A breath of Spirit
IT WAS THE LAST WEDDING of the "season," early December. And the season had been long, with close to 80 weddings from April until this point. Eighty weddings represented 80 initial meetings, 80 additional meetings to fill out the marriage forms, eighty subsequent meetings to go over the ceremony, 80 PreCana days, and finally 80 rehearsals. But this would be the last one for a while because the church interior was scheduled to be restored and no bride wants to be married under scaffolding. And no priest wants to deal with the mother of a bride who suddenly finds scaffolding up in the church the day of the wedding.
Fortunately, I had been blessed with some help this year for the last few of the weddings. A seminarian who had been ordained a deacon and was finishing up his studies before ordination to the priesthood was sent to help us on weekends. It would benefit us and give him experience at the same time. Over the years I've learned that (to paraphrase something I once heard) when a seminarian is good, he is very good and when he is not . . . it's best to do things yourself.
I wasn't sure about this guy yet. Tall, with long black hair and a beard to match, he had the older ladies claiming that they had seen Jesus and the younger ones all flustered. And he appeared to enjoy it.
And so here were the two of us waiting for the rehearsal to begin. The volunteers that I had hoped to train to run these sessions had faded as the season wore on, some of them battle-scarred by mothers unhappy with everything from the fact that the church had only one bathroom to their not being allowed an hour's worth of pictures after a ceremony that had already started 20 minutes late.
But now it was the groom who was a half hour late for this final rehearsal. And I was muttering my displeasure to the deacon trying to make my words sound more like wisdom and less like whining.
A woman who was related to the bride suddenly looked very alarmed and shouted out to everyone but to no one in particular, "My baby's not breathing!" Her 3-month-old infant lay still in a portable car seat. She had to say it again because everyone had frozen in disbelief. I ran to the sacristy to call 911. The seminarian ran to the baby, gently lifted her out of the car seat and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The seven minutes it took for the fire department to arrive seemed much longer. The seminarian never gave up on the baby. When the ambulance arrived, the family went off with the child. The infant never took a breath. We gathered, those still left in the church, for a prayer. After that, everyone went home. There was no rehearsal. The seminarian looked exhausted.
I suggested that the two of us process what happened and how we felt. It was the first time we talked seriously. I was struck by his maturity, but even more by his sensitivity. He was able in a crisis to put aside his own feelings and minister in a way that was needed, sharing his breath and life. I was impressed by that image of him holding the limp child so gently in one hand. But his faith-filled words afterwards were equally impressive.
The baby indeed had died. Her heart condition that she was born with, the doctors said, had doomed her no matter what we tried to do. At the urging of the baby's mother, the family went on with the wedding, somewhat subdued, the next day. We remembered the child in our prayers during the ceremony.
The seminarian continued to work at the parish for another five months. I watched as he used his skills. He preached well, like he had done it for years, thoughtfully and prayerfully. His ministerial instincts were almost always right which is something that cannot be taught And, I confess, his idealism and quick willingness to be of service oftentimes put me to shame.
While I was supposed to be the supervisor he was introducing me to books I should read, magazines I should subscribe to, even movies I should watch. There was reciprocity, though, in that he was always willing to learn from my quarter of a century plus of experience.
Most dramatic was his impact on the many young adults in the parish. They saw him as one of their own. Some questioned why he would choose to become a priest even as they admired and supported his decision. I could see them light up in his presence as he talked to them about a rock concert or skiing in Colorado or working with homeless youth in L.A. As pastor I could not be happier about his impact on such an important part of our congregation.
But his time with us ended quickly amid a flurry of dinner invitations and notes of gratitude. He returned to New Hampshire to be ordained by the bishop in the diocese in which he grew up with his brothers--one a doctor and the other a priest--and his sister, a teacher in a Catholic school. Quite a family!
Wherever the newly ordained priest is assigned, that community will be getting a compassionate, caring person dedicated to his ministry. But priesthood will never be easy for him. He is capable of giving his all and that will on occasion drain him. And it often won't even appear to be enough to him. I know how much he wanted to see that baby move and hear her cry. But it wasn't meant to be.
So I will pray that as a priest he will see and know and come to believe that there will be incredibly blessed moments when he will breathe the Spirit of Life and Love into the hearts and souls of the people of God like he did here. And I will pray daily that this reality be enough to sustain him in his priesthood for a lifetime.
Reprinted with permission from Markings, a homiletics newsletter, published by Thomas More Association. For more information, call 1-312-356-9900.
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