A Handmaiden’s Tale
In 1995, as a new “revert” to the Catholic Church, I left my parish, and headed for the Traditional Latin Mass some 70 miles away — one way. You know the reasons: When a priest was in my parish to say Mass, he preached heresy. When he wasn’t, which was often, someone (usually a woman) would take to the altar to hold “Word and Communion” services, reciting all the Eucharistic prayers except the Consecration. The “environment” was cheap and tacky, but enough already! Whatever the sacrifices and inconveniences in the long drive to and from the Latin Mass (and there were many), I could forget them in the beauty and dignity of the traditional Roman Liturgy. I remember when, before our first Christmas in new quarters, I was trimming lace on a new altar cloth while two priests were working out the patterns of Solemn High Mass. Three was a crowd: I decided to take a pew for a few minutes to let them finish. One priest turned to me and asked, “Do you need to be at the altar?” I replied, “If I did, I’d have stayed at ______ [the parish in my hometown].” The other priest, not new to the diocese, laughed sadly.
I learned a lot in the context of the traditional Mass — how to really clean a church, how to work in silence, and the beauty of fine materials — wool, silk, and linen. I fell in love with church linen. It softened in water instantly, and released stains as quickly as it absorbed them. Damp, under the hot iron, it emitted a delicate incense of steam and took a beautiful shape, body, and sheen. The older linens with mitered corners and pulled thread hems jumped onto the board and begged to be ironed, their grains perfectly straight and aligned. Linen was something I could take care of without traveling one hundred forty miles. I did a lot of it, and I loved it.
I knew deep in my heart that this was an apostolic formation, but I did everything I could do to deny that I would be wanted elsewhere. Nonetheless, the inevitable happened. I could no longer attend the traditional Mass. I swerved for a time into a parish closer to home, Novus Ordo, but with a pastor deadly serious about his mission. It was a joy to attend Mass there, but I had no real standing, and nothing to offer. Ultimately, God’s will re-asserted itself. I would return to the local parish I had fled nearly four years earlier. I was crushed.
So was the parish. Of the five priests last assigned to the parish, three had lost their vocations, one had died (I suspect of a broken heart), and the latest was doing the best he could. There were only 35 people at Mass the first Sunday I returned. The cantor was using taped hymns (worse than you can imagine), and I was overcome with sorrow over the way Our Lord was treated here. But I had become acquainted with the workings of God’s will. I offered myself to His service as He desired. The last thing I wanted was to cause a commotion; everyone seemed to have had enough of that. I asked the Liturgy Committee “chairperson” (a woman, of course), “Who does the linens?” She shrugged and said, “Whoever gets to them.” I asked several people if this were someone’s turf, and it was clear that no one had claimed it. I opened the linen drawer in the sacristy, and there among the corporals (poorly folded) and purificators (polyester) were six dish towels from the parish hall. I had my work cut out for me.
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