This past weekend I joined the nearby parish where I help out for their patronal feast. It was a wonderful celebration. The church was packed. One of the bishops came and presided at mass (doing so both in English and Spanish—I was impressed). Everyone was well-dressed. At the offertory, representatives of various different countries came forward dressed in ethnic costume to present some native foods. Then came the offering of the bread and the wine. Dinner and dancing followed in the newly renovated parish hall downstairs.
There were many things to remember that evening. I enjoyed the company of the parishioners, and the fellow priests who came. I got to know the bishop a little bit, a Bronx boy himself. But there was one thing that stuck with me above all else, and it’s not what I would have expected. Usually that means God is trying to tell me something, so it’s been the subject of my prayer this week.
It was just after mass, as we stood outside the church. As usual, we waited to greet the people as they exited. One of the things I love about this community is that people are very eager to shake your hand, sometimes hug you, and say hello. For some reason I noticed in a striking way something I certainly was not unaware of. I noticed how so many of the hands I was shaking were rough, work-worn hands. These are people who work hard, many of them in demanding manual labor jobs. And their hands speak that.
You may have heard a priest or seminarian say, “these hands were made for chalices, not calluses.” Even said as a joke, I despise that sentiment. There is no reason that a priest shouldn’t have callused hands that lift chalices. Priests shouldn’t be afraid of or avoid hard work, even manual labor. Yet, even while thinking this, I find that I cannot ignore the fact that compared with such rough hands, my hands are embarrassingly smooth. I take no pride in that fact. I wish they were more callused, even though admittedly I have never been incredibly enthusiastic about manual labor. It’s interesting that now that I’m a priest I’m in fact less averse to such work, though I find I now have fewer opportunities to do it. But this week I’ve been trying to work out what God is trying to say to me with both these sets of hands.
Certainly it challenges me to be more aware of the lives which those I minister to are leading. How hard they work, and how little pay they probably receive for that work. I was also reminded that my father’s hands are similarly rough. As a diesel mechanic, he has spent his life fixing trucks and equipment, and his hands certainly witness to that. As I child I remember it being something of an object of fascination that his hands were so rough in comparison to mine.
At the same time, I’ve been taking a class on Eucharist and social justice, where we discuss the meaning and implications of our Eucharistic celebrations, like the mass we had this night. At every mass I speak the words “the work of human hands,” often not really thinking about what that means. This class is pushing me to be attentive to such things. What we are saying at that point in the mass, in fact, is that our Eucharist is possible because the work of so many brings the bread and wine to us so that we can offer it as a gift to each other. And it occurred to me for the first time that my father’s hands are part of that process. In the course of his lifetime he has fixed probably thousands of trucks that have delivered all sorts of things, and certainly among those things food, bread and wine. So, when we hear “the work of human hands” we are reminded that our Eucharistic food depends on the work of my father, and many of those rough-handed people who come to church each Sunday.
Recent discussions about immigration have focused around the fact that so many are unwilling to do the kind of work that brings food to our tables. What does that say about us and our prayer? Shouldn’t we be willing to get our hands “roughed up” a bit for the good of others? And if we are not willing or able, don’t we have a responsibility to care for those who will? There is no Eucharist without bread. There is no Eucharist without rough hands.