But the greatest priestly action I have ever seen was at Mass on a hot summer Sunday at St. Mary’s Parish in New Haven, Conn.
This was back before the parish had air conditioning. It was tough for the congregation, but worse for the visiting priest who said Mass in the summer. He had diabetes and some kind of degenerative nerve disorder that made his hands shake.
“It’s hot for you,” he would joke. “But I’m up here wearing a horse blanket!”
This priest’s homilies were excellent, showing him to be a great student of Catholic social teaching, but the moment that is burned in my memory happened during the Eucharistic prayer.
Father was slowing down through the first part of the prayer, like an old record player that needed to be cranked. When he started the consecration, it sounded like he was going to stop altogether. But after he started the consecration, it quickly became clear that nothing could make him stop.
“Take this,” pause, “all of you,” pause, “and” … long pause … “eat it.”
He took a long gasping breath and looked like he wouldn’t recover. A parishioner ran to his side. The priest made it clear he wasn’t about to leave the altar, so the parishioner brought a chair for him to rest on.
“This … is … my … body … which will be … given up … for you.”
He lifted the host with shaky hands. We watched in rapt silence. He slowly worked through “When the supper was ended, he took the cup …”
And then a replacement priest had been brought over from the rectory. But Father wasn’t about to stop halfway through the consecration. Word after agonizing word, he got to the end of the consecration. By then, an ambulance had come. After he elevated the chalice, he was carried away on a stretcher.
Then the replacement priest stepped up to the altar. “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith,” he said. Talk about alter christus. Watching that priest was like watching Our Lord consecrating the Eucharist — from the cross.
“Mom, why wouldn’t he stop?” the kids asked their mother in the car. “Because he’s a priest,” said April. “That’s what priests do.”
She was right. It is vitally important that priests preach and that they do it well. But preaching isn’t the most important thing priests do. A priest doesn’t need to be talented, interesting or well-read to do the most important things priests do. When you really need a priest, any priest will do.
The Dominican priest was Fr. Jack Reid OP, who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease and is currently retired at Providence College. The Dominican priest that relieved him to finish the Mass was the then, Fr. Anthony Giambrone OP, who is currently studying at Notre Dame towards his PhD in Biblical Theology.
St. Mary’s is also the church where the Knights of Columbus were founded by the Servant of God, Fr. Michael McGiveny.
Pray that the Dominicans friars will continue to reflect the image of Christ and His holy priesthood! Pray also for holy Dominican vocations! (click here for the 2012 Novitiate class)