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Scenes from a Parish: Life and Death at St. Pancratius
By Donal Mahoney.


Mass begins at 6 a.m. every day at St. Pancratius. Despite the early hour, and no matter the weather, elderly parishioners come out of their little bungalows in the dark to walk to Mass. Some have canes, others have walkers, and there's one man who pushes his wife in a wheelchair. For the most part, they move in silence down the surrounding streets and converge on the big Gothic church in small installments.

Patrolling the neighborhood at the end of his nightowl shift, Officer Thomas Gursky likes to watch the old-timers make their way to church. Having worked that shift for 15 years, he wants to make certain they make it to the church. But every few years, no matter how vigilant he is, one of them falls.

One morning, just a few winters ago, after a bad storm, there was "black ice" on the sidewalks, invisible even to a young pair of eyes. One of the parishioners fell, and it was Officer Gursky who rushed him to the hospital. The elderly man had a new hip installed and lived another six months. He was buried from St. Pancratius. Just about everyone in the tiny parish turned out for the funeral.

Every so often, Officer Gursky reminds his wife about this parade of ghosts “in dress rehearsal” that he sees every morning. He tells her that if the two of them live long enough, they will one day, God willing, be part of that parade. Mrs. Gursky admits that one day God may be willing but she certainly hopes He’s not in a hurry.

At least an hour before Mass, Deacon Emeritus Patrick Rafferty is the first to arrive at St. Pancratius. He unlocks the big front door, turns on the lights, and then settles in the front pew, usually with a sigh. Unless disturbed by an unexpected sound, he sits there like a mannequin, his lips moving in silent prayer, and stares at the tabernacle until the priest comes onto the altar and Mass begins.

Rafferty didn’t always occupy the front pew alone. His wife, ever attentive to his needs, used to sit next to him. But one Sunday afternoon, while taking a nap, she died of a cause not yet disclosed. If Deacon Rafferty remains true to himself, the cause may never be disclosed. "It's nobody's business," he told one inquiring parishioner. "She should still be alive. I'm the one with all the ailments."

A man of few words, except when miffed, Rafferty has been a widower now for almost 10 years. He still sings louder than anyone at the High Mass every Sunday at noon. Otherwise he keeps to himself, although he keeps an eye out for any situation that requires his attention. Once a deacon, always a deacon, Rafferty likes to remind anyone who will listen. He’s ever watchful, he says, because you want to stifle a ruction before it starts. But there is no record of any ruction ever disturbing a Mass at St. Pancratius in the last 50 years, according to the oldest parishioner who has been a regular there for all that time.

Each morning, after Rafferty has settled in his pew, two ancient nuns, crisp in the veil and wimple of their order, arrive at the church. They always walk in a few yards apart, never together. Each takes a different side aisle to reach a pew distant from the other and at least ten pews to the rear of Rafferty. After Mass, the nuns leave as they arrived, apart, never with each other.

One of the nuns, Sister Mary Margaret, then walks west to her small apartment while the other nun, Sister Mary Magdalene, walks east to hers. On the way, Sister Mary Margaret passes the empty convent where both of them once lived for years with other nuns. And Sister Mary Magdalene passes the empty school where twenty nuns, most of them now deceased, taught hundreds of children for many decades.

That was during the Golden Age at St. Pancratius, when families were many and children plentiful. It was an era that seemed to slip away slowly, beginning in the Seventies, after the demise of the Latin Mass and the introduction of the Liturgy in the vernacular.

Another daily worshipper is the elegant widow who makes it to the church just before Mass begins. She is always the last to arrive. In contrast with those who make it to church on canes and walkers, the widow is never early. Just before the priest comes out to start the Mass, Mrs. Brannigan sails like a swan down the center aisle, dressed as if every day were Sunday.

Some say she began to dress that way after Rafferty was widowed. But Rafferty has never shown any interest in Mrs. Brannigan, comely as she might be to some of the other widowers in attendance. In fact, legend has it, that Rafferty told one of the nuns after Mass one day that “a little powder and a little paint make the ladies what they ain’t.”

Mrs. Brannigan is also a departure from the norm in her seat selection. Every morning she sits in a different pew, a maneuver not understood by the other worshippers who always sit in the same pew.

Without exception, the regulars have been sitting in the same pew—i.e., their own pew--every day for years. And the pews they sit in are spread all over the cavernous church, making it possible for everyone to find an island of their own that is perfect for contemplative isolation. Even after one of them dies, the deceased’s pew is left vacant out of respect for his or her memory. At its best, and possibly at its worst, this is what some wag once called Catholic fellowship, markedly different from Baptist fellowship celebrated every Sunday in the church down the street. Even the Unitarians, a half a mile away, are said to be a little louder.

Mrs. Brannigan is perhaps the best example of this kind of Catholic fellowship. Once she has settled into her pew du jour, she kneels, bows her head and prays devoutly, oblivious to all around her. After Mass, she leaves immediately, sailing back up the aisle, with her head down and with her pocket book tucked to her side. No one would ever be able to steal that purse. She remembers quite well the tall young man who one Saturday at the mall tried to do just that. She screamed and finally he let go of the purse and ran off, never to be seen again. Mrs. Brannigan would recognize his sneer in a minute if she ever saw him again. She even bought a cell phone to call the police in case he turned up. A couple of other parishioners carry a whistle in case they encounter a similar attack but they have never had to use it.

