“Mixing It Up” — Pastor’s Reflection (August 9, 2015)
Last Sunday we friars threw ourselves into a new Sunday routine so as to adequately serve a united parish. We made some very apparent changes: Fr. Jonah Pollock celebrated Masses at St. Vincent Ferrer, while Fr. Innocent Smith and I celebrated at St. Catherine’s. Fr. John Devaney celebrated Mass at St. Vincent’s, and then moved east to care for people in the hospital. We also began to face more hidden challenges. Of significant priestly concern was, “How will I greet the people?” Here necessity generated surprising efficiencies. I discovered that I could say hello to people arriving at St. Vincent’s for the 5:30 pm Mass, then I could walk over and great people leaving the 5:15 pm Mass at St. Catherine’s. Hopefully this kind of planning will keep us all present to the whole community of St. Vincent Ferrer and St. Catherine of Siena.
As the brothers moved from place to place to preach, celebrate the sacraments, and meet new people, they received a hearty welcome from all comers. The spirit of the day gave tribute to the zeal and charity of the entire parish.
For me the most moving experience of the day was its most intimate one. Fr. Innocent, who serves his Brothers as keeper of the schedule, assigned me to say the 10:00 am Mass at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Fr. Vincent Ferrer kindly took me over and showed me how to transform the All Faith Chapel into a setting for the Mass. After he left I was alone in the room with my memories. In 1990, as a Student Brother, I did clinical training at Sloan and at NewYork- Presbyterian. During that summer I was assigned to the breast cancer floor at Sloan Kettering and two post surgical units at NewYork-Presbyterian. I then returned to the hospital ministry at St. Catherine’s as a young priest in the summers of 1993 and 1994.
These stints of service exerted a lasting effect upon my ministry. Each time I entered a room I realized I was bringing the Gospel into a unique environment, created not only by the diagnosis of the patient, but also by temperament, personal history, and family situation. Keeping this truth in mind, I approached the patient with humility, and was able to listen and respond. When some preoccupation intervened, people got stock phrases, and the emptiness of the encounter was palpable. No doubt this time in the hospitals taught me how to be present to a whole line of penitents, or to recognize when I had failed to do so and to ask why. All of this learning came to the foreground of my memory as I waited for my congregants this weekend.
Twelve of them appeared for our simple Eucharist. It was a a new thing, and an old thing, to preach about Christ to people who had walked in with IV poles and were much closer to the Savior’s Passion than I. What a privilege, though, to have the challenge of responding to people who want to receive Christ into the heart of their illness, or to know his companionship in their work as doctors, nurses, or caregivers!
The insight of this moment clung to me as I went back across the street to the solemnity and beauty of the Noon Mass at St. Catherine’s. Here too I found the chance and challenge of presenting the Gospel in a singular circumstance of time and place. When one deals with established assemblies of people, there really is no generic. Christ was truly present, presiding, and gathering souls on both sides of 68th Street. In the hospital and in the Parish Church people hungered for the Bread of Life. Those who respond to that hunger as priests have the joy of observing how many ways people use to express that longing and with what surprising accuracy Christ responds to them all.
That is why, for me, the formation of this new parish means a new call to grow in reverence for, and awareness of, people. In a special way this includes my Brothers who so joyfully share this new rhythm of life with me. They and I expect to grow through the challenge of serving the new congregation entrusted to our care.
We friars are meeting to develop initiatives for the new parish. We will be in touch about them soon. In the meantime, may the remainder of summer come to you as true rest.
Fr. Walter Wagner, O.P., Pastor