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Bill CainMarch 20, 2020

Mass 1: Holy Thursday, Spring 1966.

I am not yet a priest. Far from it. I am a raw beginner.

I have been through Holy Week as an altar boy, but that was at home where the ceremonies were a few hours taken out of family life, school, play with friends, television, the world. In the novitiate, the ceremonies are not time taken from life. They are our life. For days and weeks we do nothing but prepare for these ceremonies.

And who are we? We are 100 men between the ages of 18 and 25 denying ourselves any other physical, sexual or intellectual outlet except preparation in silence and prayer for Holy Week.

The energy created is tremendous.

Powered by the energy of those 100 young driven talented generous young men, the ceremonies explode, make the past present and the present utterly compelling.

And who are we? We are 100 men between the ages of 18 and 25 denying ourselves any other physical, sexual or intellectual outlet except preparation in silence and prayer for Holy Week.

The washing of the feet—feet already washed clean—has a slight sense of comedy to it, but ultimately, Holy Thursday is a celebration of the creation of the Eucharist, the most sacred mystery we have.

It is the mystery we are studying eventually to perform. And all the music, all the incense, all the movement fades to silence and stillness as the novice master pronounces the words of consecration—still in Latin: Hoc est enim corpus meum. “This is my body.”

The words are not spoken to us. They are spoken to the bread. And a transformation occurs. A miracle. The bread is no longer bread but a living body and we explode in praise. The novice master places the host on our tongues; we take Christ into our bodies and surrender to the unity of God and human. And when we can bear the silence no longer, we burst into song so well-rehearsed that it feels spontaneous.

For me, 18, the ceremony—which has been revelation after revelation—has not reached the height of its revelation yet. The novice master then takes the host and carries it—wrapped in a silk blanket—out of the chapel to the altar of repose. We follow him, singing “All Glory, Laud and Honor.”

And all this energy—which has filled the large chapel to overflowing—must now narrow to pass through the long glass hallway, the Via Regis, that leads from the chapel to the altar of repose. Outside of the glass walls is darkness and night. Inside there is bright light and music. And like rushing water in a canyon, all that energy is compressed into the narrow passageway.

Compression intensifies the sound. The sound intensifies the emotion. I think my heart is going to explode with the sheer wonder of praising God and doing exactly what the song says we are doing. “The company of angels are praising Thee on high, and mortal men and all things created make reply.”

And this is still not the height of the experience.

When the procession returns to the church, we discover the altars stripped and barren, the candles extinguished and smoking. Lights out. The door of the tabernacle is hanging open and God not there. The wonder of dazzlement yields to the wonder of desolation, which hits hard. Viscerally. The brilliance of the Mass has been a setup. The reality is loss and Good Friday begins.

I feel the loss so intensely that the novice master uncharacteristically expresses personal concern. He takes me aside and says, “Brother, are you alright?” To which I say, “Am I supposed to be?”

The ceremonies are working on me. The liturgy that gave us God in abundance has as quickly stolen God away and I ache with the loss.

There is no God.

Now, novice, now pray.

It all has worked, this elaborate, intensely rehearsed show, this pageant that is what it pretends to be. The monks who invented the stripping of the altars centuries ago have done their work brilliantly. And, had a monk from that time walked into our chapel, he would have recognized the ceremony. He also would have understood us. Nearly every element we had just performed had been performed for centuries. We were the vessels that carried the ceremony forward. We did not matter as individuals. Habited, we were indistinguishable from generations of black-robed men who had been through the same ceremony that picked us up and placed us down in the heart of God.

Now, novice, now pray.

Mass 2: Summer 1966, Puerto Rico

Four months later, six scholastics sit on a patio with a young priest, all in street clothes. We are in Puerto Rico for six weeks—to learn some Spanish, to be exposed to the beauty and poverty and the spirituality of the island.

On the patio, we talk. We pass a plate. A cup. That’s all.

The medieval monk who would have recognized our Holy Thursday liturgy in the novitiate would not recognize what we were doing here as a Mass. In fact, no Catholic I knew would recognize this event as a Mass.