Mrs. Brannigan is also unusual in that during Mass she receives the Holy Eucharist on the tongue. This is the way the Eucharist used to be received by all Roman Catholics decades ago, back when the Mass was said in Latin. Today, however, almost everyone receives the Eucharist in hands that are cupped like a saucer. Then the communicants place the Host on their tongue, make the Sign of the Cross facing the altar and return to their pews. Most do this with great reverence. A few, however, pop the host in their mouth like popcorn.

Rafferty noticed the popcorn syndrome years ago and mentioned it to his pastor at the time. They both agreed there was probably no delicate way to address the issue since the "popcorn" communicants probably had no idea of how irreverent they appeared to be in receiving the Sacrament in this manner. This would be just another "reform" that would have to be made over time in response to a change in the Mass made after Vatican Council II.

The older folks, of course, remember the Latin Mass well, especially Deacon Rafferty, because when the Latin Mass was said in every Catholic Church in the western world, there were no laymen ordained as deacons. Lay deacons had no role on the altar during the Latin liturgy.

Back then there was also a surplus of priests, which is not the case now, as Rafferty likes to point out. In fact, he says, that’s why there are so many rumors that Rome may soon begin to ordain deacons as priests. This would be a major change since most deacons are married men at the time of ordination even though they cannot remarry if the wife dies. Some women, too, have begun to lobby for ordination to the priesthood as well as to the diaconate but no woman with that notion has surfaced so far at St. Pancratius.

In the old days, a priest would say the Latin Mass alone, assisted by an altar boy or two who would bring the cruets of wine and water to the altar prior to the Offertory. An altar boy would also ring the bells at the Consecration. Otherwise, the priest could--and would--say the Mass without assistance.

Back then, no one called the priest celebrating the Mass the “presider,” as he is called now in many parishes today. And there were, of course, no altar girls either, in the Latin Mass. Altar girls were introduced as another of the changes that surfaced after the Vatican Council.

During the era of the Latin Mass, Rafferty had been an usher at St. Pancratius. In fact, for many years he had been the Head Usher, which was pretty much the top job that any layman could have aspired to in a Catholic Church during those days.

As Head Usher, Rafferty was tasked with commingling the collections taken up by his six assistant ushers after the three crowded Sunday Masses. Now there are only two Sunday Masses but attendance at both would suggest that St. Pancratius could easily get by with one and suffer no overcrowding, except perhaps at Christmas and Easter when the prodigals come back for the holiday.

In the past, the Latin Masses drew large crowds and the collections were indeed hefty, according to Rafferty. It was he who had to stay after the final Mass to count all the money and then take it in a big canvas bag over to the rectory. "Brinks" is what some of the younger men had called him. Sometimes he didn’t get home until 3 p.m., an inconvenience at times for his wife, Opal. Both of them agreed, however, that as Head Usher, Rafferty was obliged to make the sacrifice and take as much time as necessary to count the money accurately. She knew that words always came easily to her husband but numbers required him to concentrate.

To mollify Opal, Rafferty would usually take her to dinner every Sunday evening. They would go to Priscilla’s Buffet, where the roast chicken and green beans seemed to pacify her for the time she had spent at home without her husband. For such a tiny woman, Rafferty said Opal had been truly a terror with a knife and fork. She left nothing on her plate, and she sometimes took a roll home in her purse, a practice not countenanced by the restaurant but not an infraction of sufficient magnitude to fall under the aegis of serious sin.

These days, however, Rafferty, the widower, sits alone in the front pew at St. Pancratius seven days a week. Every morning, Father O’Brien, the eighth pastor Rafferty has known, says the Mass in English. In many churches today, however, it is no longer called the Mass. Instead, some call it the Liturgy, another term that became popular after the reforms of the Vatican Council.

During the Latin era, the Mass was always called the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the term most of the elders at St. Pancratius still use today because they know that without the re-presentation of the Sacrifice on Calvary that occurs during every Mass, there would be no Holy Eucharist. The bread and the wine can be consecrated only during the Sacrifice of the Mass and at no other time. It’s not like blessing a fresh batch of Holy Water, which can be done at any hour, even by a priest in a hurry to make a sick call.

Today, Rafferty points out, there seems to be far less demand for Holy Water among the laity, another reaction, he says, to the reforms of Vatican Council II. In the old days, ladies would sometimes bring empty, well-washed cough syrup bottles to take holy water home to fill the small fonts they had mounted on door jambs. Children were encouraged to dip their fingers in a font and make the Sign of the Cross before going to school or out to play. It was simply another form of prayer.

