The Ghost of Father Somewhere Else

“I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, that I want — I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.”

—Samwise Gamgee

It is, perhaps, a testament to an easy life that one of the biggest trials I have ever encountered has been the loss of our parish priest.

He told us on a pink day, Laetare Sunday. We don’t get too many of those pink days, and he ruined it. “Rose,” of course, he would remind us. “They aren’t pink. They are rose, as in Jesus rose from the dead.” We know, Father. You always say that. You’ve told us. Maybe priests shouldn’t have to wear pink, but rose is a particularly lovely shade of pink, and who am I to question Tradition?

He was being transferred to another parish and wouldn’t be our pastor anymore, beginning the first of August. He should have been wearing black for an announcement like that. When your soul gets punched in the stomach, there is no room for pink. Joy, restrained.

It wasn’t his wish, he informed us, but the bishop had the big picture in mind. After much internal snarking from the pew about conflating the will of the bishop with the will of God, I decided that apostolic succession was still a good thing, in theory, just not when the successors take away your priest. I sent the bishop a “kindly, don’t do this, Your Excellency,” letter, but provincial dukes don’t have much incentive to read the lowly pleadings of silly sad-puppy serfs. I am reminded that there is no democratic right to appeal in the Catholic Church. Benvenuta a Roma, you American dog.

I have no idea why he was transferred. This is just what we have to deal with as Catholics, everyone keeps constantly reminding me. Get over it, newb. The needs of the diocese outweigh the needs of the parish, I suppose. Whatever they need at the new place must have been important enough to devastate and destabilize our community.

Everyone has a theory. He has been here for 16 years; that is too long. We transfer priests so they don’t get complacent. The people here are too attached to him (the horror!). He will be a blessing elsewhere, especially in liberal Salt Lake. Maybe the parish needs someone to sort out the finances. Sure, Mass is important, Father, but let’s not forget your true calling as ex officio president of the Parish Council. You are Budgetmaster in Chief forever, in the line of Melchizedek.

I don’t know where all of those months went, the months between Lent and August, but they are gone now. July came. I spent much of it avoiding looking at my calendar. Farewell potluck. Last Sunday Latin Mass. Last Latin Mass. Last Sunday Mass. Last Mass (A.M.). Packing day. Moving day. All of them there, jotted down in the little boxes like just more things to do.

On packing day, we packed his things, as one does on packing day. How do you spell “missals”? my packing-the-parish-priest partner asked me. “M-I-S-S-I-L-E-S,” I replied. She looked a little hesitant, like she knew I wasn’t quite right, but if there is one talent God gave me, it is spelling. If you knew how much military memorabilia and how many guns our priest has, not to mention my own disposition, you wouldn’t question why this was the first thing that came to my mind. Sure, the man can celebrate a Mass, but he also has quite an arsenal. She wrote it on the box and added it to the stack. Missiles, packed.

Packing his thurible into an old printer paper box was hard; it didn’t belong there. The Latin altar missals were harder. Seeing the vestments piled up in the sacristy was impossible.

Moving day came. No one wore pink. I told God I would move Heaven and Earth if Father could just stay for another year or two. The message, uttered in resounding silence, was clear. Moving Heaven and Earth isn’t something you are capable of. Those boxes, however, are going nowhere on their own. Better get going. I felt, intensely, the pain of living a life that belongs to Someone Else.

I have considered packing up my own toys and walking away from this Church more times than I can count. I don’t have much time invested here. God knows being a Catholic is hard. This yoke doesn’t feel easy, and this burden isn’t light. Frankly, I am already exhausted from belonging to a church that constantly breaks my heart and twists my soul into knots. I don’t know how you guys have done this for so long. The Vatican scandals, the constant uncertainty, the barrage of unanticipated upheavals that accompany belonging to an ancient, supposedly stable, and fastidious Church — it has been only barely manageable with a pastor who is a beacon of stability, guiding us with the lantern of Tradition.

I have always been able to come to Mass knowing I will be sheltered in the boat of my little parish from the storms of our Church and of the world. We have been in the hands of a strong captain, capable of guiding us through the battering winds of unprecedented change. Now, I don’t know what comes next. Abandoning the Ship of Truth isn’t an option. The priest who navigated us through the torrential rains is gone. The bishop sank my battleship. Unfortunately, the downpour continues. The waves still endlessly crash against the bow and the stern, the port and the starboard. I still have this business of fishing for men to attend to, but I am lost at sea.

The loss was palpable, for the whole community, even before he left. I don’t know that I have ever seen so many people crying — maybe at funerals. For months, it felt like watching someone slowly die. We are now the broken spiritual children of a father who has been forced away from us by our mother, and somehow we are not supposed to feel like the victims of a divorce. Perhaps we are too attached. Or perhaps Christ and His priests aren’t in a competition for the love of Catholics. Maybe we shouldn’t be expected not to love our confessors as family. A priest is not a faceless interchangeable bureaucrat.

The average parishioner will miss things like his Princess Bride homilies, no doubt. I can only guess that he has been preaching them all sixteen years he has been at our parish. Did we know that the “wuv, twoo wuv” guy is actually called the Impressive Clergyman? Yes, Father. We know. You told us. Did we also know that “wuv, twoo wuv” isn’t what Jesus was talking about? Yes, Father. We know. You told us.

I will miss the geeky jokes, too. Having a giant nerd for a priest was fun. But I will miss the Roman Canon more. That he wears a biretta has always made me feel like a little less of a freak for wearing a chapel veil. I am reminded that I chose this parish for a reason. I’ve never known if it bothers him that I receive Holy Communion on my knees, holding up the line and all, but he has never asked me to stop.