And yet that’s what it was. All the words were there. All the Mass parts. And this Mass was as shocking and transforming as Holy Thursday. The priest has placed the host not on our tongues but in our hands. No one—no one—now can realize the impact that had.

I think it is impossible now to conceive of the awe we had for the host as an object of worship. I mean that literally. I know people today have great reverence for the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and great reverence for Communion, but we were unimaginably deeper into eucharistic worship prior to the Second Vatican Council because nothing else was possible even to imagine.

It was inconceivable that a non-priest would touch the host. It was inconceivable that the host could touch anything but gold or linen. As altar servers, we held the plate under each mouth in case a host should fall. And if a host did fall, as it did only once when I was serving Mass, there was an audible gasp in the church. Everything stopped in its tracks. Nothing was more sacred than the host.

The rubrics for Benediction made this clear. Benediction is the host without the Mass. It was the host and nothing but the host. It was, in fact, more solemn than Mass. You could see it in the rubrics. Every genuflection is done on two knees.

And then, in Puerto Rico, the young priest distributing communion did not allow us to kneel and lean our heads back, open our mouths so that he could place the host within us. He told us to put out our hands. And he placed the host in our hands. The miracle was still there. But something else was also revealed.

The priest did not say “This is my body” to the bread. He did not say “This is my blood” to the wine. He said both things to us. And he—in the place of Christ—was speaking to us. Christ was offering himself to us.

Christ was not only changing the substance of the bread while the accidents remained the same. He was speaking to us. Christ materialized in quite a different way than we were used to, one that we had not experienced before. It was a new miracle.

Then came the moment when we all sat together in a circle holding the body of Christ in our hands. Six novices holding Christ in their hands. Not receiving Communion one at a time. But all of us together. We were no longer individuals. We were a community in Christ. The community was Christ. Another miracle.

And while not diminishing transubstantiation at all, a cascade of miracles—miracles that had been there but went unnoticed—appeared.

Leo Steinberg once wrote a book called Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper. It details a dozen different interpretations of Da Vinci’s famous painting. Each explains the painting. Steinberg makes you understand that they are all true at the same time. That was the experience of the miracles happening in us and around us.

We were awash in previously unimagined miracles. We novices brought these rubrics with us back to the novice master. We were absolutely confident of our experience. And the novice master looked at us strangely.

I was confident of the multiple miracles of the Mass and was sure more would reveal themselves.

At that moment on the patio in Puerto Rico, no one would have recognized the Mass. Except perhaps Jesus and his disciples. They certainly would not have understood our Holy Thursday, but they might have recognized themselves in this encounter on a patio in Puerto Rico.

At that moment on the patio in Puerto Rico, no one would have recognized the Mass. Except perhaps Jesus and his disciples.

Mass 3: Shrub Oak, a Jesuit center for philosophy studies, 18 months later, 1967/8

There was nothing remarkable about the Easter Triduum that year at this enormous seminary. The seminary itself was a cross between a prison and an insane asylum. The superior had lost control of the house and retreated into his own world, leaving 100 seminarians to run amok. The only truly interesting thing that happened regarding Easter happened a few days before the ceremony.

A classmate of mine, a mad scientist type—the type about whom, after a tragic event, people would say he was quiet and kept to himself—was making an explosive mixture that could be the basis for the Easter fire so that it would flare up dramatically and die down quickly. As he was grinding the mixture—effectively he was making homemade gunpowder—it blew up.

Had he succeeded and had it been used in the Easter fire and had it exploded then, he might have killed the unpopular superior and been plausibly charged with premeditated murder. Instead, the only consequence was that he blew off his eyebrows, leaving him with a permanently surprised look on his face, not unlike Beaker in the Muppets.

He later left the Jesuits and, some time after, killed himself.

I am no longer a pure beginner. Three years of daily liturgies and I can field any kind of Mass a priest wishes to say. Private Masses continue as the liturgy migrates into English. In my third year as a Jesuit, in my habit still, I am serving Mass for the priest who teaches math and logic. We are in a private chapel. The Mass is in Latin. He is facing the wall and speaking to the bread and wine. All of which is perfectly acceptable and retains its beauty.

