One of My Favorite Easter Moments

PeterJohnTombI preached and presided at all the Triduum masses this weekend for the Visitation Sisters and their neighbors in Brooklyn.  Since their house was a place of limited technological sophistication, my homilies were given with mostly just some notes scratched down on paper, the old-fashioned way.  I’ll try to post some of my reflections later, but in the meantime, here’s part of my Easter message from today.

I’ve told this story before,but it’s always good for me to remember that one of my favorite Easter moments came during what was probably my most difficult year as a Jesuit.

Each year when Easter rolls around, I remember Mayo Kikel.

Mayo was one of the first teachers I met when I visited Jesuit High in Tampa the Spring prior to starting work there in 2002. She impressed me with her conviction that God wanted her there. She could easily have worked at a school closer to where she lived, but instead she made the extra long trek to our school each day. I have only met a few teachers like her, so convinced that they were fulfilling a mission. When I began work at the school the next Fall, she quickly became one of my favorite colleagues.

This made it all the more difficult when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were already to chip in and fill in for her wherever needed. But, amazingly, even after she started the cancer treatments, she never missed a single day of work. It was what she lived for. And though it left her with little energy to do much else, she came back day after day. None of us would have faulted her for taking a day off, much less complaining, but she rarely did.

As Easter approached, she came to ask me a favor. I was the Director of Campus Ministry and was in charge of the program for our once-a-week morning convocations, when the whole school gathered in the chapel to begin the day. She told me how good the boys at the school had been to her, and she wanted to use the convocation just before the Easter break to thank them. What she wanted to do, she explained, was to sing a song, an Easter song. Now this was not without its risks. Such an endeavor at a school of some 650 boys was just as likely to invite ridicule, as it was reverence. We talked about this, but she was determined. So we made plans.

When the day came, I stood up at the podium and said, “Mrs. Kikel has told me how wonderful you all have been to her during her illness, and she asked if she could do something to thank you.” The music began.

The song she sang was told from the perspective of Peter, beginning with a Peter all too aware of how he had failed Jesus. And, now that Jesus was dead, there would be no opportunity to make amends. Then it took up where our Easter Gospel reading began, with Mary come to announce that Jesus had been taken from the tomb. Peter runs to the tomb, John running up ahead. They find the burial cloths set aside, and Jesus missing, and they begin to realize what has happened. In the song Peter exclaims, “He’s alive!” “He’s alive!” “He’s alive and I’m forgiven. Heaven’s gates are open wide!” “He’s alive!” “He’s alive!” The song built until Mayo sang out the final, “He’s aaaalive!” And then something happened which even now when I think about it inspires tears. Immediately and without hesitation, every boy in that chapel stood up and applauded.

We speak a lot in our Jesuit boys’ schools about being “men for others,” and I have yet to see a better example of that than I did on that day. When we speak about Easter, we speak about everything being made new because of what Jesus did for us, and because God raised him from the dead. Things were made new for me that day. No matter what they did after that day, I could never quite see those boys in the same way again. They had stepped up when it was most important. And I can never think of Easter without thinking of Mayo Kikel who because of her humility, faith and courage was able to inspire such a moment.

Mayo beat the cancer, but was stricken just a couple years later with a rare disease which took her from us. But I will never forget her. Few people in my life have exemplified as well as her what Easter is all about.

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Liturgical Doggerel?: Pope Francis’ Mass Appeal

“In Latin America,” so the joke goes, “a mass is not valid if a dog is not present.”

Pope-Francis-raises-the-host

Traditionalist websites are abuzz with doomsday scenarios because it seems the new Pope’s liturgical style is, well, too simple, too minimalist.  There is outrage and concern being expressed, and not without a bit of arrogance.  A Washington Post article quotes a canon law professor at Catholic University, who points out that “even small changes to the visible, symbolic parts of Catholic worship are noticeable to traditional Catholics, who treasure them.”  Point well taken, but he continues by saying of himself and other of said “traditional Catholics” (in charity, I hope that he was misquoted): “This is the group that is the most faithful.”

I have no problem with people having misgivings about the new Pope’s liturgies.  I, too, prefer a more elaborate liturgy, but, let’s face it, that’s not what most people get.  And I would never presume that my preferences with regard to liturgy somehow count me among “the most faithful.”

Indeed, some of the most faithful people I know have never experienced a high liturgy, and some perhaps never a mass in which a dog was not present!  The poor of Latin America, at least in my experience there, take what they can get as far as liturgy is concerned.  They don’t have the luxury of driving to the nearby parish where the liturgy is celebrated just the way they like it.  And, indeed, they probably would never think to do it, because for them the mass is as much about the people there to celebrate it as it is about the visible symbols, and whether they are precisely right.  In fact, in Latin America I rarely experienced what I would consider great liturgy, and I can count on one hand the number of masses I’ve attended there that I would consider “high mass.”  Masses there generally are more simple, especially where the poor live, and this, it seems to me, is what is reflected in Pope Francis’ liturgical style.  Maybe he’ll have to step it up a bit, now that he’s on the world stage.  But might we consider that the more simple kind of mass we’re seeing from Pope Francis is the more common experience for the majority of Catholics in the world?  And let me be the first to admit that a lot—if not most—of them are far more faithful than I, despite my liturgical taste.

In fact, I may hate the liturgical experience, but I’ll take a mass with God’s faithful poor—and even a dog thrown in—over a high mass with smells and bells and great music celebrated with people who think that because their liturgy is more beautiful, more symbolic, in a word, better, that means that they are more faithful.

Like I said, I hope that person was misquoted.  But perhaps our misgivings about Pope Francis’ brand of liturgy is an invitation to ask whether we do indeed think that our higher liturgical preferences somehow make us more Catholic than those who prefer it more simple, or simply don’t have the luxury of the choice.