The Long View: The Hour of the Laity

One of John's talents was illustrating his ideas with short stories.  Some of his most evocative ideas are to be found in these stories, although I cannot say for certain how seriously he intended them to be taken. My best guess is "not very", but said with a twinkle in his eye.

This particular story of St. Christopher's parish is uncanny. I cannot quite put my finger on what John was trying to say here, but the imagery is unforgettable.

Nota bene: this is unrelated to the article of the same name published in First Things in 2002.


"They are getting off easy, Mike. If they were getting what they deserve, we would just make a bonfire on the lawn. This way at least we can defray the cost of the renovation.”

They had been having this argument since the new pastor arrived at the beginning of September. The Second Vatican Council had ended nine years ago, in 1965. All that time, old Father Mike had gone along with the reforms, the ones he thought were safe. Now, on the verge of retirement, he was standing in the chill sun of late October and watching movers from an antiques dealer haul away all the fixtures from the inside of his church. It was like a Puritan raid in 17th century England. They did not do things like this when he was assigned to this parish. He tried and tried to explain how vitally important it was to never make changes in a place like this until you know the people really well. He might as well have saved his breath. Father Bob was infallibly progressive.

"I swear to God, Bob, sometimes I think that you young priests are in the pay of the Baptists!”

“We have talked this all through, Mike. You have delivered most of the catechesis yourself. A new liturgy demands a new worship environment, an uncluttered space where the People of God can be community. That also means downplaying the special devotions that too many Catholics are wrapped up in. The Baptists call that kind of thing idolatry, and I think they're onto something. Would you look at those things, Mike? They look like fetish objects from Haiti!”

Those Things now covered half the floor of a pickup truck; a sign on the side read “Neubedburg: Moving and Towing.” They stood like illegal aliens waiting to be driven to the vineyard to pick grapes. Some of the figures had not been in direct sunlight since the church was built over a century ago. The light did not flatter them. All in all, they were as ugly a collection of devotional art as could be found in western New York State: a Pieta with protuberant bellies on both the principals, a Saint Michael with wings like a bat, a Saint Francis in Apparent Delirium, two Infants of Prague (probably: one might have been a cherub), and several dingy French Jesuits whom canonization had rendered no less obscure. All these refugees would soon find new homes, however. Clubs in Manhattan, and a few occultists, snapped them up as fast as the Church could rip them out. The term for the merchandise was “Holy Hardware.”

Then there was the last and largest of the statues, the one that the movers were wrestling out of the church when Father Mike tried to intervene. That was St. Christopher himself, carrying a tiny Christ Child on his shoulder. Of all the pieces that had stood in the church, only the image of that saint might have had artistic merit. The artist had plainly been trying to portray something not entirely human, however, so it was hard to tell whether he had succeeded. The saint's face was covered with hair, and the hands had claws, like a bear. Only the ragged clothing, and the fact he leaned on a staff, showed that he was not simply a fantastic animal.

“Bob, this is Saint Christopher's Parish! Neubedburg was literally built around the Saint Christopher Shrine. If you remove that statue, you remove the reason for this town's existence.”

This was such an easy pitch that Father Bob was embarrassed to hit it out of the park.

“You know as well as I do that Saint Christopher is a legend. He was taken off the liturgical calendar four years ago. I know that this faith community has a rich history, Mike. It was a good history. But if we keep trying to treat Christopher as a historical person now, we will be perpetuating a pious fraud. The People of God have to grow up, Mike, and we have to help them do it. In fact, I have already spoken to a few people on the Parish Council about changing the name of the parish. They are less wedded to the past than you think, Mike.”

“Change the name? Change the name to what?!?”

“I was thinking along the lines of 'The Parish of the Lord's Supper.'”

God knows I tried, Mike thought to himself. I really did.

* * *

A dozen families had settled Neubedburg in 1820. They came as a group from a single village at the German-speaking edge of the Czech lands, which had in turn been settled by refugees from some war or persecution in the west. The village had been a very isolated place, so much so that it survived the Thirty Years' War in a region that had otherwise been largely depopulated. Then the tumults of the 18th century repeatedly threatened to plunge the village into a wider world. Most of its people took advantage of the end of the Napoleonic Wars to join the Other Immigration. Little remarked except by much later social historians, that influx of religious dissidents and eccentrics landed in Maine and spread across northern New Hampshire and Vermont into New York State. There it gave the famous Burned Over District something of its special spiritual flavor.

