December 24, 2004

My strongest Christmas memory

My most powerful and clear memory of Christmas as a child is from a year that I cannot place: I might have been eleven or twelve, probably no more than thirteen. The year doesn't matter.

We had a sort of renegade Roman Catholic Parish in those days, renegade in that our pastor--a saintly, kind old man named Father William Shields---was in a constant state of war with our bishop---His most Rotund Excellency Daniel Patrick Bishop Reilly, Bishop of Norwich, Connecticut. At the time, I thought that the war was because Father Shields was "old school"---that is, he was known to sing the mass once a month in latin and wasn't too keen on a whole slate of issues the Bishop was pushing. In retrospect, I now know the war was about something else, far, far worse: Bishop Reilly, now the Archbishop of Worcester, Massachusetts, was neck deep in with his lord and master the Most Reverend Bernard Cardinal Law of the Holy See of Boston. Standing between we the children of Saint Matthias Parish and the revolving stable of serial molesters being fobbed off by Law and his alcolyte Reilly was our old, stubborn, and deeply quiet pastor.

That Christmas was my first as an altar boy that I was old enough to be the crucifer, to lead the procession into the church. Christmas Vigil mass was always the best one of the year to attend at, as the red cassocks were broken out for that one occasion. There was always something about the stained glass windows too---they were shining brightly to the outside world, but inside they were oddly black, which always seemed fitting and appropriate at Holy Thursday as well as when walking Stations of the Cross, but seemed out of place for Christmas Eve. We would always line up in the vestibule next to the sacristy, and I can remember how dark it was in that hallway, the smell of the incense swirling, the heat of the candles behind me, the door in front of me with the mass schedule tacked to it. There were probably seven of us in line, plus the pastor. He would wait for us to stop fidgeting, and then would say, "Okay, boys, He's waiting" and the door would open.

I remember the door opening that night stepping off from the darkness of the hallway into the light of the church. The smell of the fir and the incense combined with the heat of the breath of the people smashing into the sound.

I have never felt anything in my life before or since like the feeling of stepping into that sound:

Adeste fidelis Laeti triumphantes Venite, venite in Bethlehem Natum videte regem angelorum Venite adoremus Venite adoremus Venite adoremus Dominum.

The feeling when that first Adeste hit me sent a wave through me, a feeling that became hardwired into me whenever I now hear those opening notes of Oh Come All Ye Faithful. The rest is a blur, of that day, and of Christmases growing up. But that one moment will be with me as long as I live.

Years later, after he retired and the Bishop finally had his unholy way with the Parish, I asked our pastor about what he would always say, "Okay, boys, He's waiting." I'd had some semeters of theology in college and wanted to talk about the idea of the Incarnation and all. He looked at me and laughed, not realizing the joke was on him.

"Steve, I was refering to Mr. Mostoway, the organist. He'd always get impatient and start playing faster if we didn't start on time."

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Posted by Steve at December 24, 2004 04:06 PM

Merry Christmas to you both, Steve and Robert.

Posted by: Frank Villon at December 24, 2004 09:08 PM

A great story. Sometimes even simple misunderstanding can be the gateway to a memorable religious experience.

And the old priest -- when I was growing up, we had a priest who, years before, used to me a gold gloves middleweight boxer in the 1930s. A tough old guy. No abuse on his watch. God have mercy on anyone who did anything like that in his world.

I went to midnight mass last night, and we did indeed sing Adeste Fidelis. I got a few odd glances when I sang "way-nee-tay ah-do-ray-moose"
when everyone else was using the medieval, Church-latin rendering, "vay-nee-tay".

What can I say. The Colossus is old school.

Posted by: The Colossus at December 25, 2004 08:59 AM

Am I the only one who learned those lyrics as "Ben, eat a auto ray moose"?...

Posted by: LDH at December 26, 2004 01:11 PM

My father grew up in Norwich and attended St. Patrick's Cathredral which was less than half a mile up the street from my grandparents' home on Broadway. He was a devout Catholic but occasionally would grumble about some non-specific "ecclesiastical bullshit" (one of the few times he was known to use less than polite English.I think he would have like Father Shields.

Posted by: LMC at December 26, 2004 03:48 PM

Great story. Hope y'all had a merry Christmas.

Posted by: JohnL at December 26, 2004 09:21 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?