Monday, March 26, 2007

My reflection on this day's gospel.

I had this story given to me during the mass today. It's not perfect but I kind of like it. The story isn't real so don't worry that I'm breaking the seal of confession.

The story of GrandFather Bill.

Fr. Bill sat at his table sipping his morning coffee with the Des Moines Register in one hand while spooning his high-fiber cereal into his mouth with the other. He was at point six of his usual morning routine, which had remained fairly predictable since arriving from Germany a year ago. He awakes at 6 to pray, unlocks the church at ten ‘til seven so that he can be back to watch the first twenty four minutes of the Today Show by seven. He showers and dresses until 8:00, making sure to pull every last bit of hair from one side of his head to the other in order to cover the bald spot that had formed on his head back when he was a monk in Germany. The brothers used to tease him that it was his perpetual tonsure, a statement that used to anger him but now wouldn’t even cause him to pause in annoyance. So much had happened in the two years since he asked his Abbott to give him a “real world” assignment. You see, Fr. Bill was one of those guys that spent his entire life in a catholic ghetto of some sort. Having attended Catholic schools in the period immediately after World War Two, a Benedictine College close to Munich, and deciding to enter that particular order of Monks in the middle of college meant that he didn’t know much about the real world. Most guys his age have a midlife crisis in their thirties. They buy expensive possessions or cheat on their wife. Fr. Bill was different in two respects. He waited until he was in his fifties and decided that he wanted to simply do something completely different. He wanted to put aside the safety of the books with which he surrounded himself up until that point so that he could learn something about people.

He put down the newspaper, after having celebrated the early morning mass at his parish and walked toward the sink to rinse his bowl and coffee mug. Then he looked out his window and saw the little boy that had changed his life forever walking hand-in-hand with his mom across the parking lot toward church. Fr. Bill had come to America somewhat reluctantly. He had been finding community life cumbersome for some time. He had been known as that angry monk for ten years or more and relished in the peace and solitude that reputation brought him. But, he found that, the more abrupt he was with other people, the more distant he seemed from God. When he approached his spiritual director for help in this matter, the director looked him in the eyes and said, “You have been here too long. Go away for a while.” The abbot was aware that the American State of Iowa was in need of priests. He was friends with the bishop there who was also a Benedictine Monk and who recently contacted him looking for assistance in some of his parishes. So, when Fr. Willhelm Moeller approached him for permission to venture into the real world, Abbot James knew the perfect place to send him.

Fr. Bill arrived with one suitcase complete with all the essentials. He met the previous pastor who had been in the parish for several years and decided that the guy played too loosely with church law within five minutes of meeting him. He heard all about keys and budgets and procedures, most of which he began forming strategies to change. He thought that the greatest sight he would see in his tenure there was the lights of the man’s car as he left the drive way.

Fr. Bill’s first act was to retrain the altar servers to do what he liked. For the most part, they were amenable, though some complained about hearing the bells and smells of the “old church”. He changed the way people distributed communion, getting rid of the cup except for special occasions. He changed the way people read, making sure that they practiced with him the week. All of that was controversial but not nearly as much as his preaching. At first, he preached in the same academic style he used with the monks in the monastery in Germany. When people complained that they couldn’t understand him, he turned cool academia into angry castigation. He would often shake his finger at his people and speak quite loudly about moral topics like contraception and abortion. In the first six months, he lost a quarter of his parish and had several letters sent to the Benedictine bishop who wondered who his German Abbott friend had sent him. Then, one day, the letters stopped.

It started at the mass that could have easily been just another mass. It was the last mass of the weekend at his rural parish, a mass that generally has several children in attendance. He walked down during the procession and noticed a child wandering in the aisle looking for someone familiar. The child immediately put up his hands to Fr. Moeller who, for some reason, reached down and picked him up. He carried him to the front and began mass in his usual way, as though he didn’t have a child clinging to his neck. As he sat down for the first reading, he became aware that the child was fast asleep on his chest. The little boy’s breathing was soothing to the priest. He listened intently as the first reading turned into the responsorial psalm and eventually became the second reading. Then, it was the priest’s turn to read so he gently stood up and strolled over to the pulpit. He knew that everyone in church was shocked at the boy’s action and the priest’s response yet, for the first time in quite some time, Fr. Bill wasn’t certain if that was a good or a bad thing. He walked over to the pulpit and began to read the gospel assigned for that Sunday. The boy on his shoulder stirred so he quieted his voice and moved closer to the microphone. Again the child stirred so Fr. Bill moved back from the microphone. He began his homily in the same quiet voice and noticed that his entire congregation seemed to be paying close attention as he preached in the subdued manner. He went back to his chair and only set the child down when he knew he couldn’t hold him any longer, during the Eucharistic prayer. The little boy slept in the priest’s chair for the rest of mass and was gone with Fr. Bill finished distributing communion and went to sit down. He could see that the lad had found his mom and was safe and he debated about what he should say to the woman that he didn’t recognize and what she would say to him as well about the encounter.