A humble and pious man, Father O’Brien is aware that he is young enough to be the son, even the grandson, of many in his pews. He has held up well since his illness, thanks to a second stent installed by a cardiologist from India, a gentle man with many colorful turbans, "a Sikh who ministers to the sick," as Father O’Brien affectionately likes to call him. Many in the pews know Dr. Singh themselves. Some, in fact, are indebted to his pacemakers, which last a long time and are said to be worth the money.

Despite his heart condition, and a few other ailments unusual in a man so young, Father O’Brien always offers a daily homily superior, his parishioners say, to any of the homilies offered in other nearby Catholic churches. The man can certainly preach. He has the fervor of a Baptist minister and the vocabulary of an Anglican, quite a combination.

After Mass, however, Father O’Brien doesn't hobnob with the congregants at the back of the church as is the custom in many Catholic churches today. Instead, he goes straight back to the rectory through the side door, always in a hurry to make breakfast for his bed-ridden mother who was disabled by a stroke shortly after Father O’Brien was ordained. She had been able to attend his ordination with her husband but then he passed away a year later. Pancreatic cancer doesn’t let its victims linger.

The pastor’s mother hasn’t been seen in years and she is still missed at the Wednesday gathering of the parish quilters. She was always good fun and she always brought a tasty pastry to share. Her Hot Cross buns were famous among the ladies and infamous among some husbands to whom the leftovers were distributed at supper. Rafferty certainly didn’t miss those buns. In fact, whenever he had to eat one he’d mention silently to God that he was eating it in reparation for his sins and for the conversion of Russia. And also to keep Opal quiet.

Caring for his disabled mother, rather than placing her in a home, endeared Father O’Brien to his congregation. Many of them have a number of adult children, most of whom are very busy, some in other cities, earning a good living. They are seldom heard from except at Christmas and sometimes at Thanksgiving. They also call home if a promotion or layoff occurs. Their parents have spent considerable money to put them through many years of Catholic education and now the young people are reaping the dividends, financially if not always spiritually, some of their parents maintain.

In quieter moments, usually at night when the elderly congregants are at home reading the Bible or watching something decent on TV, they sometimes reflect on the possibility that one day Father O’Brien will be saying their funeral Mass as he has already done for so many of their friends. But, as the pastor himself once pointed out during a homily, his parishioners might some day have the opportunity to attend his funeral Mass. If that were ever to be the case, he has said that he wants no flowers but if anyone is moved to do so, donations could be made in his name to the parish food pantry.

After all, as Father O’Brien likes to make clear, a stent is just a stent and it is made by man and not God, a fact that tempers his confidence in the two stents he relies on. He also likes to mention during homilies that as good as God is, he doesn’t make any pacemakers, either—which Father O'Brien maintains is another good reason to frequent the Sacrament of Penance often. One needs to be ready to die at any time, free of any serious sin on one's soul, because the Lord Jesus Christ oversees the final destination of every soul right after death. There's no mulligan or second chance to do better. An unconfessed mortal sin is a one-way ticket to Hell, plain and simple, Father O'Brien says. That is one reality the reforms of the Vatican Council didn't change, he likes to emphasize.

Since the reforms of the Vatican Council were put in place, however, it appears that fewer Catholics are committing serious sins, Father O’Brien says. The evidence for this, he says, occurs every Saturday afternoon when the lines for going to confession are very short except during Holy Week and just before Christmas. Yet every Sunday at Mass just about everyone receives the Holy Eucharist, something not to be done if one has a serious sin on one’s soul. After all, Catholics believe that the Holy Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, a factor that distinguishes Catholicism from other Christian faiths in which Holy Communion is a symbol, usually consisting of bread cubes and grape juice.

Shortly after the homily in which Father O’Brien mentioned that he might die in advance of some of his elderly parishioners, Deacon Emeritus Rafferty and his wife decided to place a small wager, just between the two of them. They agreed to it on a Sunday night when they were both in a good mood after a nice meal at Priscilla’s Buffet. Rafferty suggested the bet, all in good humor, right after they had watched another rerun of the Lawrence Welk Show. He was surprised when Opal, not a woman to gamble on anything, took him up on it.

The bet had to do with who would die first--one of them or Father O’Brien. The deacon had won the bet, of course, since Opal had died first. But every day since he buried her he has realized anew that he will never collect on that wager. Is it any wonder, then, that every morning at Mass he asks God in his prayers to remind Opal that when he gets to heaven, she owes him a chicken dinner.

Rafferty would certainly like to make the same bet with Father O’Brien, as to which one of them will die first, but he doubts the priest would go for it. He doesn't drink or smoke and he probably doesn't gamble, even when the stakes are paltry. It makes no difference, though, since the winner of such a bet would never be able to collect on it, either.

It is this kind of unfairness in the world that has always reinforced Rafferty’s belief in heaven. But even if chicken is served in heaven, he doubts that it would rival the version served at Priscilla's Buffet. At the moment, however, he realizes that only Opal knows whose chicken dinner is better, having by now had ample samplings of both. After he dies--and provided he passes muster and makes it to Heaven--Rafferty plans to take Opal by the arm and ask her where the dining hall is. He won't have any money but that should be no problem. For years now it's been Opal's turn to buy.



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