and the look on Father’s face told her what was in the box before she opened it. It was a mother-of-pearl rosary that had been handed down through several generations of the McCarthy family. Father Dan always carried it in the pocket of his alb.

“Father, I know how much this means to you. You should keep it.”

“So it can be buried with me? No, Meche. You are the most prayerful person I know. You’ll still pray the rosary, won’t you?”

“Every day, Father.”

“Then this belongs with you. I’m sure my mother would have approved. Think of it as a baton.”

Now it was Father’s turn to be pleased with his wit.

“Thank you, Father. I wish I could have met your mother.”

“I wish you could have too. You would have loved her. And she, you.”

Father Dan pushed down the lump in his throat as he looked out the window.

“It looks like the snow’s about to start, Meche. You better get going before the roads get too bad. I’ll see you in the morning.”

As he did every evening, Father Dan walked Mercedes to the door. Though she planned to see Father tomorrow, something compelled Mercedes to turn back before walking to her car and hug Father Dan as if it were their final goodbye.
No words were exchanged. Mercedes turned and walked toward her car, not letting Father Dan see the tears that were streaming down her face. Father Dan wiped away his own tears as he watched her walk away.

Once in her car, Mercedes paused for a moment before starting off to take in the beauty of the church that she would attend for the last time tomorrow. She’d always loved the beauty of churches, and while the ones in Chicago were of a different style than those she knew as a child in her native El Salvador, they shared a common nobility. They were testaments to the spirit and imagination of the common people. Like the Mass itself, these churches were an offering to God; earthly materials reaching up to touch the hem of the divine. They reminded the communities they inhabited that there was more to life than flesh and bones, toil and tears. They reminded them that their stories were part of a grander story.

The story of St. Brigid’s was the story of the Irish who came to Chicago in the 1920s. Other neighborhoods had similar churches with similar stories. Each wave of immigrants that came in the early years of the twentieth century numbered among its ranks skilled stone masons, carpenters, woodworkers, and stained glass artists who brought their talents to the task of church-building. The care and craftsmanship that went into these constructions was mind-boggling by today’s standards. Their aim was not just to construct a building, but to create something beautiful, to inspire awe in those who came to worship there.

The patterns in the ceiling molding, the marble inlays in the altar, or the figures chiseled into the bell tower contained detailed intricacies that no one could ever see with the naked eye. And yet, the craftsmen painstakingly took months to create them, knowing that their combined effect would be felt by the spirit. When they walked through the heavy oak doors, people knew that they were entering sacred space.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, for these immigrant communities, the neighborhood parish was not just a place of worship, but the center of social life. It’s where their children went to school, where dances, basketball games, and boxing matches were held, where people turned for help in times of need. At one point, St. Brigid’s parish occupied the entire block between 61st and 62nd Street and comprised five buildings: the church, the school, a convent, the rectory, and a community center. Now just the church and the rectory remained; anachronistic islands of architectural beauty in a sea of strip malls and vacant lots.

The rectory, of course, was not as ornate as the church. Still, it was built with the same care by the same craftsmen. It featured the same quality materials; Irish marble from Connemara, granite from India, and mahogany from the southern U.S. It too was sacred space in Father Dan’s eyes.

When he first moved in, thirty-five years ago, Father Dan felt guilty living in such luxurious quarters, but over time he came to accept the rectory for what it was -- an expression of the centrality of the church in the lives of the immigrant community that had created it a century ago. The rectory and the convent were testaments to the esteem accorded to men and women religious in those days.

Father Dan went into the study, his favorite room in the rectory. After starting a fire in the fireplace, he poured himself a glass of wine and sat in his favorite leather chair to put the finishing touches on his Christmas homily. The reality that tomorrow would be St. Brigid’s last Mass, his last Mass, pushed aside all other thoughts and made it impossible to concentrate on writing.

