|St. Gabriel's Today|
Like many of the twenty-five percent or so of the American people who would respond with “Roman Catholic” when asked their religion in an emergency room, I am a “cradle Catholic,” born into an Irish-American family in Detroit as a baby boomer in 1952, baptized at St. Gabriel’s on the southwest side in the same year. I first received the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in second grade at St. Eugene’s parish in northwest Detroit, for which the Sisters of Notre Dame DeNamur admirably prepared me. I still stand amazed at the reverence instilled in the second-graders in the black-and-white photos shot by my father, Don, that day. I was also confirmed at St. Eugene’s parish in the fourth grade, after which my mother, Ann, took me out for my favorite breakfast, strawberry pancakes, where I played “Fun, Fun, Fun” by the Beach Boys at least twice. Since my return and faithful assent to all that the Catholic Church teaches in 1995, (from which admittedly I was AWOL from 1965-95) I have been a daily communicant and regular penitent.
My first memory on this earth is as a baby, less than a year old, of being driven by my parents to a funeral in Pennsylvania, an event my mother corroborated years later. My next memory in my earthly existence is one I shall always remember. It is one of observing from my pew prior to the 6:30 am Mass in 1958 the Sisters entering St. Eugene’s from the front-side entrance of the Church, special to them for access from their one-room convent in the adjoining school. It was winter, and the church was dimly-lit. They entered with awe-inspiring reverence, processing in their full habits, the beads of their waist-draped rosaries colliding gently, genuflecting and kneeling in silent preparation for the soon to occur reenactment in a non-bloody manner of Our Lord’s eternal sacrifice first offered on Calvary for our salvation, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The latent aroma of incense and the sight of fresh beeswax candles flickering on the altar, together with the sisters’ silent reverence and obvious practice of what they taught their first graders – the importance of reverence in the House of God – is an impression which not only convinced me that Jesus lived there (in the Tabernacle), but was also an actual grace which I believe, together with my baptismal grace and my Mom’s faith witness, was instrumental in eventually leading me back into the fullness of Catholic teaching. I do not know now what became of each Sister, but I am sure that whatever their relationship with Our Lord today, they had no idea their first-grader Tim was so inspired by the witness to the real Presence they gave that winter morn.
In the years prior to the Second Vatican Council, I also remember attending daily Mass before elementary school, which, because we had fasted for three hours, allowed us to eat breakfast in Mr. Sullivan’s math class. I remember bellowing out Tantum Ergo at Wednesday Evening Benediction, which I was in the habit of attending with my Mom, siblings and “Gramp,” (her Dad, John). I also remember looking forward to participating in the praying of that most sublime form of prayer, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, with my St. Joseph’s Daily Missal.
With Pope Benedict’s having granted permission for priests to offer the Extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, we hear much ado in the form of reaction against this from Catholic “progressives,” and about how the Council placed a new emphasis on the laity’s participation at Mass, the implication being that Catholics did not actively participate at Mass prior to Vatican II, opting for such devotions as the praying of the Rosary or Holy Cards. To such persons I say: you should’ve seen me (and pal Bob, for that matter) at Mass in third grade! Not only did I pray along with the priest in the Latin Missal, but I was a better-than-average singer of Gregorian chant, thanks to convert Mrs. Crowley’s daily faithful rendering of the chanted antiphons and propers in Latin. I, who failed becoming an altar server by stumbling over one Latin syllable in my tryout test, (Sr. Isabelle must have had a bad habit day that day), also remember telling my younger brother John, who passed, how he forgot the proper order in covering the communion rails before Holy Communion.
St. Eugene’s eventually closed in the Year of Our Lord 1989 due to “white flight” and demographic changes after the 1967 riots in Detroit, and with this came to an end the place where I spent some of the holiest years of my life, years in which neither I nor my classmates were ashamed to publicly give witness to our faith in Christ (yes, I too dressed in sheets and played the priest in acting out the Mass with my siblings). My memories of participation at Mass are exalted ones. There was a sense of the sacred that has since, through misimplementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, long since evaporated at Mass (though Jesus is just as present as He always was and will be), which has manifested itself in the words of my Catholic high school students as “Why do we have to go to Mass?” (To be continued....)