Dear Friends of Saint Albert’s,
For most of March the squirrels were able to cavort unheeded before the lowered shades on the Prior’s Window. As I look at my calendar, I realize I was away a good deal of the month, abandoning oversight of our community to the ever-patient subprior, Fr. Augustine Thompson or, when he was called away to speak in San Diego, the Student Master, Fr. Michael Fones.
The first of my absences was occasioned by attending the annual meeting of the superiors of the Western Province. This is a gathering with a history going back, I believe, to 1978. I did not attend the first of them, but I was present at the second, and have been a part of most since then. They are pleasant affairs, and afford the Province’s leaders an opportunity to learn from one another. At times, the gatherings have been punctuated with workshops; this year’s meeting spent considerable time considering legislation passed in January’s Provincial Chapter, as well as revisions to the Western Province’s Mission Statement.
We adopted our Mission Statement in 1985, I believe. It was the result of some very hard work by Fr. Patrick LaBelle, who – in the days before email – sought our suggestions via the U.S. Postal Service! The Statement has stood for thirty years, with nothing but minor, grammatical amendments, and last summer Province members expressed a desire for a new expression of what we’re about.
The task of preparing a draft fell to Fr. Chris Renz, Academic Dean at the Dominican School, and me. One afternoon, when the Chapter had concluded its work for the day, we retired to my office with our computers and sat facing one another on opposite sides of a table. We began our work by listing individual words we thought important. We allowed ourselves a few moments of silence, then shared the phrases we’d come up with. More silence, more phrases, and so on, until we arrived at twenty-one or so words we thought described qualities that set Western Dominicans apart from other religious communities. Chief among these is our commitment to living in priories, something that provides a solid foundation for our community, prayer, and apostolic life.
You may imagine how flattered I was when Fr. Chris insisted on incorporating “proclaim,” in the Statement, a word I’d used in my homily the morning we re-elected Fr. Mark Padrez as our Provincial. In the homily I’d said,
Jesus says the Spirit has anointed him “to bring glad tidings to the poor…to proclaim liberty to captives… and recovery of sight to the blind…” The word “proclaim” is pivotal in this passage. We hear it all the time and, as a result – sadly – underestimate its worth. To proclaim does not simply mean to say or announce something; a proclamation means something is happening. Right now. And if we’re making the proclamation, we’re helping to usher in the event.
The Chapter debated the draft Mission Statement, and finally voted to accept it. It then came to the Superiors of the Province, who debated it again. By this time I was thoroughly tired of the exercise, so had begun to nod off, but Fr. Chris is quite dogged, and he proved an eloquent defender of our work. In the end, everyone in the room voted – quite enthusiastically – to support the statement, no small achievement for Fr. Chris and your (not so) Humble Correspondent.
We came home in time for me to race through a pile of thank-you notes and pack for a visit to my father and step-mother. As I reported last Fall, my dad had been suffering from some very aggressive form of skin cancer. By Christmas, he was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph nodes as well. My father celebrated his 92nd birthday last September, and did not respond well to either radiation or chemotherapy treatments, so he entered hospice care, and my younger step-brother urged me to pay a visit as soon as possible.
My dad was in good spirits, although very weak, and was quite pleased to see me. He even asked how the squirrels are doing! I have a feeling I provided more support to my step-mother, as I simply took up room in the house, said little, and otherwise exercised what I hope was a calming effect in the midst of a great deal of running about. Both my folks are hard of hearing, so I sent an email to someone, observing that the conversation from the other room sounded a great deal like what I remembered from taking my Great Dane to doggie obedience school: “Sit down! I said, sit down!”
I do not watch television, but my folks are dedicated to “Jeopardy,” so I joined them one evening, and had a splendid opportunity to show off when the question asked something about Torquemada. “What is the Inquisition?” I said.
I have spent most of my four-decade priesthood in either Campus Ministry or what we call the Province’s “internal” ministry – working as assistant to our Provincials or directing offices, like the Rosary Center. As a result, I have very seldom administered the Sacrament of the Sick. Even with my ritual book well-marked, I manage to run into all sorts of brick walls, and with my father’s not altogether certain what I was about, anointing him was something of a challenge. Nonetheless, I succeeded, at last, and was able to bid him farewell.
I came home to the sad news that one of the young students, Br. John Gregory, had decided to leave our Order. One cannot quarrel with a brother’s concluding the religious life does not suit him, but departures are always wrenching experiences. No matter how short a time a brother spends among us, we always feel we’ve made some investment in his future, and watching that disappear is very, very sad.
