09/05/2018

Preparing for The Mass of the Holy Spirit

For me this month at Loyola it’s all about the collision of two Masses.

 

The first, on Thursday, September 6, will be a traditional, joyous, even thrilling affair, the Mass of the Holy Spirit. This liturgy opens each new academic year with praise, petition and thanksgiving in the form of gorgeous music, exuberant song, graceful dance, and reverent worship. It’s always a happy moment in the life of the university, one I tell my students they won’t want to miss—and not just because I’m trying to get them to go to church. With hundreds of members of the Loyola community—students, faculty, and staff—packed into Holy Name of Jesus Church, the Mass of the Holy Spirit makes for an inspiring start to yet another season in the ongoing mission of learning, growth, and personal transformation that animates every Jesuit school around the world. And in keeping with a custom that goes back to the foundation of the very first Jesuit schools in the mid-16th century, they all kick things off with this colorful, upbeat communal liturgy.

 

The second Mass, on Saturday, September 15, the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, will be something else altogether: still a Mass and therefore traditional, and with the celebration of the Eucharist, which recalls and re-presents the saving mystery of Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection, at least potentially consoling and grounded in hope. But attendees shouldn’t expect this Mass to be upbeat, and I don’t expect to be thrilled. Sad, angry, and dejected is more like it. At least that’s how I feel going in because Loyola’s liturgy that day in Ignatius Chapel, to which students, faculty, staff, and alumni are once again invited, is billed as a Mass of Healing and organized in response to fresh news of horrors perpetrated by clergy against young and vulnerable persons over the years, sickening crimes in many cases covered up by bishops. I don’t want to go, but I can’t think of a Mass that more urgently demands my presence—as a priest, a Jesuit, a Catholic, a human being whose spirit sags under the weight of disappointment and sorrow.

 

The disparity in mood between these two religious services is bound to produce some emotional whiplash. I know that will be true for me because, as much as I always look forward to the Mass of the Holy Spirit, this year it holds a special meaning. During the liturgy, just before communion, I will kneel at the altar and, facing the Blessed Sacrament held aloft in front of me, pronounce my final vows in the Society of Jesus. It’s a moment I’ve been looking forward to—and waiting for.

 

I entered the Society in 1989, at Grand Coteau, Louisiana, and after two years as a novice pronounced perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Pledging then to enter the Society “to live my life in it forever,” I cast my commitment in the form of an offering and, in the words of that first vow formula, asked of God that, “as you have freely given me the desire to make this offering, so also may you give me the abundant grace to fulfill it.” On September 6 at that colorful, joyful Mass, after long years of study, work, evaluation and discernment, I will understand—in the Society’s invitation to final vows—my offering to have been accepted. Another way to think about it is this: I once said “yes” to the Society and its mission of proclaiming Christ in the world, and the Society, which has said “yes” to me in countless provisional ways over the years, now does so definitively. And my heart exclaims, Deo gratias—thanks be to God!

 

But what will my heart have to say on September 15, at that Mass of Healing? In Jesuit-speak, final vows mark “full incorporation” into the Society of Jesus. On the one hand, that implies responsibility, above all the responsibility shared with all Jesuits with final vows for custodial care of the order. And I am both humbled and happy to take up that duty, relying as always on God’s grace to help me fulfill it. On the other hand, this new level of commitment means I become more than ever “a man of the Church,” precisely at a moment—ominously, it feels like a crossroads—of grave crisis, public humiliation, and widespread revulsion. I pray for healing, first and foremost for those who have been harmed, and for justice; I hope that one day the Church will emerge from under this dark cloud renewed in its integrity and holy purpose. But realistically I am resigned to the fact that for the rest of my life the stain on the institutional Church, and especially on the priesthood, will never be fully washed away. That many people, when they hear the word “priest” or see one (me, for example) in his clerical collar, will first think “child abuser,” “deviant,” “criminal,” “liar.” That many will turn away. That’s the burden—the cross—that I will bring with me to the altar on September 15. No doubt everyone who chooses to be present will bear their own variation of that burden. At least we’ll be together. My heart breaks for those who bear a cross of lost faith, betrayed trust, trauma, and pain, but who can find no solace in our company.  

 

At the Mass of the Holy Spirit, in addition to repeating the first vows I made long ago of poverty, chastity, and obedience, this time I’ll add a couple new ones. One is a promise of special obedience to the “Supreme Pontiff,” that is, the pope, “in regard to the missions.” The other is a promise of “special concern for the education of youth.” Even though St. Ignatius had no intention of opening schools when he founded the Society of Jesus, education quickly became the best-known work of the new order. That history and ministerial focus are now enshrined in the promise I will make. Up to now, education has been my almost exclusive ministry, and young people, primarily university students, my regular “congregation.” So it feels right to highlight in the vows particular regard for work and people that are close to my heart and to the Society’s.

 

Yet as I anticipate that other Mass a few days later and reflect on the hurt caused by the Church, it’s my students and young people in general that I worry about most. Those who self-identify as religiously affiliated already do so at historically low rates. Whatever else she might know about it, an 18-year-old freshman today will have lived her whole life with the drumbeat of hurt and shame that has enveloped the Church in this first century of the new millennium. They are good, these young people, and they have ideals and convictions. What really bothers me is that I can clearly see how many of them yearn for something true and trustworthy, something to ground and guide them. But I know from experience that they are almost congenitally skeptical of institutions, authority and all moral claims. I won’t stop trying with them, even in the face of this latest news, but I do ask myself, “What can I possibly say, what can I do, how can I be, to win them back?” Not to Catholicism or religion, necessarily (or initially), but just to belief in something big and beyond themselves, something worthy of their own good hearts.

 

The students can and do surprise me, though. Just the other day, I mentioned in my First-Year Honors Seminar that I would be taking final vows at the Mass of the Holy Spirit and extended a personal invitation for them to attend. I was genuinely moved when they all broke into spontaneous applause, whatever skepticism they might harbor temporarily overcome by simple kindness and goodwill. I don’t know how many of them will attend on September 6, but I will be thinking of my Loyola students as I promise special concern for young people and their education in general. I will carry my students with me, too, into the Mass of Healing on September 15, and the memory of their smiling faces and expressions of congratulations will be a sign of life to me in the middle of what feels like death, a small flame of hope to push back against the darkness of the day, and even a kind of love that soothes and encourages.

 

Life, hope, love: it’s what victims deserve, what every Mass is about, and what we’re all looking for from each other.     

 

--Gregory Waldrop, S.J.

   

 
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