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
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 Hes 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 didnt 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. Hes 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
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 aint.
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
pewi.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 deceaseds 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
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, thats 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
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 didnt 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 Priscillas 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
These days, however, Rafferty, the widower, sits alone in the
front pew at St. Pancratius seven days a week. Every morning, Father
OBrien, 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
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. Its 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 OBrien 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 OBrien 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 OBrien 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 OBrien 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 OBrien was ordained. She had
been able to attend his ordination with her husband but then he passed away a
year later. Pancreatic cancer doesnt let its victims linger.
The pastors mother hasnt 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 didnt miss those
buns. In fact, whenever he had to eat one hed 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 OBrien 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 OBrien 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
After all, as Father OBrien 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 doesnt make any pacemakers,
eitherwhich 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
OBrien 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 ones 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 OBrien 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 Priscillas 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 OBrien. 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
OBrien, 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 Raffertys 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.