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May 27, 2024

At Your Service 02

By Jeff Vierra

Chapter Two: Fundamental Option

As I walked through the door that was the conduit between one of the chapels devoted to the Virgin Mary and the cathedral's entryway, I could hear Father Jones' voice grate upon the walls of the vestibule like fingernails on a chalkboard.

"...then I want the deacon candidates to process in behind them, followed by the priests, with Bishop David and his attendants at the rear. Now, you 2 altar servers, I want you to..."

Father Jones, or if you like Father James, but you must never call him Father Jim, is a very tall, very slender young man, with pasty white skin, thin greasy black hair and dark rimmed, coke-bottle glasses embedded in a bent, witch-like nose. Dressed in his long, snug cassock, he looked as though he grew up one of those kids who was constantly teased and bullied, then beaten to tears&which is probably why he relished his position as Liturgical Coordinator for the Diocese of Stockton, a well respected position of authority, as he was always quick to point out.

Ann Hatchell walked through the doors of the church; cheeks redden by the cold morning air, and the frustrations of motherhood. With her dark, wavy shoulder length hair barely touching the shoulders of a knee-high, sleeveless, button down dress, and the glisten of lip gloss on her thick, moist, rose colored lips, she was absolutely stunning. Holding the one year old, 24 pound, Michelle Alexandra with one arm and vise-gripping the hand of 4 year old Paul Gerard "The Tornado" with the other, you could see the definition in her slender, elegant arms. Ann could always instill a deep, driving passion in me that often came at the most inopportune of times.

Following close behind was Denise Marie, who half carried a diaper bag that was too big for her to keep from dragging on the floor.

"Denise, would you hold your brother's hand for me?" Ann asked in a more commanding than questioning way. At 8 going on 18, Denise liked being her mother's second in command, affording her the opportunity to play mommy&as well as letting her younger brother know who's the boss.

"Ann" I said walking through the crowded vestibule towards her "you seem a little frazzled."

"You can say that again!" She gave me a quick peck on the lips. "I've had one hell of a morning&" A few pious heads turned at the mention of "the H word". Ann ignored them with the usual disdain reserved for those who lack any common idea of tolerance. "&First, Michelle decided to smear oatmeal on my dress, then Paul stuffed raisins up his noses. I spent fifteen minutes just trying to pry them out."

"No worries, my lovely." I said doing my best W.C. Fields impression, while taking Michelle from her arms. "There are seats reserved just especially for you." We walked into the nave of the church, down its center aisle, to the very first two pews reserved for our family on the left. Most of our family, who managed to slip past me as I spoke with Sister Mary Joseph, were already there and seated.

While Ann's parents were Catholic, always had been Catholic, and always would be Catholic, my parents looked decidedly out of place. My mother was sitting at the far end of the front pew dressed in her finest pink sari with green and gold trim, which was way too formfitting for her girth. You see, my mother has embraced everything Indian, since she converted to Hinduism while on pilgrimage with the Rosicrucians to the ISKCON temple in Mayapur, where she went to play with colors during the Hindu festival of Holi.

My father, who was sitting in the pew behind my mother, at the opposite end of course, was dressed in a brown polyester leisure suit and orange print satin shirt. The top three buttons of the shirt were undone so that the tips of the oversized collar nearly reached the outside of his shoulders. This allowed dad's lustrous gold chains to be more prominently displayed against his matted black chest hair. Sitting next to him was his overly made-up much too seductively dressed wife, twenty years his junior, whom he largely ignored as he charmed and flirted with the woman, who must have been thirty years his junior, sitting across the aisle to his right.

"I guess it is about that time again!" I said to myself as I thought about the possibility of my father replacing my mother for the third time.

"Hi mom, dad" Ann said as she motioned her parents to scoot further into the pew. At this her father rolled his eyes, knowing he'd be sitting within speaking distance of my mother with whom no one wanted to be associated. As Ann began to sit down, this blood curdling "MOM!!!" echoed through the church. Paul managed to escape Denise's grasp and was heading into the sanctuary toward the credence table, which contained the tools of the priest's trade, including a set of lead crystal goblets.

I grabbed the back of Paul's shirt, just as he managed to bump a goblet with his outstretched fingers. The goblet wobbled back and forth then started towards the bare marble floor. With the acceleration of gravity pushing it, the goblet finally landed&into the palm of my magically appearing hand.

I picked up Paul. Beads of sweat started to form on my forehead. With Paul laughing in my ear, I walked toward my father and placed Paul in his lap.

"Dad, can you keep an eye on Paul for us. As you can see, Ann has her hands full." By now, Ann had covered her left side with a blanket and was nursing Michelle. Knowing the comfort provide by those perpetually swollen breasts, I knew Michelle would be asleep during the entire Mass. And remembering the comfort that those breasts provide me also, I found myself curiously envious of my youngest daughter's position, wishing I was with Ann in another place, at another time.

