This is the first in a series which was introduced by Flores for the Immaculate Conception (utterly inappropriate edition); a word for the wise and not so wise.
A Cardinal, one of the more academic and brilliant Cardinals of the twentieth and now twenty first century, warned me that I was mightily responsible before our Lord for everything in my priesthood, and that I, more than others, will owe Jesus an explanation for the graces given to me at such an early age, and so I had better not do anything wrong, ever. He was adamant about this, really quite severe, angry even. Did I say he was a friend? I suppose we was aware at the time of my jaw-dropping ineptitude, or assumed it. I’m always happy to get a reprimand like that. I would have been pleased to have gotten that reprimand for graces given and received much earlier on in life. If the Cardinal had been in the habit of saying it, as am I, I’m sure he would have added for effect that Jesus is coming to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire.
I have, of course, done many and terrible things, that which has — as is the case with all of us — manifested the reason for the horrific torture and death of the Son of God. But what made this Cardinal so agitated was my first recollection of being called to the priesthood, which he had asked about. I guess he was expecting something about a certain yearning to serve the Lord in my teenage years, the usual story, blah blah blah. Instead, I told him about a particular Sunday during Mass, when I was but 28 months old, in 1962, early in the Summer, on a particularly hot morning. I remember everything from, say, after my first birthday, still in the crib. We had moved out of the first house of my short life when I was only about 1-1/2 years old, but years later, at about 4-1/2 years old, I was able to describe our previous house and back yard with great detail to my stunned sister.
Anyway, now at 28 months old in early Summer, it was the feast of the birthday of Saint John the Baptist, June 24, which was on a Sunday that year. The Mass vestments of the priest were white and gold. I’ve always remembered the vestments because the priest was having such trouble taking them off after the Gospel and before the sermon, as was the custom in those pre-Vatican II years, especially when it was hot. I would later take Saint John as one of two Confirmation names that I was anomalously allowed, the other being Saint John the Evangelist. Significant events in my life often “just happen” on this day, or August 29, the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.
Anyway, the parish church on the North side of town was always jammed for Sunday Mass back in the day. If you were late, you had to stand in the back and along the side aisles. We were always just in time or a minute late, and so were often spread out all over the church. The job of the ushers was actually to usher late comers into this or that empty space here and there in the church, almost physically shoving people (sardines) down the pews in order to make room. But on this Sunday, we had arrived a little ahead of time, and so were seated together in what was the second to the last pew in back of the church, on the left side of the center aisle. The line up, beginning from the aisle, was, if I remember correctly, my oldest half-sister, then my mom, then me, my brother, my father and finally my other half-sister.
I was standing tippy-toe on the kneeler, holding on for dear life to the top of the pew in front of me, just able to look over the pew between the shoulders of those sitting in front of me. It was just after the Gospel, so everyone had just sat down and I was able to see up into the sanctuary at the other end of the Church. I think this was the very first time that I had been brave enough to do such gymnastics. One misstep and I would have been crumpled up in a heap of useless humanity under the pew. That would later happen to me a number of times in a number of churches. My first experience of extreme sports! But I had felt compelled to do this. I was obliged in love to find a way to look up to the far side of the church. The draw was irresistible.
As I was peering up into the sanctuary wondering what was going on, it happened, just like that. I beheld not anything I could see, but there was definitely Someone, as in God Himself, utterly majestic, with such radiance, however invisible, uncontainable by the universe, divine, and yet so very friendly, beckoning to me, taking me, drawing me to Himself. I felt His love. I was overwhelmed. I shut my eyes. Would this Someone go away if I shut my eyes? No, He was still there! If I can put 1960s Star Trek terminology on this, it was like a tractor-beam zeroed in on me, drawing me in, quite tangibly, in all love. That’s how I’ve remembered this gesture of the Most High from that day onward, throughout all the years of my life, until today, even if I would later fall into that which would bring me to find myself on my knees before Him in a confessional. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned: I’ve been so impatient and judgmental and uncharitable. I even…”
The tractor-beam effect, all the stronger with God’s love as that love encompasses body, mind, soul, spirit, heart… It’s all just as real and happening now as it was then. God’s love is ever so simple, ever so gentle, ever so strong, enthusiastic, and thus able to shine even amidst what some might think is an unprepared psychological outlook of such an infant who has no given set of already experienced experiences to appreciate such an event. But any later developed psychology on my part could not add to or subtract from or change in any way that most subtle yet manifest love which I experienced. Love does that. Love can be noticed whatever is going on in our lives. Love doesn’t change — ever ancient, ever new — even if we change in whatever way. God is love. He is always wanting to draw us into His presence, squeezing us tight even in all His majesty.
