The Saturday night mass at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress was the end of the congress for me, since I had to fly home the next day. And, at the end, I found myself very moved and even teary-eyed. This had nothing to do with the fact that it was the end, or even the quality of the liturgy (which was very good), but with the man sitting behind me.
It had been a busy day in a tiring weekend. Earlier, I’d taken the tab out of the collar of my clerical shirt, and had even found someplace to catch a brief nap. So, I was sporting the casual, open-collar priest look. When it came time for the sign of peace, I turned to my friends sitting next to me, and then to those behind me. I had heard the groanings of attempts at speech earlier in the mass, and had wondered at their source. And here he was, a large, somewhat disheveled man who, upon seeing me turn to him, appeared very distressed. He tried to speak, but what came out was only nonsense, and he kept pointing to his collar. I quickly realized that the source of his distress seemed to be my open collar. Clearly, he recognized that I was a priest who was missing something. I tried to reassure him, even talk to him, but I could not bridge the communication gap. Eventually, he pulled a collar tab out of his own pocket and I, as if to reassure him, took mine out of my pocket and showed it to him, but he still seemed agitated. I looked to the people on either side of him, thinking that one of them might be a caretaker, but he seemed to be alone.
I turned back to the mass and began to wonder: Was this man a priest? Was that what he was trying to say? I, too, am a priest. Or was it that I was somehow not living up to expectations by having removed my collar? I began to think that he was a priest, though I could not be sure. But in imagining that he was a priest, I began to consider what it might be like to be a priest without a voice. Attending this joyous liturgy, and even mouthing some of the words of the mass to myself while doing so, I started to consider what it might be like if my voice were suddenly taken away. What a privilege it is to “say” the mass, and what grief it would cause if that were taken way. And suddenly I realized in a quite overwhelming way that surely there are hundreds if not thousands of priests who because of a stroke, Alzheimer’s or some other illness are no longer able to speak, or to do so intelligibly. And like the man behind me, perhaps a priest, they heroically press on, attending mass burdened with the sadness of not being able to say it, and perhaps seeing other priests like myself who don’t seem to appreciate the privilege enough.
I restored my collar, out of deference to this man—priest or not—who seemed to be concerned (some thought it was because I was about to receive communion from Cardinal Mahony, but I must admit that this thought hadn’t even occurred to me). I found myself being even more deeply moved by this man’s plight, whether real or imagined, as I received communion, and took time to reflect afterwards. I determined that I would ask the man, and hopefully be able to discover whether he was indeed a priest. And, if so, I decided, Iwould ask for his blessing. I found myself verging on tears as I reflected on this, and continued to enjoy the splendor and music of the Eucharist we celebrated. I found myself wanting to reach out to this man, to know who he was, to somehow get past his broken voice and find a connection. Mass ended, I turned, and he was gone. I’ll never know if he was, in fact, a priest, but he was to me that day in the truth of my imagination, and in the compassion which it inspired.
I was disappointed and further saddened by his absence, but I determined to remember him when once again my lips gave voice to the mass, a voice that he helped me to appreciate, that I might lose one day too.