WOSTER: The unwanted center of attention in church
I recall a time long ago when the Catholic priest back home stopped talking, singing and praying in the middle of a Good Friday service and simply stared from his spot at the altar up toward the church's crowded choir.
I was no more than 10 years old. In those days Good Friday service at our parish in Chamberlain began at noon and continued full-tilt until 3 p.m. or after. The idea was that that's how long Christ suffered on the cross. Our priest wanted to make sure his parishioners knew what suffering meant, so he stretched the service to the fullest.
Now, I had seen this priest pause in the middle of a Sunday or daily Mass to glare at someone who had interrupted the flow of the service, whether a crying child, an adult taken by a coughing fit or a couple of teens sharing a joke or a giggle. That was before Vatican II and its reforms. The altar hadn't been turned around and the priest didn't face the congregation. To properly glare at an offender, the celebrant had to hear the noise, make a 180-degree turn and search out the source of the commotion. Somehow, that made it even more solemn and terrifying when it happened.
In the case of our priest, once he'd pivoted and locked onto the target, he'd continue to stare — a kind of "this car isn't moving again until you all straighten up'' moment — until an absolute hush fell across the entire church. No squirming around in the pews, no loud breathing, no sniffling or coughing or crying, and certainly no giggling. Eventually, the offender would hear the quiet and become aware that he or she was the center of everyone else's attention. Sometimes, after order had been restored, the priest would say something like, "If you are quite ready.'' More often, he would simply give a last, piercing stare and pick up where he'd left off.
Those were intensely uncomfortable moments for all concerned, especially if the offenders were a couple of junior-high boys or girls who didn't, for the longest time, pick up on the hushed nature of the church around them. Friends squirmed quietly, wishing they could shout out a warning. Even the adults looked as if they would love to be anywhere in the world except that church at that moment.
As I said, the priest did interrupt now and then, but until that year I was 10, I had never seen him do it on Good Friday. The time he did, I was in the choir loft. The main floor was full. My mom was playing organ, so I joined her in the loft. I'm afraid my attention wandered as the service dragged on. When I noticed the stillness around me, I looked up and saw the priest staring at me. I could see a lifetime of penance in my future, nothing but "Hail Mary'' and "Our Father'' for all eternity. But his burning eyes were fixed on a couple of high-school guys behind me. When I realized that, my gasp of relief must have been audible throughout the church.
I have many memories of Holy Week services from my young life. Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday meant church at least once each day, sometimes more. And one of the things I remember, especially on Good Friday, was that the whole town went somewhere. Businesses closed for at least part of the afternoon. Why not? They'd have no customers. Everyone, it seemed, was in church.
As I've grown older, I've come to understand that not everyone was in church. Some had other beliefs then, as they do now. That's fine. As much as anything else, Easter is about forgiveness and redemption. That's something many of us need at some time in our lives, no matter what we believe or whether we believe at all. I like the idea of some time for a bit of soul-searching, taking stock, you might say, conducting an inventory of assets and liabilities before resuming life's pace.
Maybe, come to think of it, in initiating those long pauses, our priest was simply giving us time to take stock.