Two years ago, I made an effort to begin going to Sunday mass again. I’d been absent more often than not during the preceding years for a plethora of reasons — weekend work schedules, out-of-town family events, and caring for my mother in her home in another state. Father Bill was the priest on the Sunday I’d returned to join the faithful.
I watched as he entered the church from the sacristy. Walking across the altar was difficult for him, I understood why he didn’t participate in the processional at the beginning of mass. I lamented the state of the Church, and its continued problems recruiting young priests. During that mass, Father Bill touched my heart with his thoughtful, quiet homily and the devotion and passion of his voice as he sung the hymns.
On the walk home, I confided in my husband how moved I was by Father Bill’s story which reminded so much of an event that occurred when we attended Midnight Mass in Rome over two decades ago. When I got home, I wrote a short story about that special night.
It has been over a week since Father Bill fell and broke his hip. After surgery, he seemed to be doing well and the hospital staff planned on getting him up to walk. Within a few days, his condition worsened, and Father Bill was called to his heavenly home. He will be sorely missed by the parishioners in our little village.
He struggled to walk, yet he bolstered himself to come and say mass each week even on the coldest winter days. The effort would waylay many younger people. When our pastor Father John spoke of Father Bill, he equated him with characters from stories similar to the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and Lord of the Rings. Father Bill was the old king who went into battle when he was needed and fought valiantly in the service of others. Not a single dry eye in the church this past Sunday… Godspeed, Father Bill, this story is for you.
The dimly lit courtyard held a snaking line of visitors which buzzed with muted conversations, the shuffling of feet, and an occasional entreaty by a youngster to the elders who accompanied them. The group waited in anticipation to hear Pope John Paul II say Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Among the crowd were people of all ages, colors, and ethnicities. Ahead of us, the melodic cadence of Italian came from an animated troupe while behind us stood a gathering of nuns with dark veils covering their hair and wooden crosses hanging from the rosary beads secured at their waists.
In our group were military families taking a trip to Rome on Christmas weekend. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event for my small family. I had purchased a crucifix to hang in our home and brought my rosary so both items could be blessed by the Pope during Midnight Mass. Growing up in a Catholic family, my favorite mass of the year was this one celebrated on Christmas Eve.
When I was a young girl, we would get bundled up in our winter coats, boots, and mittens and crawl into our beat-up Chevy for the drive along snowy highways with the moonlight lighting the snow-covered fields until they glowed. The country church we attended it’s a well-known fact you had to get there early because the church reached its capacity for Midnight Mass. If you arrived late, you’d have to stand in the back and for a young child, it was reminiscent of standing among a suffocating forest of human legs.
The choir would start off the standard hymns I’d learned when my dad would play the Christmas album, “Sing Along with Mitch.” The voices of the faithful would swell with hope and love infused into their harmonies. Our song was a prayerful offering to the Creator.
In that dark Vatican courtyard, as we tried to stay warm, stomping our feet and rubbing our hands together, our small military group began to sing Silent Night to keep our minds off the December chill in the air and to pass the time. The Canadian nuns joined us and soon a trickle of other groups followed, providing a mixture of accented baritones, sopranos, tenors and altos. Our song grew in strength into something so pure it connected us all at that moment. One carol followed another until the stone walls surrounding us echoed with our words. Goosebumps popped up on my arms, and I felt a chill deep in my chest as I sang along. We–the travelers to this place on this specific night–were one in song and in fellowship.
I remember that night like it happened yesterday and not twenty-four years ago. We connected to strangers with our familiar song. I haven’t any photos or videos to document the moment but they aren’t needed because the memories are permanently engraved in my mind and heart. I wonder if the other people remember that evening as fondly.