He had always loved the Mass -- the thought that it extended spatially across the globe and temporally across the centuries. That people all over the world were saying the same words, were engaged in the same ritual, a ritual that began two thousand years ago, and had been stewarded with varying degrees of fidelity since then. He thought of the Eucharist, the ritual that tied past to present and place to place more than any other. He thought of how all these prayers and rituals not only tied the faithful to each other, but tethered them to a higher realm as well.
 
And now, was there still any thread left that connected? A line from a Yeats poem came to him:
 
The centre cannot hold.
 
He wondered if we had spiraled out of control, if we had gone beyond the gravitational pull of whatever sun anchored us in orbit.
 
Or, perhaps there never was a center. Another phrase from the poem rose to consciousness:
 
Twenty centuries of stony sleep.
 
 Is that all that this has been? Two millennia of self-deception, of backing the wrong horse?
 
Outside, the snow had turned to sleet. The icy pellets clanged rudely and insistently on the rectory windows, as if demanding entrance. Father Dan rose from his chair and walked to the window, drawn to it by the clamor. He looked out to see icy rain falling on the broken liquor bottles, cigarette butts, and discarded fast food wrappers that were strewn across the vacant lot where once stood a school. Where children learned and played. Where their minds and souls were tended to by the Holy Cross Sisters. Where there were classrooms with chalkboards, globes, statues of the Blessed Virgin, and desks spaced far enough apart to allow room for each child’s guardian angel to sit invisibly. Where did the angels go when they tore down the school?

Feeling a chill, he retreated from the window and drew closer to the fireplace to warm himself.

His mind categorized the contrasting stimuli: warmth and cold, fire and ice, the beauty of creation and the ugliness of vacant lots. Once set in motion, his mind went on to abstract other contrasts: whimpers and bangs, body and spirit, love and its lack.
 
In his younger days such philosophical musings would have echoed through his mind for hours, and provided sufficient impetus for him to start pulling old philosophy books down from the shelves. But Father Dan, like the books, was old and weathered now. His finite mind had neither the patience nor the stamina for philosophy. He wanted ice cream.

He went to the kitchen and ate a few spoonfuls of mint chocolate chip straight from the carton before returning to the study.
He sat in his chair and took a sip of wine. It tasted sour.  He wasn’t sure if it was the wine or his aging taste buds, but all wine tended to taste sour of late. He thought of the passage from the Gospel of John where Jesus is given sour wine to drink on the cross. He put the wine down.

He was tired. Too tired to finish his homily. Too tired for philosophizing or drinking wine. He closed his eyes and felt the warmth of the fire. Outside the sleet continued to pummel the vacant lot, the rectory, and all the remaining houses on the block. A merciless wind blew down 61st Street. Merciless winds were blowing cold all over the city this Christmas Eve. The final lines from Yeats’ poem stirred in Father Dan’s memory.
 
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
 
He could almost hear the ‘rough beast’ at the window. He thought about the infant Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem, Jesus as a young boy teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus breaking bread at the Last Supper, and then his mind went back to Jesus on the cross and the sour wine. He remembered the word from John’s gospel that Jesus spoke, and he said it aloud to no one in particular:

“Tetelestai”

Then he bowed his head and fell asleep.
 

Thus it came to pass that on Christmas morning in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty-Three, Mercedes “Meche” Gonzales, her daughter Lupe, her son-in law Jack, her granddaughter Esperanza, and eight other stalwart parishioners arrived at the locked doors of St. Brigid’s Catholic Church to discover that there would be no Christmas Mass.

Mercedes let herself in the rectory and found Father Dan in his chair. She postponed her trip to El Salvador so that she could make the arrangements. On December 27th, the last Mass at St. Brigid’s, a funeral Mass for Father Daniel Patrick McCarthy, was celebrated.

 

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Author Notes
Tetelestai is a Greek usually translated -It is finished- In the Gospel of John (19:30) it is the last word spoken by Jesus on the cross.

The Spanish name Mercedes means mercies. Esperanza means hope.


The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


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