Volume > Issue > Theology of Clay

Theology of Clay


By Steve Kellmeyer | October 2001
Steve Kellmeyer of Peoria, Illinois, is the author of Bible Basics from Basilica Press.

“Remember, man, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The priest had a story to tell me, and if he had begun his story with the resonance of these ancient words, I would not have been at all surprised. Indeed, it would have been entirely appropriate for him to do so, for this is where his story really began. Every Ash Wednesday the priests of his parish have opened the sacristy cupboards, taken down several small, glazed ceramic jars, filled them with ashes, blessed the ashes, and distributed these ashes to the foreheads of the faithful. Father is a young priest, but he loves the old ways best, as do so many priests of his generation. He is not alone in this parish; two brother priests serve with him, one almost twice his age, the other a year younger. The two younger priests have a natural camaraderie that warms the hearts of everyone who sees them work together. Both prefer the ancient phrasings, the tried and true ways of the Church. They cling closely to the rubrics of the rites. Their homilies are centered on living the sacramental life and avoiding sin, for sin is a subject they do not circumvent. They preach against contraception and abortion from the pulpit and without apology. They are, in short, good priests doing their best to be good priests. For parishioners who lived through the tumult of earlier decades, these young consecrated men provide a sense of stability that long ago was sorely lacking.

“Tradition is the democracy of the dead,” said Chesterton, and Father heartily agreed. He kept the good things from the past and shed the innovations, the grand new ideas that blazed onto the scene a few decades ago but which are now dying — dying with the same men who emblazoned them, the men who had sought to change the unchangeable Church. In the vast democracy of the dead, in the immense ocean of Tradition, the waves are grinding their ideological boulders to dust.

And dust was precisely the problem. This last year, as the young priests returned the ash jars to their proper place in the sacristy cupboards, they remarked not only upon the dust, but upon a larger problem. These are methodical and orderly men; they pay attention to detail. And it was clear that details had not been given careful attention in the sacristy for quite a while. As is true of every room in which men live or work, things accumulate. The sacristy was not immune to this problem. Things of all shapes, sizes, and colors had accumulated over the years, and no one had ever taken the time to clear the shelves, open the windows, do a real spring-cleaning. By Pentecost the spirit of Vatican II whispered from the numberless objects living on the shelves and lurking in the shadowy corners with voices too strong for either man to resist: It was time to clean.

They began. Old liturgical garments, threadbare, out-of-date, some reflecting now-forbidden innovation, were designated, as Scripture says, to be tested by fire. Other items not appropriate for the parish but still of some value were designated for the missions. Still others, the profane items used and abandoned by sacristans and servers long since departed, were unceremoniously dumped into a waiting trashcan. The hours passed and the process moved along smoothly, as various items were discovered, sorted, tossed. A large shallow ceramic platter heaped with screws, nails, old pennies, and rubbish was pulled down, placed on the counter and…and something niggled at the back of Father’s mind. A small voice quietly said, “Look.”

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