The people of Neubedburg were never as flamboyant as some of their better-known neighbors. Unlike the Mormons, they never set out to conquer the world. If the spirits who spoke to the Fox Sisters spoke to them, they did not answer. Unlike the Millerites, they kept to themselves whatever thoughts they had about the length of time before the Second Coming. They also kept their ancestral peasant-version of Catholicism, distinguished in their case only by an intense cult of St. Christopher.

Neubedburg was far enough off the beaten track to keep the ethnic character of its founders, but it was not Shangri-La. The first Neubedburgers made the discovery that all settlers in the region did: the best the land could do for then was dairy farming, and that best was not very good. They experimented with the softwood lumber business, with mixed success. In the 20th century, the roads got better, and some light manufacturing came and went. By 1970, the town was little different from hundreds of other little municipalities that were no longer country towns but not quite suburbs.

Father Bob saw immediately how much his new assignment needed renewal. He was surprised, and genuinely puzzled, by how little resistance he encountered.

The people were visibly relieved by the changes to the interior of the wooden firetrap church. The congregation had been literally penned into narrow pews with actual gates on their ends. The rail separating the altar area from the main body of the building was a low fence of black iron and wire mesh, almost like something you might see around a sheepfold. On the north side of the building was the big St. Christopher Shrine. The saint had stood in a large alcove, apparently in mid-stride of a running assault on the congregation. Removing the monstrosity immediately freed the room of its atmosphere of impending menace.

Soon the whole interior was cleared and brightly lit. The walls were painted a cheerful beige, and sound-deadening carpets covered the floor. Comfortable, portable chairs replaced the pews. They were arranged about the new altar, which was a simple table on a low dais in the middle of the room, flanked by an unpretentious podium. Christopher's alcove became a hospitality space, where coffee could be smelled brewing during every church service. The people, whom Father Bob saw had stood in the pews like suffering inmates in the final weeks of Father Mike's tenure, now became frisky. The Christmas party, which he insisted on holding in the church itself, was positively raucous.

Care of the physical plant was the smallest part of a priest's job, of course. Father Bob had to marry people and bury people, both of which he did with the same studied informality. He managed to reduce the schedule for confessions to “By Appointment,” thus freeing up what would otherwise have been wasted Saturday afternoons. He also reduced the number of Masses; he really had better things to do than cater to a handful of daily communicants.

The parish had never boasted a school. The faculty and student body of the Neubedburg public school were so overwhelmingly Catholic that a private alternative would have been superfluous. However, the parish did have well-attended Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes for Catholic children. Father Bob made modernizing their curriculum among the first items on their agenda. Dogma nearly disappeared from the classes. Instead, using guided discussion, the students were encouraged to discover their moral intuitions. They ate it up.

Their parents and grandparents were of a similar way of thinking, so much so that Father Bob was confident enough to probe their indifference to the name change of the old parish. (The diocese felt that “Parish of the Lord's Supper” was a little too progressive, though the bishop's liturgical advisors let him know they wished they could get away with it. He settled for “Parish of the Eucharist,” which was generic enough for the new departures he planned.)

“We had a great devotion to Saint Christopher these many years,” one of the older women of the parish told him one day, “but to tell you the truth, it was always something the priests wanted. We're not so sad about the changes.”

“You don't miss the old shrine, then?”

“Miss it? Do you know what we used to call that horrible thing? 'Top Dog': I've been terrified of it since I was a girl. We all were.”

 

Father Bob was really enjoying this. Old ladies were supposed to be conservative. He would wow them at the next pastoral conference with reactions like hers.

“But didn't anyone ever complain? Or even ask to get a less horrible statue?

“A new statue? Father, for as long as I can remember, every priest who served here made that statue the touchstone of the spiritual life. When we were little, we were told that Top Dog would get us if we were bad. When we were older, were told that if even a dog-headed man can turn to Christ, then we can do no less. Not 'we should do no less.' It was always an order.”

 

Father Bob was taken aback. “Dog-headed man? Did the priests actually use that expression?”