I am kneeling on the edge of the raised platform on which sits the altar on which the priest is saying Mass. I am doing the proper responses. In spite of my seven years of Latin, there is no sense of dialogue. The words and the gestures are rote but reverent. All fine.

Then comes the Our Father and the greeting of peace, which has now been integrated into the Mass. When the time comes, I stand up from my kneeling position and step onto the priest’s platform. I extend my hand. The priest does not turn to greet me. I am facing his back. I think, given the newness of the custom, he might have forgotten. So I say, “Father, the peace of Christ.”

He looks over his shoulder with anger and shakes his head like a pitcher shaking off a catcher’s signals. I am confused. I don’t move. He nods me back to my place. We are caught between two worlds.

Some years later, when I am attending Mass in Boston, I cross the aisle and extend my hand to a couple who, like the priest, shake their heads, but they are also verbal. Arms tightly folded, they say what the priest was thinking. I say, “The peace of Christ,” and they say, “We don’t believe in it.”

Which is what he says explicitly to me as he unvests after Mass, and a gulf opens.

We are separated by the liturgy that should join us. He was telling me he did not believe in the liturgy as it was evolving. He was telling me more than that. He was telling me that he was a one-miracle-a-Mass priest. And I was no longer a one-miracle scholastic.

In spite of my seven years of Latin, there is no sense of dialogue. The words and the gestures are rote but reverent. All fine.

Mass 4: Boston College, 1968

I am in my fifth year as a Jesuit. I have lived in three large traditional communities. In five years, each of those three large communities has closed. The beloved novitiate, St. Andrew-on-Hudson, gone. The hated Shrub Oak, closing. Weston-in-the-Woods, shut down and broken into seven houses scattered near the Boston College campus.

I did not order the closing of the large houses. I did not desire their closing. I had not foreseen their closing. I had joined an order that was large and institutional. And here I sit in an ordinary house just off the Boston College campus with six other scholastics and Dave and Hans—two priests who are no longer Father but Dave and Hans. And this is now religious life.

It looks nothing—nothing at all—like the religious life I had entered a few years before. And there is no guidance. The Vatican II documents did not come with a hymnal. They did not come with an operations manual. They did not come with a map.

Consequently, the scholastics in their early 20s attempt to fill the void that leadership has left. In my case, seven scholastics live with two priests in a house just off campus. We spent the summer remodeling the one-family house to accommodate nine individual rooms. The scholastics are all juniors and seniors in college and as good a group of highly motivated, smart, generous people as you could wish for.

And, again, no leadership. I have a very firm grasp on who was in charge of the large communities. I cannot tell you who was superior of the seven houses we were now living in. I am not complaining. I am marveling.

What structure there was arose from among us. Much of my formation that year came from my relationship with my closest friend in the house, Frank Quinlan—who was, in my opinion, the best of a very good bunch.

Frank and I engaged in a game where, if one of us expressed a wish or a vision for what we thought our lives should be, the other would say, “I dare you.” It could be as simple as I want to grow a beard. I dare you. Or as complex as Frank saying he would like to hitchhike across the country. I said, “I dare you.” Frank disappeared and a week later I heard from him in California.

We could do almost anything because no one was minding the store. Frank would eventually dare me to fulfill a vision I had of religious life and he changed my life entirely. Actually, responsibility for fulfilling that dare began my adult life. I am very grateful to Frank. Perhaps this life wasn’t so unlike that of the first Jesuit companions.

At the same time, the world was breaking apart. With the draft lottery, the government was choosing which young men on campus were going to be killed in Vietnam. Lives were at stake. Lives of people I was sitting next to in class. I got a disastrously low draft number but was protected by clerical status. It was joked that the Jesuit Latin motto A.M.D.G., “For the greater glory of God,” actually meant “Avoid military draft gracefully.”

