Go in peace

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His voice shivered only once, at the very end, when he finished Mass with a line he’d spoken every Sunday for 10 years: “Most of all, be kind—it is a sure sign of God’s presence and love.” But he composed himself, and stepped down from the altar and waited for the readers and eucharistic ministers, and then they all walked singing down the aisle, John high-­fiving small children along the way, and that was the last minute of his last Mass. But it wasn’t really the end.

He stood by the door as the entire congregation walked past and people hugged him and handed him flowers and such, and then he wandered out into the parking lot, leaning on car doors and laughing and talking, and then he and a kid threw a tennis ball for his dog Sadie for a while, and then someone gave him a ride to the picnic in his honor, which went on all afternoon, with excellent beer and the genius harmonica player who sometimes showed up to play Sunday morning but more often didn’t, and finally in the early evening, John’s last Mass did end.

Someone gave him a ride home in the gathering darkness. He’d been pastor for 10 years—busy years, too, as he was also chaplain at the big public hospital up the road, with all the death and despair of that job. But it was rewarding work, too, as he said; work that helps people come back to God occasionally, and eases their hearts in awful times. And there was all the regular work of a parish, sacraments and Masses and meetings and shuttling food to the homeless shelter and cutting the grass and figuring out what to do about the leaky roof.

Under his eye the parish hummed with a verve and humor and easy grace that had a great deal to do with John but didn’t revolve around him, for he was careful never to be a star but only a celebrant, his favorite word. But his personality infused the place, relaxed it, focused it. Joining the parish during John’s tenure, for example, was pretty straightforward: You called him up, and he’d say: “You want to be a member of the parish? You’re a member of the parish. See you Sunday.”

One last Mass

His tenure ended finally, as things do, and John was transferred. But before he left he said one last Mass, which was crammed to the gills. He gave a State of the Parish speech near the end, and he apologized for talking at length, but he felt responsible to account for his time, and he had a few things to say personally, so he said them. He went over the finances, which were way in the black, and he said that he’d contracted for a new roof, and he said that without casting aspersions he felt that when he came 10 years ago the parish was rudderless, and that wasn’t the case anymore, and it wasn’t his doing but ours, which we knew wasn’t wholly true, but we all savored the compliment.

He said that we had together built a vibrant and generous clan here on the hill, and that we owed it to the next guy to give him a chance, and we owed it to ourselves to stay together, to not let parish politics break up what we had made. “Remember,” he said, “love binds us in Christ, and always will.” He said, his voice shivering badly now, that he loved being a priest, and that he had never loved it so much, with such delight and peace, as he had in these years with these people in this church. Then he was silent for a minute and so was everyone else. Then he said, “Most of all, be kind­­—it is a sure sign of God’s presence and love,” and he blessed everyone, and pretty much all the adults were weeping by now, but not the children, because they knew that line meant the end of Mass, and then the last song was supposed to begin but the guitarist said: “We can’t let Father John leave without applause, can we?” and there was a sea of applause, which went on and on and on.

Finally, the band played the last song and John stepped down from the altar and walked singing down the aisle, and that was the end. But we remember.

Brian Doyle, award-winning author, essayist, and editor of the University of Portland's PortlandMagazine. Doyle's books include Saints Passionate & Peculiar, Credo, & Two Voices. Two Voices won a Christopher Award and a Catholic Press Association Book Award




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