What you think can’t tell you what you feel but how you feel can determine what you think for a while at least.
Or so I discovered in a hurry when I met an old priest I’ve known for years coming out of church one morning recently. Usually upbeat, he looked startled and goggle-eyed and said, “I can’t believe it but I lost my job!”
I said, “What job, Father? You’re still the pastor.”
Then he told me how for the last 20 years every weekday afternoon he would drive from the city into the country, a long round trip, and say an afternoon Mass for a group of retired nuns in their rural convent.
These were nuns too old or too ill to get up for the usual morning Mass. So my pastor would say his morning Mass every day at his small parish in the city for his parishioners, no longer youngsters either, then read the newspaper, attend to parish matters, eat lunch, get in his old Toyota and head for the convent out in the country. The nuns appreciated his never missing a day.
Whoever the bishop in the area was 20 years ago, and I can’t remember his name, had asked him to say the Mass for the nuns because the priest was then already 64 and not too busy compared with other priests with bigger parishes.
It wasn’t actually a job in that he was paid only in gas money. But it was a duty he took seriously as he did just about everything else in life.
Besides, old nuns moved him as much as they do old lay people like me who had been educated by nuns long ago in grammar school. In my case they had done a great job with not that much to work with in terms of my attitude. They had forced me to study by telling my father I had the brains. All I had to do was the work instead of rolling marbles down the aisle and pulling the pigtails of girls.
I finally did the work because although the nuns didn’t scare me, my father certainly did. Life’s been good because of the nuns’ encouragement and my father looming like a not-too-jolly green giant.
Nevertheless I asked the priest that day why he took the job in the first place and he said, “Well, you don’t say no to the bishop if you don’t want to risk reassignment to a parish in Timbuktu.”
We both laughed at that and it was the only laugh I heard from him that day. And, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve heard him laugh since although I see him at least once a week. He’s beginning to look 84.
He told me the nuns had told him they had found a younger priest to say their Mass, one in a new parish in a small town not far from their convent, one who wouldn’t have to drive so far during the bad winter weather to get to them, something my pastor had been doing for two decades.
He was accident-free on his daily trips often over slippery highways and country roads going from the city to the convent and back again but, after all, he was now 84.
At that age, he was older than many of the nuns he said Mass for.
They told him they knew he was going to heaven. They just didn’t want him to have an accident coming to say Mass for them and arrive in heaven ahead of schedule.
So instead they broke a heart that may beat a few years longer.
The writer knows this to be largely a true story with a few things changed to protect the innocent on both sides. They are innocent in that they want to do the right thing but sometimes being human can cause a little sadness as we grow older. The priest involved would go anywhere to say Mass, hear confessions and evangelize. He still does it every day at his home parish. Only recently, the writer believes, has age stopped him from going door-to-door with a small group of nuns seeking converts. In his seventies he broke his ankle doing that and said Mass every day at a card table in front of the altar because no other priest was available. True grit.