I knew what He expected of me, that I was to be there, up in the sanctuary, at the altar, that that was what I was going to be about for the rest of my life. I was to be with that Someone. I didn’t know what the word “God” meant as a vocabulary word, but I did know this Someone, and this Someone knew little, tiny me. But I did not feel insignificant in the least. He loved me and does so still, even though I’ve often taken a misstep, crumpled up in a heap of useless humanity in my sin. He is good and kind. If anyone is religious, that is, giving back to God what is His due, that is, our worship, our love, through, with and in Jesus, it is because we are not objectified by the Lord – just another one of the trillions of people who have existed – but are loved personally by Him. Having a sense of this has us rush to Him, and has us want to share with others this greatest love in our lives.
During this experience, I vividly remember that the elderly priest, now having finished the Gospel up at the Gospel-side of the altar, of course, was being helped by his deacon and sub-deacon down the steps of that ad orientem high altar (ripped out just a few years later in the mid-1960s). Half way down those steps, he stopped as if upset that he was forgetful, and took his maniple off, which was then taken from him and placed over the book on the altar. He then proceeded to take off his chasuble in a most clumsy fashion – really having a hard time of it – and was helped by both the deacon and sub-deacon. At one point he reached back to grab the altar to steady himself. They then helped him the rest of the way down the steps where he then went to the pulpit. As I say, this was all the custom in those days.
As he started his sermon, of all things for a mere infant, and while basking in the love of God for me, I felt compassion for this priest because of his being a priest (that is, someone who was up there where I was being called, nothing of a nothing that I was myself), and I knew that this was part of that to which God was calling me: solidarity with priests. I didn’t know that particular priest in the least at my 28 months of age. He could have been a saint. It’s just that in the face, so to speak, of such a personal love of God, anyone whomsoever is called by our Lord to be with Him up in the sanctuary needed compassion and understanding, for we are all just so absolutely nothing before God, though we are so very much loved by Him. This is what was also very much part of my own first understanding of the intervention of God in our world so tainted with original sin. There was no looking down on this priest. Just the opposite. It was awesome that he could be there at all. That’s where this Someone, God Himself was in all His majesty and love for us. That is the way I felt about my own call to be where he was, up in the sanctuary, in the service of this most awesome Someone. We are unworthy, but God is good.
This vocation to be “up in the sanctuary” had nothing to do with elitism. Distances meant nothing. This Majestic Someone, God, was calling me, however far away I was in the very back of the church. I could have been outside for that matter. As I say, I had the sense that the very universe could not contain him. He could reach out to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Serving Him “up in the sanctuary” did not mean leaving anyone behind. It did not mean not sharing with others the greatest love of our lives, that Someone. Being “up in the sanctuary” also meant being with those for whom He had compassion as He did with me just then.
I apologize for making this seem all too complex for a tiny little boy, for this was not at all about discursive reasoning. It was a simple understanding of the way things are with Him who is love. I could go on and on describing what went on with this manifestation of totally undeserved love, not because it was complex, reasoned out, a mind game, but rather precisely because it was so simple, far reaching, all encompassing. Anyone who has experienced being drawn to that Charity who is Truth knows the possibility with any kind of purity of heart and agility of soul. Through no fault of their own, little kids have that. This was about being called to be in an active, loving reverence of Him who loves us so much that He wants us to be with Him. Everything made sense in that reality which alone is so very real. This call, this vocation, changed my perspective utterly. It has never left me.
Does any of this being singled out, and it was that, and I knew it, make me oh-so-special? Gaghh! No! Double-gaghh! Blech! Wrong! Not! The thought never entered my mind. He is the sovereign Lord of History. I have failed Him too many times to count, as did Judas, whom He also chose. His choice is mysterious. It’s entirely His choice, which we can argue is inappropriate, which I do argue is inappropriate, all uselessly, because it’s His choice, and He’s God. A sense of dependence on Him to draw good out of this choice was what I walked out of church with that day. It’s the same today. Anyone who depends on himself to bring that good out needs the confessional; anyone who makes it all about himself needs the confessional: a word for the wise and the not so wise.