For the first time in five years, Thursday at 7:30 holds no promise. It was exhilarating to wake on Thursday and know that in the evening some of us in the parish would put aside disparate concerns and come together to focus on the one thing which united us all, love of God and His Church.
After college, I was never much of a joiner. I grew especially leery in the 1960s, when my children were born, after my experience with study groups whose examinations of the faith were nothing more than rap sessions, collections of Catholics with a putative leader in a Roman collar. It was the beginning of the Enlightenment, clergy who encouraged us to “call me Larry.” Attendees were either stricken Catholics struggling with the emerging Catholic Correctness of transformed liturgy and catechesis, or enthusiastic Donahue precursors, hammering away at tradition and orthodoxy as archaic and dispensable. The priest usually supported the latter. I decided to stay home.
That decision was revoked in September 1988, when an associate pastor arrived from Europe; his reverence at Mass and his uncompromising, energizing sermons defied the trendy inclination to jolly the congregation. His announcement in the Sunday bulletin was simple, inviting those interested in exploring the Church past and present to join him in the rectory Thursdays at 7:30 P.M. It was an offer I could not refuse. My acceptance lasted as long as he did in the parish.
He hoped, of course, that those evenings would survive his inevitable departure. It is true that the core of us, who once joined never left, plan to periodically meet. But the glue is gone. Whoever we were in our family lives — spouses, parents, grandparents — we became with him uniquely individual again. It reminded me of college bull sessions when arguing about a topic consumed participants, with a significant difference: this was a free-for-all only to a certain point. Then a hand would be at the helm, steering us firmly on course, the lodestar Rome. This is why we cannot continue. However articulate and comfortable we became with one another, a genuinely evolved rather than an artificially designated community, we have questions and divergent views on dogma and doctrine which require authentic clarification. With him, we instantly had it. His was a solid philosophical and theological grounding in the Magisterium, combined with a facility to spell it out with a contagious conviction. It was an extraordinary moment none of us had ever encountered.
Who were we? In profile, a disparate lot, an unlikely assembly of souls. I can’t think of any circumstance which otherwise would have brought us together. We were a childless widow and the mother of eight. We were a stylist in a beauty salon and a corporate executive. We were married and single. We were octogenarian, 50-plus, boomers, 30-year¬olds. We were male and female, American and foreign born. We were doctrinal candidates in religious studies at Stanford and formally trained only in CCD. We were financially secure and financially unstable. Collectively our exposure to clergy was numerically staggering. That this mismatched group faithfully gathered each week for five years, whatever our needs and abilities, speaks volumes for our priest.
I doubt there is a subject we did not discuss. We were opinionated and with the familiarity of years increasingly voluble. We plowed through Scripture and encyclicals, spiced with many asides and often interrupted by Father asking, “what do you think about that?” He was interested in our questions and any problems with Church teaching, but so grounded that challenges were welcomed. He wasn’t glib, he was sure. He answered with the conviction of someone who had himself been over the material with a fine tooth comb. Raised under communism, he had as a skeptical youth thought the Church hopelessly medieval. For us, after two decades of clergy giving equivocal replies, we finally heard without hesitation or apology the strong, encouraging voice of Rome. And we knew it.
We weren’t restricted to documents. Western culture, medical ethics, the media were all grist for our mill. Since we held divergent views, exchanges got rather heated. Among the most animated was our priest. In controversy there was passion, there was laughter, and sometimes there were tears. One liberal Democrat and I rarely came down on the same side of an issue, but at the bedside of my dying mother, it was she who held my hand. When all was said and done disagreements were, ultimately, transcended by a common faith and prayer. In our group these were central.
Granted that essence, the sketch of Thursdays at 7:30 is incomplete if I fail to mention extracurricular activities, religiously based occasions for creativity and conviviality. There was Father’s ambitious vision to produce a huge Nativity scene with additions reflecting contemporary concerns. It would stretch the entire veranda of the large rectory. On many chilly November nights the artistically inept among us sloshed paint on life-size figures drawn by the artistically gifted. Illuminated at night, it was a drive-by show for years, featured in the local press and shown on San Francisco television. Then there were the caroling Christmases when, led by Father, we went forth in impressive (homemade) costumes with infancy narrative scripts and modest voices to the elderly and selected homes. There was the incredible transformation (his idea, our combined labor) of an abandoned, overgrown grotto on church property into a floral bower, still tended and flourishing today.
There were revived Holy Hours in the church at Advent and Lent, when our priest led us (and others) in common prayer interspersed with his spontaneous stream of consciousness which showed us, really, the art of talking to God. It was he who, once asked how to console a 21-year-old with terminal cancer, said forthrightly, “she has a right to quarrel with God.” Quarrel with God? The concept set us reeling. But Father emphasized the licitness of normal, human response. Fear and anger were understandable and acceptable. He broadened our sense of what was an appropriate Catholic response, banishing any veneer of false piety. Only after allowing predictable human reaction could one begin to achieve spiritual objectives, prime, resignation to the will of God. He made plain over and again that spirituality does not come at the cost of denying humanity; rather, by embracing it in all its dimensions. Because in that very vessel, coping with its weaknesses and limitations, had been no less than Christ Himself.
Watching the papal visit to Denver, I witnessed the effect of someone who ignites and reinforces love for Christ and His Church. The pilgrims were visibly inspired. In no way does it diminish the magnitude of that event to record its special resonance here. We had a Denver experience in our own backyard. I once told our priest he recharged our batteries. And it wasn’t for four days, it was five years.
Today, when asked if I’m free Thursday at 7:30 I can say yes. And wish very much the answer was no.