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Mass with the Phantom Stranger

A few Sundays ago, quite against my will, I woke up around 4:30 AM. I found that I could not go back to sleep, and I realized that if I got myself together, I could make the two-hour drive up to Atlanta and actually attend Mass. During the pandemic, a parish up in Roswell was in the habit of holding Mass in their spacious backyard while observing social distancing and such. No state officials had appeared to shut it down.

Also, the priest was hearing confessions. And I really wanted to go to Confession.

So I got up. I took a quick shower. This being a traditional parish, I put on slacks, a long-sleeve shirt, and a tie. My wife, Susan, half asleep but canny, suggested I bring a towel to put on the ground when it was time to kneel. There are about as many opportunities to kneel as there are to sit down in the Latin Mass, so that turned out to be a good idea.

On the way up, I began to have an allergy attack. I begged Our Lord to spare me since it was 5 A.M., a long drive lay ahead, and this promised to be an uncomfortable situation for someone who has social anxiety. Nothing changed. I begged Our Lady to intercede. Nothing changed. So I took one of the salmon-colored allergy pills in the tiny glove compartment of the Smart Car. Though the pills are probably six years old, pretty soon I wasn’t sneezing anymore. But I was miserable and cloudy in my thinking.

The parish turned out to be in a nice part of Roswell — lots of trees and sidewalks and businesses operating out of quaint, brick buildings. A few people were already standing in line on the green grass, six feet apart, waiting to go to Confession. The priest sat in one of those tent-like shelters — open on all sides, but with a white canvas roof. There was a kneeler with the usual barrier to provide anonymity, and the priest sat a few feet away, averting his face, staring down at what looked like a book of prayers.

People left such a large gap between the next person in line and the “confessional” itself that they found themselves walking or trotting across a wide section of lawn to the kneeler. Eventually, Father had someone come and tell us to get a bit closer so more people could see him before Mass began.

Folding chairs were leaning against the huge pine trees. After Confession, I found one of these and set up just a bit behind this fellow wearing a black suit. He had a full head of white hair, yet, at the same time, he did not seem particularly old. He seemed unique, “set apart,” somehow. I found myself wondering if he was a movie producer from Pinewood Atlanta Studios who happened to favor the traditional liturgy.

Presently, an old man all the way on the other side of the lawn began leading everyone in praying the rosary. It became clear that everyone had brought a variety of things to kneel on — strips of foam rubber, cloth placemats, blankets, shawls.

Eventually, Mass began, and I attempted to follow along in the 1962 Daily Missal. I managed a bit better than the last time, which was almost a year ago. Presently, it was time to receive the Holy Eucharist. People moved slowly to accommodate each other as three lines formed leading to three separate kneelers in front of the makeshift altar. One fellow held a baby like a football, much to the baby’s delight. People knelt and received the Eucharist on their tongue as the priest moved smoothly from kneeler to kneeler to kneeler and back again. There was no atmosphere of dread concerning the virus. The priest did not seem afraid.

As my turn approached, I realized that the man in the black suit was ahead of me. He was standing after receiving the Eucharist. For the first time, I saw him face-to-face.

He looked precisely like the Phantom Stranger. A full head of white hair was parted at the side. A strangely youthful — that is, unlined — face blended somehow with unmistakable maturity. Beneath his jacket, he wore a black turtleneck. Around his neck hung a silver chain so that a holy medal formed the point of a V on his chest.

For those of you scratching your head, the Phantom Stranger is a DC Comics character. He began as a mysterious observer who introduced tales of the supernatural in comics anthologies. When he proved strangely popular, he became a character in his own right — something like a paranormal detective who finds himself embroiled in people’s lives when supernatural calamity has intruded. Over the years, his taciturn demeanor has taken on more and more of a cosmic awareness. It seems the Stranger, whose origins are unknown, is stricken with the knowledge of what is happening in the big picture and similarly burdened with how little the people in his furtive, temporary care realize what is happening to them.

I kid you not. This man did not look like the Phantom Stranger. He did not resemble the Phantom Stranger. He was the very image of the Phantom Stranger.

After Mass, I wondered if the priest might be available to address some of my questions regarding the traditionalist perspective. But I soon realized that a long line had formed again, and he was right back to hearing confessions.