"Stephen" Father Jones yipped like a Mexican Shorthair "Could you come to the vestibule, please!"

Walking into the vestibule, the first thought that came to mind, seeing all the servers, candidates and priests dressed in their white albs, was that if we were all wearing white hoods, this would resemble a gathering of the Ku Klux Klan.

"Stephen, I need you to take your position in the procession."

I knew this place very well, having practiced this celebration twice before. The deacon candidates were preceded by various servers and the deacon carrying the Book of the Gospels, with the priests immediately behind us then the bishop. The candidates were grouped in pairs with myself being in the front most right position.

Musicians began to play and the choir began to sing. Bishop David but fresh incense on to the ash covered embers in the golden thurible. The "old" smell that had been here all morning long was quickly being replaced by the sweet smoke of frankincense. Father Jones, acting as Master of Ceremonies, set the cadence for the procession. When it was time for Kevin and I to process in, I was hit by a wave of vibrant color, a sea of people in a standing-room-only church, all on their feet to expose the colorful prints of their "Sunday best". Bright multicolored beams came streaming down from the stained glass windows. The combination of light and color gave the perception that the church was being bathed in a rainbow.

The abundance of sights, smells and sounds began to permeate my senses, and with it came a charge of electricity moving from the base of my neck to the crown of my head. I began to feel as though the eleven men being ordained today, myself included, were the eleven apostles of Jesus, minus their Judas. The anxiety of the morning became excitement, self-doubt became self-awareness, and my fear became humility.

After I bowed to the altar, I turned to enter my pew. Ann's eyes locked with mine and the feeling of lust I had for her just moments before was replaced by the selfless love we shared that genuinely brought us together as one. We stood there, two as one, waiting for the introductory blessing...

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"

Bishop David was a kind and humble man, but the failing health of a frail and tired body in its seventy-sixth year, made it obvious that a celebration of the magnitude was hard on him. His opening greeting was short, but eloquent, and he made us feel as though he really was proud of men those heads he would lay his hands upon today.

Outside of Bishop David's introduction, and of course the extra pomp and circumstance, this was like any other Mass. Of course, only the most liturgically proficient altar servers, lectors and cantor were used. But beyond that, everything seemed the same. It was now time for the proclamation of the Gospel. The deacon of the Gospel, whose name I could not remember, went to the bishop, asked for his blessing, received it then continued to the ambo following a trail of incense.

"The Lord be with you" he chanted.

"And also with you" we responded.

"A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to John"

"Glory to you, O Lord"

The deacon took the thurible from the thurifer then made three single swings over the Book the Gospels.

"This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.

This I command you: love one another.

The Gospel of the Lord."

"Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ"

The deacon then took the open Book of the Gospels and presented it to the bishop. Bishop David gingerly kissed the nearest exposed page, and then slowly closed the book. Deacon Jack, that's his name, handed the book to the M.C. then proceeded to a mike stand in the sanctuary, opposite the ambo.

Deacon Jack announced, "Let those who are to be ordained be presented. Robert William Pratt,"

"Present," Robert said standing in place as he was grinning from ear to ear. Deacon Jack announced us one by one, and then he finally said "Stephen Michael Hatchell,"

"Present," I said standing, intrigued by a part in a Mass I had never been involved in before.

"Most Reverend Father, holy mother Church asks you to ordain these men, our brothers, for service as deacons."

"Do you judge them worthy?" Bishop David asked.

"After inquiry among the people of Christ and upon recommendation of those concerned with their training, I testify that they have been found worthy." Deacon Jack recited.

"We rely on the help of the Lord God and our Savior Jesus Christ, and we choose these men, our brothers, for the order of deacons." After finishing his requisite part, Bishop David motioned us to sit down.

At any Mass I'd seen before, where Bishop David was the presider, he always walked to the ambo to preach from its elevated position. This time however he stepped down the sanctuary stairs as he reached under his chasuble to turn on the lapel mike that was clipped barely visibly to the collar of his alb. He stood in front of us, pausing long enough to look each one of us in the eye then started to address the entire assembly...

"My dear sisters and brothers, today Christ is telling us that the most important commandment of all, the commandment that fulfills every other commandment, is to love one another as he has loved us&but what does that mean?

It is easy for us to give help to the people we are closest to, family, friends, our neighbors&but what about the stranger? Do we ignore the homeless person asking us for money, because we believe that he or she will use it to buy drugs or alcohol? Are we tolerant of our children when they are tired and fussy, but look accusingly at the parent of a child who's crying with glaring eyes that send a message that states "You're a bad parent who has raised a spoiled brat"? Do we raise our fist and shake it in anger, because we don't like the way a person is driving?

