On the way home from the funeral vigil, my seven-year-old told me, “This weekend I’m going to give up donuts and playground for Father Fix.” For the repose of his soul.
It had been her idea to attend the wake. Had she had her way, we would have gone to “all the funeral things,” as she put it, even to the point of calculating whether we could beat the hearse to New Jersey for the burial. (No, darling, we are not driving to New Jersey for the burial. If I’m going to drive that distance, we will go to Florida to see your great-grandmother.) She saw all the funeral flowers at the church and tried to figure out where, at eight at night, we could quick go out and buy some flowers of our own to put on that altar in Father’s honor.
She had loved that man.
And I didn’t even know she knew him.
Father Fix was the retired pastor of our parish, retired before ever we joined the parish when my daughter was a baby. He lived in a nearby nursing home, and on Sunday mornings a pair of parishioners would bring him to Mass.
He’d sit up by the front pews in his clericals, and receive Holy Communion right after the priest and deacon, and then during the communion procession, about half the congregation would pat his shoulder or shake his hand as they passed him on their way back to their own seats. During donuts after mass people who knew him would sit with him, and one time I thanked him for donating the (stunning) remnants of his library to the parish. He told me he was glad someone was reading his books. I am not smart enough to read most of his books, but I can admire them.
On Sunday morning before he died, I remember seeing him at mass and thinking, “He will not be with us much longer.” And how sorry we would be at that loss.
Wednesday when I learned he had died, I wasn’t sure whether to attend his funeral services. I had barely known him, I thought. There were so many others who had known him for decades, who remembered him as their pastor and friend. I didn’t want to crowd the church, stealing precious seat space from people who had known him so much of their lives.
But my daughter? She had known him since forever.
He was one of her priests. By her reckoning, he was more reliably present than any other priest to grace our parish. The way she counted it, Father Fix sitting in his nursing-home-issue wheelchair, shaking hands and whispering good wishes to all who wanted his blessing, he was doing as great a work as anything else that happened at mass.
He was doing a work that even a toddler can understand. Long before she could tell you about transubstantiation, or make sense of the Gospel, or figure out that the homily was something that might be meant for her little ears, she could understand the ministry of Father Fix. When I told her he had died, she said to me, “He was always so nice to everybody.”
How could you not love a man who had been kind to you at mass every week of your life?
So we went to the funeral vigil. We signed the guest register, and took extra prayer cards to bring home to the siblings, and sat in a wedge-corner pew perfect for two. She studied the picture of Father Fix on one side of the memorial card, and was delighted when I flipped it over to show her the image on the other side – the Sacred Heart of Jesus. After the eulogy, she directed me to get in line to visit the casket.
When it was her turn, she knelt before Father’s body and prayed.
He was decked out in the gold vestments he’d requested – a request she had learned of on her class’s church tour that week. Her teacher had told them about the liturgical colors, and explained why we wouldn’t be seeing gold again for a while, until new ones could be obtained.
After my daughter prayed, we looked through the the scrapbooks on the table in the narthex. Pictures, newspaper articles, all documenting that other life he had lived.
People will say of someone who suffers great infirmity at the end of life, “He is not the man we once knew.” I felt that betrayal in reverse: Looking through pictures of earlier honors and busy parish events, the man my daughter and I had known was not there. Where was the peaceful, quiet man who loved everybody?
Oh sure, a parish needs a pastor. Somebody’s got to confer sacraments and manage the building fund, and on an ordinary day I’d agree those are essentials of the priestly vocation. Through the sacrament of holy orders, the Holy Spirit confers a grace and a distinctive mark upon a man, setting him aside for these works.
It was not my idea that she make a sacrifice on Father’s behalf. It was her idea, born of her love for her priest, unbidden by anyone.
What is a priest for?
He proclaims the Gospel. In a particular way, through the sacraments, he brings God to us and us to God. The Holy Spirit works through a priest, to share the life of Christ with each of us.
For seven years my daughter was in-between sacraments. A lifetime.
And during those long seven years, God who is Love Himself put a particular priest in our pews. “What is your name?” Moses had asked of God. The answer wasn’t, “I am He who does.” It was: I am.
In those pews was a little girl who didn’t need a doing-priest. She needed a being-priest.
Father put himself at the service of the Lord. His life’s mission was to share the love of Christ in whatever way God required. And he did.