Consecrated Words

So, after almost 5 months of being a priest, I hit my low. It was bound to happen but, now that I've canvassed a few other Jesuits, it seems that my experience was pretty unique. Thus I share it with you, the readers, inasmuch as it gives me an opportunity to set it out in writing and provides me some distance from the events.


This morning I was the celebrant at a Veteran's Day mass at a downtown Boston parish. It was a really wonderful gathering of people and there were quite a few members of our Armed Services in attendance. Indeed, the deacon of the Word and our homilist was himself a veteran. In my mind, it was a great honor to be able to preside at a liturgy in honor of so many - including Grandpa Duns - who had given so much for our country.

During our celebration, one member of the congregation began to speak directly to me from the congregation. His words were hard to hear and I'm reluctant to duplicate them. Suffice it to say that they were not words one would normally expect to hear during the Eucharist.

His words began as a quiet litany of curses and threats as kept saying, "I'm going to kill you, priest." When I came down to receive the gifts at the offertory, I could still hear him swearing and threatening and I did my best to put it from my mind.

During the Eucharistic prayer, as I held out the chalice, I made eye contact with him. As I recited the words:

Take this, all of you, and drink from it,
for this is the chalice of my blood,
the blood of the new and eternal covenant,
which will be poured out for you and for many 
for the forgiveness of sins

and, as I spoke, he amplified his mantra, "F*#@ You! You F#*!! I'm going to Kill You!" He said other things, too, but I reckon you can fill in the words using your imagination. 

I will admit that I was frightened. I will admit, too, that I was extraordinarily sad...because I don't know what pain this man experiences. I can chalk it up to mental illness but, at the end of the day, I really don't know why he said what he did, but only that he did. 

This is not the sort of thing they prepare you for in your liturgy courses! As I was reminded tonight by other Jesuits, he could have had a knife, or a gun. My reading, at least at the time, was that he was harmless...but I didn't know that for sure. I did what came naturally as a high school teacher: I added no energy to the system. Nevertheless, while outwardly calm, inwardly I was a wreck and could but one thing:  I redoubled my prayer. I asked the Lord to allay my fears and to accept these words...terrible words....as part of the community's offering. Whatever pain he feels, I hope, can be taken up and transformed by the power of the Spirit. 

At the end of Mass, before the final blessing, he left in a rage and shouted out further terrible words as he walked down the aisle. In some ways, I was embarrassed by what he said. And when he finally left the church and walked outside, I didn't feel relieved. I felt...and continue to feel...sad.

And I've been sad all day. I'm troubled and I keep second-guessing whether I acted and responded appropriately. Should the police have been called as a precaution? Should I have stopped the liturgy to speak with him? Could I have done anything? 

On one level, this man's words had no place in church...at least, we would like to think. We often come to church with the "right speech" and would never dream of swearing. On another level, though, I wonder if this man's prayers - as disturbing and hurtful as they were - were not just what were needed to be brought to the altar. He didn't come with pious platitudes but with rage and anger. That is what he could offer and as a priest it is the gift I had no choice but to accept. A bitter draught to swallow and coarse bread to chew, but it is what he brought forward.

Was this what we would want to call "hate speech"? Maybe. It is speech coming from a fellow traveller who suffers in some way? Yes. That said, even if it were the ravings of a deeply disturbed person, it's what he brought to the Eucharist today. This was his - admittedly hard to hear - offering at Mass.

Quite audibly, at least to those of us on the altar, his words mingled with mine at the consecration; his pain intertwined with the church's prayer. I offered the "fruit of the earth and work of human hands" and he added the pain of a human heart. If the offering of bread and wine can become the Body and Blood of Christ, then I trust his words can be taken up and transformed from a litany of hurt into a song of healing and praise. 

***

Mind you: I don't take it personally. Whether it were me or any other priest, I bet he'd have acted the same. But it's hard to think that someone could be in so much pain that this is how it would have to be expressed. 

Ah well, it's not yet 9:00 and I'm tired. I'm also aware that it's a long time since I've posted. I apologize for my silence but know that it has been time well spent as I continue to read and study for my PhD and work as a priest here in Boston. I pray regularly for those who continue to accompany me on this journey and I hope, in time, to resume writing with more regularity. 

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