The love that Jesus is talking about is not a feeling. Love is a decision..."

"Love's a decision, Love's a decision, Love's a decision..." struck me as an epiphany that rang like a mantra in my head.

"...It's the decision to put aside our prejudice and bias, fear and mistrust, selfishness and gluttony. It's the decision to share all the gifts that God has given us, with everyone, without consideration to their status, wealth or station in life. Color, creed or gender, religion or nationality should never play a role in determining whether an individual is worthy to share in what we have. Indeed, if we can find any reason why a person is unworthy to share in the fruits that we are only caretakers of, then we ourselves have lost the right to take care of them.

And if love is truly a decision, then isn't God asking us to care for our enemies as well? Friends or foes, strangers or outcasts are all to be treated with the love deserved by all of God's children.

So, if this message is for all of us, what is the unique aspect of this message being brought to the deacon?..."

The word "deacon" broken me of my self-imposed spell, like a gong being rung at the end of a cloister's mediation.

"...Deacons are to act with the love of the servant, Jesus. They are the charitable work of the Church, sacramentalized. A deacon is to express this love by giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty; clothing the naked and sheltering the homeless; by visiting the sick and imprisoned, and when needed, burying the died." Looking at us all individually, "You men are making a stance that once taken, can never be changed. You men are being given a sacramental grace that is not to be hoarded, but that's to be used always in the service of others."

At the end of his homily, Bishop David gave us a warm smile saying "Candidates please rise" then turned around and ascended to the top of the stairs.

Turning to face us, Bishop David said, "My sons, before you ordained a deacon, you must declare before the people your intention to undertake this office."

"Are you willing to be ordained for the Church's ministry by the laying on of hands and the gift of the Holy Spirit?"

"I am." We all said in unison.

"Are you resolved to discharge the office of deacon with humility and love in order to assist the bishop and the priests and to serve the people of Christ?"

"I am."

"Are you resolved to hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience as the Apostle urges, and to proclaim this faith in word and action as it is taught by the Gospel and the Church's tradition?"

"I am."

"Are you resolved to maintain and deepen a spirit of prayer appropriate to your way of life and, in keeping with what is required of you, to celebrate faithfully the Liturgy of the Hours for the Church and for the whole world?"

"I am."

"Are you resolved to shape your way of life always according to the example of Christ, whose body and blood you will give to the people?"

"I am, with the help of God."

"Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?"

"I do." Although I knew that Bishop David was a successor of the apostles, and as such, represented Christ for the Church of the Diocese of Stockton, I still felt as I said those words that I was vowing allegiances to man, rather than to God.

"Do you promise respect and obedience to your Ordinary?"

"I do."

"May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfillment."

"My dear people," Bishop David began "let us pray that the all-powerful Father will pour out his blessings on these servants of his, whom he receives into the holy order of deacons." With these words, the eleven of us walked to our pre-assigned positions down the aisle.

Deacon Jack: "Let us kneel."

While the rest of the assembly kneeled in their pews, the eleven of us lie prostrate on the cold, hard, marble floor. I felt exposed and very vulnerable. Waves of emotion flowed over my body, like ocean waves over a tidal pool, as the cantor began to sing the litany of saints...

"Lord, have mercy."

"Lord, have mercy."

"Christ, have mercy."

"Christ, have mercy."

"Lord, have mercy."

"Lord, have mercy."

"Holy Mary, Mother of God,"

"Pray for us."

"Saint Michael,"

"Pray for us."

"Holy angels of God,"

"Pray for us."

"Saint John the Baptist,"

"Pray for us."

"All you holy men and women pray for us..."

As this round of the litany reached its crescendo, the electricity that had come to me less than an hour hit again with a force a thousand times as strong.

"...Saint Peter and Saint Paul..."

Intense warmth, almost hot, began to run down my body, starting from head, moving toward my shoulders&

"...Pray for us..."

...heat moving down my arms and back...

"...Saint Mary Magdalene..."

...moving to my hands and legs...

"...Pray for us..."

...moving to and through my feet. I could feel the love of the people in the assembly, the saints being invoked, and the Love of Almighty God Himself being washed over me, and through me, touching every cubic millimeter of my being. Tears started to well up then flow from my eyes...

"...Saint Stephen..."

..."Saint Stephen???" "SAINT STEPHEN!!!" Upon hearing the name of Saint Stephen being sung by the cantor, a bizarre, delusional sense of self-awareness came to me. "Is he singing about me; to me? Aren't we all members of the communion of saints?"

No. He is asking for the prayers of the first Saint Stephen; first deacon, first martyr, my guarding angel; a man who humbly served and defended Christ even when it meant his death... ...No. This was the Saint Stephen that I could never be...

"...All you holy men and women pray for us..."

Article © Jeff Vierra. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-12-11
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