But at least I was able to raise the shades on the Prior’s Window, and while the students enjoyed their Spring Break, some on retreat, others working on theses, I reveled in some reading. I’m very fond of Paul Johnson, and have been struggling through his thousand-page History of the Modern for longer than I can remember. This is a history of the world, between 1815 and 1830. I finished it, at last, while I was visiting my folks, and fell headlong into some popular, and quite unedifying, fiction. Before I did, though, I recorded a quote for my Commonplace Book.
Those who know me well, know my fondness for Charles Talleyrand, someone who played an important role on the world stage during the years Johnson chronicled. I have often considered him my “patron saint,” because he served so many administrations. Johnson says of him, "Talleyrand was lazy…But his mind indeed had a cutting edge. As Wellington said, at dinner he would not bother to talk most of the time, 'and then he says something you remember all your life.'…He hated enthusiasm and its invariable consequence, excess. He said to his clerks; 'Surtout, messieurs, pas trop de zele' (Above all, don’t be too keen)."
I don’t pretend to share Talleyand’s intellectual gifts, but I am consoled to think that, like me, he was quiet and phlegmatic.
Many of you know that Fr. Augustine and a number of others have volunteered to celebrate the Dominican Rite Mass for the Carmelite nuns in Kensington. With Palm Sunday on the horizon, Fr. Augustine was on the lookout for voices to sing the Passion, in Latin, according to the Dominican notation. In a moment of weakness, I said, “Well, I’ve never sung it in Latin, but I’ve sung all the parts in English.” My Reader can guess where I found myself last Sunday, mere moments after presiding at the Palm Sunday festivities here at St. Albert’s.
My partners in song were Fr. Robert Verrill and Br. Tomasz Mikolajski. Both, I must acknowledge at the outset, are vastly better singers than I. However, I was given the part of the crowd, which is the highest of the three, so even though they sang far better, I got to have the most fun, carrying on like an unreformed counter-tenor and, no doubt, calling all sorts of undue attention to myself. Accompanying us were Br. Christopher Wetzel, who did a superb job as subdeacon for the liturgy, a not inconsequential role, and Mr. Richard Rose, who cast acted as thurifer with real aplomb.
Palm Sunday in the Old Rite is the longest liturgy imaginable, so after celebrating our Mass at half-past nine, and then taking part in the Kensington liturgy, which began at eleven-forty and ended after two, I thought I’d claim Monday as the Sabbath I’d missed the previous day. Things were going well until I passed the receptionist’s desk and Rebecca said, “Fr. Reginald, your step-brother just called and left a voice mail on your answering machine.”
“A call from Steve can mean only one thing,” said I, as I made my way to my room. Sure enough, I learned my father had died earlier that morning. Down came the shades once again, and I made the airline reservations to pay another visit to my step-mother. My step-brother was there when I arrived, so we three spent a pleasant afternoon and evening. We watched “Jeopardy,” of course, and I think I did pretty well. Torquemada didn’t feature this time, but I was able to identify Titian and a couple of earthquake faults.
When I came home, the squirrels were overjoyed to see the window shades raised once again. And they heaved an immense sigh of relief to learn I’d equipped myself with a Schubert CD to listen to on the drive between the Ontario airport and my folks’ home in Apple Valley. My elegantly-clad friends, to my surprise, were aghast to learn I’d invited Philip Glass to while away the tedium of last Fall’s drive between my folks’ and St. Albert’s.
If my father had to die during Holy Week, Monday was undoubtedly the day to choose. I was able to pay my visit, then return home Wednesday afternoon – just in time for the Triduum liturgies. As an added bonus, I had time in the airports to work on my homilies for Holy Thursday and the Easter Vigil.
When I pulled into the driveway, on my drive from the airport, I saw an elegant amber-colored plume rising from one of the dumpsters in the back yard. I drew closer, slowly, and realized it was the tail of one of our squirrel friends. It turned around and stared at me for a moment, before returning to whatever more interesting project I’d interrupted. I knew I’d come home.
We have just begun our journey through the three days of Jesus’ Passion and Triumph as I draw this reflection to its close. The solemn liturgies of these days remind us how much Our Savior gave us – and how much he invites us to give in his memory. Thank you for all you have given us.
Sincerely in the Risen Christ!
--Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.