Losing the Latin Mass has been too much to handle. The sadness is very real, but one gets the impression that not many people around here quite understand exactly how much we are actually losing, beyond the loss of the man himself. The stakes are so much higher than fun personalities and Princess Bride jokes, as much as we love them. He has given us so many other gifts, many of which have gone unrecognized. Still, we venture on.

“The new parish is off I-80 East,” my moving partner informed me. I-80 East?! Give me the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, the Road to Perdition —  Please, Lord, don’t make me drive I-80 East.

Upon arriving, we cleaned out the kitchen cupboards — all of the old food from the former Filipino priest, still older stuff from his Polish predecessor. We made room for our priest’s peanut butter cups (I tried not to eat them all, forgive me Father) and coffee stash. Even celibate men need women to meddle with, sort through, and organize all of their stuff. God really did make us male and female for a reason, and man, we rocked those cupboards. It was futile, but we tried, somehow, to make it his home.

We hauled many (many) boxes of books up many (many) stairs. He told us Marie Kondo could go kick rocks; all of his books brought him joy. There was a lot of joy in those boxes. It takes a lot of boxes to contain that much joy. Perhaps they should have been pink boxes. By the way, why is that box of missiles going to the book room?

In the middle of it all, we found out that a particularly nasty, small group of loud progressive liberal “Catholics” were featured in a particularly nasty, slanderous article in the newspaper about the “bigoted, homophobic, racist (blah blah blah blah)” priest coming to town. “Hide the kids, clutch your rainbow-colored pearls! Not a conservative priest, for the love of God!” Please, dear reader, don’t tell them about the 1962 Pope Pius V Missiles upstairs in the library, traditionalist Catholic weapons of Mass destruction. They have only ever been acquainted with standard issue Vatican II Novus Ordnance. They will find out soon enough. Bring on the dinosaur missiles, Padre.

She and I drank probably too much wine, irrigating the wounds of our souls with just one more glass, ever reminding ourselves that humble Catholic laywomen don’t need to be ordained to sacrifice our livers on the altar of Dionysus. I curled up in a ball in the bed of the Hampton Inn at the edge of a saline lake, mourning and weeping in this Salt Lake valley of tears. I knew we were both praying, even though it was unspoken: please, God, let that amazing woman rest well. Bring her beautiful dreams. Thank you for faithful friends. Thank you for strong bodies that are bruised and broken from moving so many heavy boxes full of Father’s joy. Please help him be happy here. I haven’t been talking to you much lately, forgive me. Take the “Do Not Disturb” sign off the doorknob of my soul so I might let You back in here soon. Sorry about all this wine. I don’t know why you had to make it so good. Goodnight, God.

We are reminded now that none of this is ours. He isn’t “our” priest. We only have One Father. This has been a blessing, but it is all borrowed time.

I return home for the first Mass on this 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time with the Reverend Father Someone Nice. Father Someone Funny. Father Someone Certainly More Sociable. Father Someone Else. He can say Mass in seven languages. That’s impressive. Are any of them Latin? Nope. He bows to the tabernacle before Mass begins — a reverent bow. The Ghost of Father Past echoes in my mind, We genuflect in the Roman Rite. Christ is actually present in the Eucharist. We know, Father. You told us.

I am stuck wondering, as I begin to cry my way into the onset of Eucharistic Prayer II, if I am my own worst enemy. Maybe I have made an idol out of the “perfect” Mass. Is that even possible? There are other routes to Heaven, routes other than Tradition. Plenty of Latin Mass devotees will be going to Hell. Plenty of dedicated Ordinary Formers are certainly going to Heaven. That man up there behind the altar is a priest of the Catholic Church, Christ’s priest. That man of the cloth spent years of formation in a seminary; he has been a priest for a long time. Who, precisely, do you think you are to question the way he celebrates Mass? Screwtape is over one shoulder, and my guardian angel over the other, but I will be damned if I can’t figure out who is saying what.

I knelt to receive Holy Communion. Father Someone Else was caught off-guard and ended up doing a little dance. I left the Communion line with the distinct feeling that I had just pump-faked the priest. He was nice about it, tried to play it off like a silly miscommunication. It was uncomfortable.

I came home from Mass and ate all the chunks of cookie dough out of the ice cream. There is no Catholic problem that a little gluttony can’t solve. Then I ate the rest of it, for good measure, cookie-doughless boring mess that it was. Normally that would be grounds for a good solid Truffle Shuffle, but instead I just sat and moped around. Mass has taken the happy out of my happy dance.

I realize now, sitting at this kitchen table, that I never had a warship. Warships are for admirals; I am nothing. My little sailboat has capsized, regardless. Casualties have been sustained. The mast is broken, the sail is torn, and the hull has been shattered into a million pieces upon a tideless desert lake of salt. I am battered and broken and sunk, seeking out Our Stella Maris who is just over the horizon, I am sure. May she guide me to the Morning Star. I will dog-paddle my way back to shore, eventually.

For now, a stalwart defender of Catholic tradition has embarked up a new adventure, whisked away on the swift wings of the Southbound wind — the captain of a new ship, but commissioned in the same fleet, with the same Commander in Chief. He has a King and a kingdom to fight for, lost territory to regain, and souls to save. There is nothing on this Earth more important than that. Impressive clergyman? Indeed.

May we each come away from our battles with knowledge of the King for whom we fight, the One for whom we travel, the Lord for whom we live. May we all be blessed, as I have been, to have priests who show us that “Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, and if He isn’t, we have better things to do on a Sunday.” We know, Father. You told us. Now they will know. You will tell them, too.

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