We just got back from the going away party for our Priest. Today was his last Sunday Mass, and he’ll be moving on to another parish.
This makes me very sad, as I adore him. He has always been strong and unwilling to compromise over the Truth. He also is not afraid to make people angry. In age where so many worry about not offending people so their dollars stay in the church, this is refreshing.
He is also the priest that Russell and I converted under. He baptized Russell, and three of our four children.
I would like to tell two stories about him today, but some backstory first.
I left “formalized” religion in high school, after growing up in an unnamed-to-avoid-drama Protestant Church.
There was a rather appalling and disgusting bit of mean girls out grouping going on aimed at my mother while my parents were getting divorced. They treated me badly over it, and treated my sister even worse. I don’t want to get into details over it, because I do not post my dirty laundry everywhere, but I will mention it happened.
It was also a church that was rather dismissive of its teenagers. They put age caps on all the kids events at the church, and basically cast us out of them. We were not even allowed to help with them. And there were no events for us. It was like they decided we were the devil as soon as we hit around 14/15 years old.
I saw no reason to continue going anymore. I didn’t want to endure the side-eyes and the whispering. It felt a little like betraying my mother to go, too. That was her church, and to this day it still confuses me why everyone decided to take my dad’s side and run her out. But that’s in the past.
Though not as progressive as it is now, growing up in this particular protestant church, I wasn’t brought up with a firm sense of the faith. Now I can say it was Churchianity…rarely was there any discussion of sin. If you were A Good PersonTM, then you would be saved. It was never explicitly stated either, but somehow I ended up with a sense that I should only pray about the important things – the big things. Some of that came from growing up in the Bible Belt, where there are certain denominations (I’ll also leave them unnamed but you can probably figure it out) that publicly and endlessly beg for prayers for every little thing, which also left a bad taste in my mouth – it felt to me like they were attention-whoring, not honestly seeking prayers. All of this culminated in some weird sort of expectation formed out of churchianity and prosperity gospel – I won’t ask you for anything, God, unless it is really important. And because I don’t ask unless it is really important, he will grant it to me.
Now, I’m going to interrupt all of this right now to say that I know that is not the case now. How could it possibly be so? As our priest has often said, “God is not a vending machine,” where we ask and he provides exactly how we want. But my vague collection of what I had (and hadn’t) been taught led me to feel this way on an emotional level.
Dear God, please save my grandmother.
Please don’t let my Uncle die.
Please help my parents.
Please stop this divorce.
Help me. I am drowning in their anger. Save me from this.
After half a decade of these desperate prayers – when I had never asked for anything else – and nothing changed, I felt lost. What had I done wrong? Was I not a Good PersonTM?
And then they came after me as part of what ended up being the scorched earth campaign of my parents’ divorce, and I was done with it all. None of them were behaving like Good PeopleTM, the ways that it was stressed throughout my childhood that were the Christian ways to behave. I was disillusioned and angry.
I never stopped believing, I suppose. It was important to me that I get married in a church, so when Russell and I married, we did so in that denomination. But not at my childhood church.
I still went to other churches on occasion. But they did not bring any kind of guidance, and soon even then occasional visits stopped.
I tell you this not to bash my previous churches, really. But to give you the backstory why I was not a member of the unnamed denomination, and why I did not attend a church.
This is not the full story of my conversion, which I will probably write at another time. That’s too much of a tangent for this post. But this is the heart I had in me, even when I was in RCIA to convert to Catholicism. I believed in the faith, and wanted to be a part of it, but I was still afraid and wounded.
As part of our joining of the Church, we were required to have a private meeting with the Priest to discuss why we were joining the church.
And without even really realizing it, I found all of this pouring out of me as I talked to him. I am generally very private and quiet in person – the real world equivalent of a forum lurker, I suppose – but I told it to our priest.
After I finished, he said:
“I am glad you wish to join our faith. But don’t you think, for even a minute, that that couldn’t happen to you here,” he told me.