“Well, not in church, but it's common knowledge. You know the story, I'm sure.”

Then something clicked in Father Bob's memory. There was more than one version of the origin of Saint Christopher. There may actually have been a martyred Roman soldier of the third century behind the legends, but in the Latin Church, Saint Christopher was often depicted as a monstrous, half-human creature, from beyond the pale of civilization. Sometimes he was said to have been a giant. He was also said to have been one of the “dog-headed men.” Father Bob could just barely remember the Greek word: cynocephali. Saint Christopher was supposed to have been one of the cynocephali. That's why the horrible statue had such a hairy head.

The thought that such a monstrosity had been central to the lives of the people of Neubedburg for a century and a half stunned him to silence for a moment. Then he began to try to make a tactful apology.

“Well, in the old days, I suppose, it made sense for people to think like that, but today…”

“Oh, cut it out, Father. Everyone in this town has hated Top Dog since Homer was a pup. No one ever did us a greater favor than getting rid of him.”

Father Bob would never be more gratified in his pastoral career.

* * *

By the time October rolled around again, it had certainly been a busy year at the re-christened Parish of the Eucharist. There was a new pastor, a new church, and a palpably new spirit. For that matter, President Richard Nixon had recently resigned; perhaps the only person in the world Father Bob thought was uglier than Saint Christopher. Certainly there was a lot to celebrate. Father Bob planned to fold the one-year anniversary celebration into a big Halloween party. The party would be on Halloween evening, right after Mass, which would be celebrated in anticipation of All Saints' Day, November 1. In fact, Father Bob planned to make the Lord's Supper flow seamlessly into the Halloween Party, as they told him in seminary had been the practice in the early Church. Well, more or less.

Father Bob hurried across the now brown lawn between the rectory and the church. It was a perfect Halloween: chill moaning winds under a sky that was clear, except for some scurrying wisps of cloud. There was even a full moon, something he had not realized would be there before he looked up and saw it. If he had been a bit more attuned to the supernatural, the young night might have made him uneasy. As it was, he was very pleased when he opened the front door and found the congregation was so big and animated.

Actually, animated was not the word for it. He had seen high school cafeterias on the last day of school that were quieter than this. Many of the parishioners had plainly been drinking something besides the coffee available in Top Dog's Niche (everybody used the term now). For that matter, everybody looked a bit scruffier than usual. Well, it was Thursday evening, not Sunday morning.

Everyone was very glad to see him. In fact, he was so pawed and backslapped as he moved through the crowd (the chairs had mostly been moved to the sides of the room) that he gave up the idea of processing to the altar. Finally, he was able to make his way to the podium. Someone had spilled a yellowish liquid on the carpet around it. He managed to get a hymn started (“Sons of God,” whose message of communal eucharist he liked), but the “alleluias” tended to fade into energetic yodels. He tried, without much success, to quiet the dense circle of people standing around the dais. The best he could do was to make himself heard in snatches.

“…Spirit of renewal…”

“Mumble-giggle-growl-mumble giggle-giggle…!”

“…embodied in our community...”

“Gargle-Yelp! Yelp!-Har-de-Har-giggle…”

“…New Pentecost…Yeeeoow!”

Father Bob finally stopped trying to talk when the pain shot up from his left calf. Looking down, he realized two things. The first was that the yellowish liquid around the podium was urine. The other was that a child with a brightly bloody face had begun to eat his leg.

This sort of situation had not been covered in seminary, before or after the Second Vatican Council. Father Bob started to collapse, and hands reach out from the congregation to grab him. Though he was beyond surprise at this point, Father Bob was confused at how widely the people around him were smiling. Then he saw the length of their teeth.

Before the pack closed over him, another bit of relevant information floated into his mind. Cynocephali: didn't that also mean “werewolves”?

* * *

The people of the Parish of the Eucharist had genuinely liked Father Bob. For a while, some of them attended churches in neighboring towns. The rest, like many Catholics of those days, simply became less observant. Nonetheless, they all agreed they wanted to have a priest now and then, especially on the principal holy days. The temporary substitutes that the diocese assigned were not completely satisfactory. Finally, one moonlit evening in Advent, the bishop himself came for a dialogue and a church supper. 

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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