Kent State happened. National Guardsmen fired on students protesting President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and killed several. The colleges that make up a large part of Boston’s population shut down. At Boston College, we were already on a student strike protesting the firing of the feminist theologian Mary Daly. Now we shut down completely. All classes were canceled and the very last semblance of structure for our lives disappeared.

So we find ourselves—young in the Society of Jesus still—with nothing. There is no chapel. There is no place to pray. There is no leadership. There is no organ. No gold. No linen. There is a living room and a book. There are no hosts. No dedicated altar wine. No beeswax candles. There is just us, the Spiritual Exercises in our back pocket (literally), tremendous goodwill and tremendous social problems and we sit down in the living room to have Mass.

I want to point out that we liked one another. It would be fair to say that we loved one another. We start a Mass in the living room. Dave was saying it. He was not going to give a homily.

There would be a discussion.

The discussion started calmly enough, but like most things that were happening that year, it escalated. It became a debate. The debate became heated. Became an argument. The argument became inflamed.

We were trying desperately to find a way to live our lives as Jesuits and bring what we knew of Christ to bear on what we knew of the world. What did Christ want of us? The fight, the discussion, the argument, the seeking for a vision went until very late at night. Then well into the morning. We never got further into the Mass than that.

We loved one another, but that wasn’t enough. Pretty much everybody from that house later left the Jesuits. Only I and one other man were left and he died of AIDS in the first sweep of that plague. Frank, the best of us, left and was killed in a motorcycle accident a year later.

We loved one another, but that wasn’t enough. Pretty much everybody from that house later left the Jesuits.

Mass 5: The Catholic Worker, New York City, 1982

Holy Thursday night once again. I am now a priest celebrating Holy Thursday night liturgy at the Catholic Worker where I have become a Mass priest when they cannot find better. It is an honor to say Mass for the Workers.

In many ways, it will be the opposite of the glorious Holy Thursday in the novitiate. It will not be all male. It will not be draped in silk and linen. There will be no roaring organ. It will not be almost exclusively white. It will not be all middle class.

The priest is not separate from the congregation. And he is not entirely in charge.

In short, while the substance remains the same, almost all of the accidents have changed. It will be gritty. The altar will be the cutting table on which the food is prepared for the homeless. The homeless and those who care for them will be the congregation.

I will have the honor of washing their feet. And the washing of the feet will not be purely symbolic. Some of these feet will need washing. Some will be cold and need warming. Some are cracked and need a gentle touch. As a priest, I will get to be Christ doing this. And this is the continuing mystery of priesthood.

And the Workers need care themselves. Dorothy Day has been dead for two years. As the Worker is an anarchist organization, it could very easily fly apart or turn authoritarian. But Jane, Cassie, Frank and others keep Dorothy’s spirit—Christ’s spirit as seen in Dorothy—alive.

When I have finished washing feet, I am prepared to move forward with the offertory and the canon of the Mass. One of the workers in the congregation stops me. She says the washing of the feet isn’t over yet. I look around for someone else’s feet to wash.

She says to me, “Sit down.” And we all laugh because I am so surprised by this reversal. And she washes my feet. And she is Christ and Christ is all in all.

The priest is not separate from the congregation. And he is not entirely in charge. We are all saying Mass—and it is peaceful, moving, gritty, beautiful and miraculous.

Frank Donovan, an intimate of Dorothy—he is all over her diary—approaches me at the altar/cutting table after the “Holy, Holy, Holy.” This should be a time when we are drifting into profound quiet. But Frank comes up and whispers in my ear, “I know this is crazy but...”

I wait. He smiles. He looks down at the arrangement of bread and wine I have before me. It all looks perfectly proper to me. I look back at him. He says, “The chalice isn’t on the corporal.” And it wasn’t. He feels foolish calling me on this rubric. As if the miracle won’t reach the cup if it is off the corporal. He knows the miracle will happen no matter where the chalice is. But maybe not. And he wants the rubrics to be correct.

He wants to protect the miracle. I think this is lovely. I move the chalice. I say the words.

Miracles abound.

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