As the priest-monk sat outside after mass shaking hands, something astonishing happened. Each person who shook his hand gave him a compliment about the substance of his preaching. “Fr. Moeller, I had no idea that Mark’s gospel is considered the first one written. Why is Matthew listed first?” “Fr. Moeller, thank you for telling us why the church is so against lay preaching. That makes sense to me now. It never did before.” Fr. Bill was astonished at the number of people who paid attention this week that never seemed to pay attention before. Unfortunately, he never did get to confront the mother, who must have left by another door. Nonetheless, for the first time since he had arrive in America, he left his parish that day feeling fulfilled that he may have actually begun to understand his people and they may have started understanding him.

The next week, as Father Bill started walking down the aisle, he noticed the same little boy wandering around. As he got closer, he picked the little boy up and started handing him back to his mom. The little boy started crying and saying, “No grandpa! I want you to hold me. I want you!” Both the mother and priest were shocked and seemed uncertain what to do next. Even though this was not his grandson, Fr. Bill felt some kind of strange connection to him and he could see that his mother didn’t seem overly anxious to take back her screaming son. So, he walked to the front and began mass, again, with a child in one arm clinging to his neck. The child’s routine breathing seemed so soothing to the priest who had had a rough week with four funerals and a wedding. He again proclaimed the gospel and preached with the subdued voice of one not wanting to wake a child. This week, the scene couldn’t have been any better. The gospel was from Luke 18, part of which says, “Let the children come to me and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” The priest talked about the horrors of sexual abuse of children and apologized for anyone abused by priests. He looked up from his prepared notes as he apologized and noticed one or two people overcome with emotion. Quickly he returned to his notes and finished his homily, shocked at seeing the pure emotion until he realized the powerful symbol of childhood trust he had on his shoulder.

After mass, several people stopped to talk to the priest, to thank him for his message. There was even one husband and wife that had left the parish two weeks before who simply said, “Thank you.” Many wondered who the little boy was, a question the priest generally asked them in return. No one seemed to know the mysterious boy or his mother. They were all struck at the priest’s change in demeanor and suggested that he invite the rest of the children around him during the first part of mass, a suggestion that seemed terrifying to the priest. But, when he tried it next week, he found himself surrounded by ten young people, including the unknown ice-breaker boy. He continued the tradition in the weeks to come, as long as there were children present. Sometimes, the priest would quietly explain to the children the story that was being read, especially if one or two children seemed to be ready to misbehave. He would generally tell them to return to their parents during the reading of the gospel but the sleeping little boy would always accompany him to the pulpit for the gospel and homily. And, throughout, he never seemed to be able to track down the mother after mass. Others told him the boy’s name was Christopher and his mother, Diane, but he never conversed with either for the first six months of being “grandpa”. Fr. Bill seemed content to see the return of the quarter of his parishioners he had originally lost along with other young families eager to encourage their kids to go learn from “Grandpa Bill” as some in the parish had started calling him.

One day, while hearing confession, he heard a very meek voice on the other side of the screen, “Father, forgive me for I have sinned. It has been many years since my last confession.”

“God loves us most when we return to him with our whole heart and is overjoyed by the repentant sinner, my daughter. We’re both glad that you are here.”

“I’ve not always been good, Father. I left home at an early age and was on the street for a few years. I had pre marital sex and had a child while I was addicted to meth. I’m still amazed that I managed to keep clean during his pregnancy but I’ve found myself falling into the same pattern with it until the last six months. I haven’t used it in six months, Father.”

The priest felt he had to interrupt here. “You should know that God loves all children. You’re child is a blessing even if he was not born into the best situation. And it’s great that you are clean but don’t be afraid to get some help with a drug addiction. That is a great challenge.”

“Yes Father,” the mother said. “Thank you, Father.”

The priest could hear the unmistakable sound of sobbing on the other side of vale. He waited patiently for her to collect herself and then asked, “Is everything alright?”

“You see, Father, I reconciled with my dad after my son’s birth and my dad was helping to raise him. Then, one day, dad died of a massive heart attack. That was when I started using again. And Dad’s death affected Christopher, too. He just didn’t seem to pay attention and seemed to cry and scream all day long. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t think I could raise him anymore. I was so desperate one Sunday that I decided to give him to someone at church. I drove to the neighboring town and walked in intent on walking back out and leaving him with a deserving couple. But, then you picked him up and held him and I was afraid you’d send him to an orphanage. I quietly ducked into a pew, not quite sure what to do. When he walked back to me, I was baffled. I tried again the next week and the same thing happened, only this time I realized it wasn’t your choice to pick up my son. It was his choice to find you because you look something like his grandpa. He is such a handful that I didn’t think I could take it anymore, since the rest of my family doesn’t speak to me and I don’t have anyone else I can trust. But, for the last six months, I’ve had a half hour to pray and ask God for strength without distraction. And Christopher even seems to be doing better. You have made me clean, Father.”

The tears streamed down the priest’s face as he realized the unknown, unintended impact he had had on this person’s life. He immediately remember the gospel for that weekend….

…the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery
and made her stand in the middle.
They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.
Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them,
“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

Fr. Bill made that same statement to her at the end of her confession that Christ had made to an adulterous woman centuries before. He helped her to reconcile to some of her siblings and made sure to treasure the unconditional love that Christopher and Diane gave to him. Several years later, when he was leaving to return to the monastery and his parish was celebrating a successful building campaign to build a new, larger church, Fr. Bill gave all the credit to God’s gift of grandfatherhood.

No comments: