Today is one of those disjointed days, highlighted every few minutes with a Facebook update from family or friends. Yes, today is my birthday, and without sounding irreverent, I have now lived more than twice as long as Christ, but with considerably less influence. Serious focus today, our “Liturgy Monday,” will probably not be possible. So instead, let me share a few funny anecdotes of my own liturgical experiences. Or of those I know about. Or legends.
There are several variations of this account. The portable clip-on microphone seems to have been a difficult adjustment for older priests. A pastor was blessing his baptismal water at the Easter Vigil when his glasses slid down his nose and plopped into the water. The pastor said softly, “----!” The new PA system worked perfectly, unfortunately.
A famous bishop was officiating at a large parish Confirmation. After communion his regular master of ceremonies put the miter on his head—backward, so that the two ribbons fell across the bishop’s face as he sat in the presider’s chair. The horrified pastor rushed over to assist, but the bishop grabbed his arm. “No, leave it the way it is. I want everyone to see what an idiot he is.”
I attended an ordination in Maryland years ago where the presiding bishop’s microphone was on an adjustable pole. There was a grand entrance procession and the choir was in rare form, and finally the church was still and the bishop stepped forward to solemnly begin. He must have nudged the pole, because the microphone began an agonizingly long and noisy descent to the floor. At first the bishop gamely tried to save face by “scrunching himself smaller” as they say, but that soon became no longer possible and the master of ceremonies went to all fours desperately looking for the adjustment ring to stop the descent. All of this under the watch of a thousand or so set of eyes.
My order had a much beloved friar who served as MC for all of our Franciscan ordinations. He never made a mistake like that—except once. I attended an ordination where somehow no one had been advised or assigned ahead of time to read the Gospel! The ritual calls for one of the deacons (of those being ordained that day) to proclaim the Gospel. The powers that be selected the deacon and notified him as the music of the processional was beginning. I know this story is true because it was my ordination and the MC cried, “Tommy, you’ve got to help us.” The celebrant, by the way, would soon become Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
It was not a good day for the MC. After the ordination there was a reception at our seminary, in the garden courtyard. Father MC was a gifted botanist, among other things, and I ran into him in the courtyard to find him very upset. “Tommy, people are dropping their cigar ashes into my elephant’s ears.” (You can’t make this up.)
One year as pastor I forgot to arrange for ashes for Ash Wednesday. I didn’t discover my error till about 9 PM on Tuesday night. I called the first parishioner I knew who had a fireplace and asked him to have a fire that night in his living room. One Palm Sunday one of my young readers proclaimed that after Jesus’ death the women departed “bearing their breasts.” Another reader proclaimed that “I am the alfalfa and the omega.” One of my senior members laughed out loud at that. Another time I was going through a wedding rehearsal at another parish’s church when some of the groomsmen, unknown to anyone, had arranged for a guest appearance by a local celebrity known as “The Red Hot Mama.”
I am lucky that I have few truly ghastly wedding errors in my packet, though I did once address a couple by wrong names. It is interesting how loud a collective gasp sounds in a church. (I did, however, make sure in the future to have the first names of every couple on an index card sticking out of the top of the wedding manual.) Once, in Massachusetts, I was standing at the sacristy door as a wedding of one of my college’s alumni was beginning, and the host pastor said to me, “You did get your authorization letter from the (Massachusetts) Secretary of State, right?” Huh? In DC, as a non-resident clergyman, I had to purchase a $15 license to start my own religion, so I could perform a Catholic wedding in Georgetown. I still have it, by the way, in case things go bad.
I will close on this “happy” note. I swear this happened. A parish often gets requests to perform funerals for people it does not know. I always did them as a matter of good will. I thus was doing a Word service for an individual when I discovered that there were two distinct families in the church, and they hated each other. There was hissing and nasty things being said across the aisle. So I stopped, and I got a chair and sat in the middle aisle, next to the casket. (I will add that I was young and idealistic then.) I tried to make peace between the two groups. It didn’t go particularly well, and we wrapped up. As I was walking through the parking lot, a man came up to me and said, “Just what were you trying to do in there?” I replied that I was trying to effect some reconciliation. The man became enraged and said “A church is no place for reconciliation!”
I can’t remember what the priestly funeral stipends were back then, but that day no amount was too high.