This might shock most people, but I was immediately enamored of his bluntness and honesty about it. Too many people, especially those in power, are oblivious to those kinds of games and behaviors.
He also said, “I will go to Hell for the toes I have intentionally stomped on since coming here, because I will have none of it,”
And there was none of it, at least to me. And to the extent that anyone is able to control it, it did not happen. He stomped through the parish, breaking up twenty year cliques and their leaders, and with the force of a hurricane declared that he would not accept that kind of behavior anymore.
He always remembered me after that, and in the early days would take care to make sure I was doing well. It was a small thing, but after being essentially written out of the history of the small church I had grown up in, it meant a lot. Especially since our Parish is HUGE.
But the main story, the big one I set out to tell (and decided would be too long for Twitter) is about what this Priest did for my grandfather.
Despite my mother’s family being more than a little Italian, no one in my family is Catholic. I was breaking new ground when I left the protestants and joined the Catholics.
My grandfather was very ill – deathly ill, in fact. Sepsis got into his bloodstream, and his systems were shutting down. He at one time was an interim pastor for his church – he and my grandmother were deeply religious, but also left the formal church when it began to politicize too much, and when his pastor refused to write a recommendation letter so he could go to seminary.
For the previous decade, suffering from some form of dementia and some reoccurring health problems, he lived with my mother, away from his home town. He had no church here, though Russell and I often took him to mass with us to. He was quite fond of our priest, “even though he was a Catholic and wrong about a lot of things.”
After rounds upon rounds of antibiotics, various treatments, and a tracheotomy, he was not getting better. The doctors at the hospital began to campaign to pull the plug on his oxygen, to “just let him die.” They claimed he didn’t know what was going on, and wasn’t “present” enough anymore to be able to make any decisions. They pushed it hard enough that my mother asked for help from Russell, who went to the hospital himself though it was not his family.
Russell went to visit my grandfather, who could not speak at all because of his tracheotomy. He clearly explained what was going on, and explicitly asked him, “Barry, do you want us to let you die?” so it could not be argued with. My grandfather vehemently and vigorously shook his head every time. No. He was not ready to die.
And so Russell defended him, and when they still persisted, he called our priest.
Who came to my grandfather’s aide, despite the fact that he was not a Catholic, and not a member of our parish. There are more than 2600 families in our parish. Our priest is busy all the time. I’m sure there was something else he could have been doing. But he came to help as soon as the message got through to him.
He came into that hospital and shamed the doctors into backing off, and brought the power of the Church with him to end any arguments. He spoke to my grandfather himself, and asked the same questions – and got the same answer. Despite his pain, despite the grim outlook, my grandfather did not want to die.
He even visited my grandfather in the hospital later that week, all on his own. Just to check up on him.
The Saturday at the end of that week, my grandfather’s heart was failing.
And he came to wait with us, and said the commendation of the dying for him. He told us that “he would not abandon a man of God when he was dying,” and stayed with us until all but my mother and my aunt left for the night.
My grandfather died late that night, and then the next morning, before Mass, he sought us out and asked about him. We told him he passed away, and then during the Eucharist, after “for whom this mass is offered,” he said “and also for Barry Nicora, who passed away this morning,”
These may seem like little things, but they were so important to me, especially after being so disillusioned and angry about what happened the last time I needed the support of my church.
He helped my grandfather die a natural death, the one intended for him, instead of one forced on mankind’s time. He offered his church for my grandfather’s funeral in there was nowhere else to have it. We took him home to Georgia for it, but I still appreciate the offer.
Father Phil, you helped heal my heart by making your parish into a safe place. You showed me Christ’s love, and the selflessness of the Church when you cared for a man that was not of your flock. You are one of the reasons that I am still part of the faith, because I was so timid and wounded when I converted that it would have been easy for me to flee out of fear of getting hurt again.
Thank you. Thank you. God bless you.