The following Tuesday, I went to morning Mass at our local parish.

This was the second day that Mass had resumed. I assume that this is due to a combination of factors. Georgia had opened up ahead of much of the nation. But, more likely, the bishop of our Savannah diocese had been moved to become archbishop of Atlanta. The interim fellow had little to lose by opening things up a bit ahead of the rest of the USCCB.

Strangely, all of the street parking was full. Normally, that is not the case in the morning. Then, to my surprise, I found there were no cars at all in the rear parking lot. Exiting my car, I found the side entrance blocked by a sign: “Please use the front doors.”

I walked round the building and found two parishioners standing there watching me approach. I was wearing a mask. Both of them wore masks. “So good to see you here this morning,” one of them said. I waved sheepishly as I made my way up the huge marble steps. At the ornate door of the 117-year-old, Romanesque-Gothic structure replete with flying buttresses, I was met by a sign: “Masks Are Required.”

So that was why those parishioners on the steps seemed strangely “watchful” in their greeting.

Inside, the wooden pews were interlaced with a prohibitive spider’s web of decorative gold ropes. At first, I thought only the front pews were open. Then, it looked as though half of each pew was open, the other half-closed, and the opposite arrangement in the next pew. Bewildered, I found my way to an empty spot.

People sat in silence, wearing masks.

Father was at the foot of the steps leading to the altar, working with a cell phone mounted on a tripod. Our parish has been offering live streams of each Mass. I thought, “Well, if that priest is working the camera, the other priest must be hearing confessions.” It seemed, however, that the confessional room at the back of the church was unused. I had thought that if morning Mass had resumed, it would be possible to go to Confession. In less difficult times, our parish offers Confession fifteen minutes before morning Mass. That did not appear to be the case.

Suddenly, I was very glad I had made the effort to drive to Atlanta.

During the “sign of peace,” people waved at one another. It was impossible to read expressions. After this, I watched to see how Communion would be handled. To my surprise, the priest went right on through the Consecration and led those present in a “spiritual communion” prayer (“Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart”). After this, he proceeded to put away the sacred vessels. For a moment, I thought we were all there as spectators, unable to receive the sacrament.

Then, however, after the dismissal, Father appeared again.

He said, “This is embarrassing. But, since I am ‘at risk’ because of my asthma, I will not be dispensing the Eucharist. There will be Eucharistic ministers to the left and to the right here. Thank you.”

Two people — a seminarian and an old man — took up their places at either end of the altar area. For a moment, it seemed as though no one was going to take them up on the offer. But then people began to move in their pews one direction or the other.

It turned out that entire pews were open and entire pews closed. The ropes had just confused me.

As people got in line, I simply sat there, watching. Beside the seminarian was an ornate half-column. On the column sat a plastic jug of anti-bacterial lotion. The seminarian washed his hands in the lotion. People began stepping forward, offering their hands to receive the Eucharist. One person knelt to receive on the tongue. The seminarian complied, the woman stood again, and the seminarian pumped the dispenser once onto his hand. The next six to eight people all preferred to receive on the tongue. After each person stood, the seminarian pumped the dispenser.

I sat there and watched. All along, I was saying to myself, “I am not going to take a negative attitude. This is a bizarre situation. On the one hand, yes, the sacraments should be considered ‘essential services.’ The care of souls is essential, especially during such difficult times! So, sure, it seems as though the bishops might have shown some ingenuity. For some reason, they did not. It’s probably utter cynicism to think the main reason they have avoided all inventive solutions is a fear of litigation. People are just doing the best they can. Besides, here we are again. People are receiving Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.”

Nevertheless, for some reason, I was so utterly downtrodden after this experience of morning Mass that I simply stood and walked out — without receiving the Eucharist.

It turns out that, according to a PDF our parish sent out, Confession can be offered after each Mass. On the other hand, the priest said nothing about this. Besides, he may not want to hear confessions since he is “at risk.”

This is simply my experience. I’m not sure what to draw from it. Although, if I had my druthers, I would go to Mass again at the parish with the Phantom Stranger.

Image: Comic Origins via YouTube.

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