Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Wise Virgins and the Transformative Power of the Liturgy

The Rector read out that year’s pastoral assignments for the seminarians with all of the aplomb of Charlton Heston reading a telephone book. “Don Christopher Smith, Centro d’Accoglienza.” The Welcome Center? I had visions of rest areas on US interstates, wondering if the Italian versions had chapels in them. But my wondering where I had been sent was interrupted by the spontaneous bursting into laughter of my entire seminary community. I was to find out why later. Four Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul lived in a large building not far from Rome’s main train station. In that building they took in teenage mothers and young ex-prostitutes who had nowhere to turn and wanted out of the dead ends their lives had become. I had no idea what I was supposed to do there. Why would a seminarian be sent there? I had no formation, no education to deal with this kind of problem. And I had to go every Wednesday and every Sunday for most of the day. The seminarians roared, “Imagine, Christopher, the liturgist, the musician, the theologian, hanging out with a bunch of hookers. That’s rich!” I was taunted.

Needless to say, the first time I meekly rang the bell at the Centro, I had a foreboding sense that this pastoral assignment would be my undoing. That sense would not leave me for a long while. The Sisters lived in common with the girls and their children. They had no private space to themselves, except for their Spartan rooms. And they shared in each other’s lives twenty-four hours a day. And with forty odd women living in a house, four of them Catholic nuns and the others with a vast array of psychological, mental, and emotional problems, as well as infants and toddlers all over the place, you can imagine that I had not walked into The Sound of Music.

In fact, if there was any sound at all, it was of unrelenting noise. MTV blaring in a makeshift common room, ten different languages blared into cell phones, babies crying for their mothers who were smoking on the porch, everything but quiet. Twice a week, I would nervously wend my way through the rooms of the house, feeling totally inadequate and at a loss as what to do with myself, and anxiously watch the clock for deliverance.

The Sisters had a tough regime in the house. One of the many inflexible rules was that everyone had to come to Sunday Mass in the stone chapel in the basement of the house. Priests from all over Rome take their turns coming to the house to celebrate Mass. And generally, the chapel was full of girls who wanted to be anywhere but there.

The Sisters realized that I was uncomfortable. I had lapsed into being reserved, introverted, mute and listless. I must have appeared like a haughty gentleman from a Victorian novel, a clerical D’Arcy who observed scenes with such detachment as to seem incredulous and censorious. In reality, I just had no idea how to act or what to say. The Sisters then told me to give spiritual conferences to the girls once a week on the Gospel readings. At least I felt more comfortable in the role of teacher, and on a subject of theology, but how could I do this in front of a hostile audience?

So week after week I tried, and it was unsuccessful. Then we had the Gospel of the Wise Virgins and the Foolish Virgins. With all of the girls and their children, and the Sisters assembled in the Chapel, I started my meditation. “Well, I know I’ve got to be the only virgin in here, but I am sure you can relate somehow.”

My heart stopped. Did that actually just come out of my mouth? Did I say that in front of the Blessed Sacrament? Was I going to be dragged out of here in a body bag? And then, the laughter started. First one, then three, then before I knew it, the chapel was roaring with laughter. And I was laughing too. I had let down the pretense of trying to be the perfect clerical gentleman striving too hard to say the right thing in the right way to the right people. In a singularly absurd episode, I had betrayed my own weakness. I acknowledged what had been my own discomfort, and was then able to move beyond it. I then proceeded to talk about the Gospel passage as it really related to their lives and from my heart, instead of how I thought they should interpret it according to my mind.

From that moment on, I was able to relate in a natural way with the girls and their children. Week after week, we explored the Word of God and celebrated the sacraments together. It was during those days that I realized the vital importance of something I had laughed at before: the ministry of presence. It was a brave thing for these girls to let me, a man, a priest and a young person not that much older than themselves into their world, especially when men had hurt them, priests were foreign to them, and their peers had betrayed them. Sunday Mass became more interiorly and exteriorly participated. I started to see the girls go into the chapel on their own for quiet moments in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

Then one day a seminarian suggested, “Why don’t we ask the girls over for Sunday Vespers and dinner at the seminary?” I was a little skeptical, but the Rector enthusiastically agreed. The seminary was abuzz before the big day, with lots of good-natured jokes about my “ladies of the night” coming over to pray with us. And so the day came. The nave was littered with strollers, filled with sight of young women of every nationality who had been to the school of hard knocks, and the cries of the children mingled with the sight of black cassock and white surpliced seminarians processing to their choir stalls to sing the Evening Prayer of the Church.

After Vespers, the girls and their kids came down to the refectory for dinner. What a sight it was to see the seminarians serving these women and their children at table. Although for us it was a normal Sunday dinner, many of these woman had never been invited to, much less, been served at, what seemed to them such a formal meal. And the atmosphere was one of great joy. Wine flowed freely and conversation even freer as these women and their priests-in-training shared the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands after having prayed.

This scene was repeated over and again over the rest of my time in the seminary. The girls began to learn to sing Vespers, they came to our ordinations, they shared in all of the important events of our seminary life. What a sight to see the Lateran Basilica, Mother and Head of all of the Churches of the City and the World, as a place where the fatherliness of the ministerial priesthood could meet these remarkable young women, who were not a pastoral problem to be solved, but a blessing to be cherished.

Sharing the Word of God and celebrating the Liturgy together was not made fruitful, because we found the “right way” to do ministry. It was made fruitful because we found a way to be natural, genuine and spontaneous, even as we let Word and Sacrament speak to us in their God-given power to transform and elevate.

When I left Rome, as much I longed for long walks through the Roman Forum, sumptuous liturgies in the basilicas and the stimulation of theology, I missed those girls and those Sisters perhaps even more. They taught me, despite my own fecklessness, how to be a father. And I also saw that, in the Church, the liturgy and prayer can become a motivating factor in people’s lives. The presence of God in the Eucharist, as well as in prayer and common life, comes into the messiness of our life and takes hold of it. That presence encourages us to light our lamps with the oil of virtue and wait for the Beloved, in whom all of our Loves are made perfect.