Saturday, August 20, 2011

Touching history, touching eternity

Do you have a treasured heirloom? Your grandfather’s WWII service weapon, or maybe a captured pistol or flag he brought back? Maybe a piece of jewelry that your great-great grandmother wore, or even a brush, comb, fountain pen, or something else simple she would have used daily? Remember, even humble things were made to last in those days. Maybe you can still use it yourself, or maybe you keep it displayed somewhere out of reach. Either way, these things are present and have a powerful effect on us.

Whether you knew this person yourself or only heard stories from your older family members, these objects form a sort of bridge that brings us into contact with our forebears. An object that was handled closely by someone who is now far away from us, allows us to touch his or her hand by touching it. The inanimate object occasions an instant of intimacy.

This past weekend, I went to North Carolina to witness the marriage of a young friend of mine who was marrying an alumna of Duke University in the chapel there. Because the wedding would be a nuptial ceremony and not a Mass, that morning I went to a nearby parish to offer Mass alone, of course for their intentions.

Holy Cross Catholic Church was founded in Durham in 1939 for the African-American Catholics of that then-small southern town. Until very recently, North Carolina had the lowest percentage of Catholics of any state in the US, so I assume that community was a very small minority indeed. Their first church was the office of a local dentist!

With the city, that community has grown. The church they built in the 1940’s and the land around it were first surrounded by a state university there, and more recently purchased to become part of that campus. The new church they built for themselves further out of town is a handsome building that is more than adequate for the thriving 350-family parish Holy Cross has become.

On a top shelf in the sacristy, I saw an old-fashioned, tarnished chalice and, forgoing the newer vessels, pulled it down on a hunch. Engraved on the base was an inscription indicating that the chalice had been a gift from a class at Loyola to Fr. John Risacher, S.J., who was the pastor of Holy Cross from its founding until 1966.

He was also my great-great uncle. My mother’s maternal grandfather had two older brothers who were ordained priests for the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus in the 1920’s. Fr. Clement Risacher S.J. went to the Philippines and remained there until his death decades later. Fr. John’s principal work was this mission in the heart of the south.

I blew the dust and grit out of that chalice, and shortly thereafter poured into it wine and water. Speaking the same words over it that my uncle would have, and holding it up now containing the Precious Blood of Jesus, I was immediately aware of a powerful connection with him. The chalice and the prayers united me to him and his ministry as priest and pastor.

The chalice I carefully put back on the top shelf, and offered a prayer of thanksgiving in the church my great-great Uncle John’s foundation has become. The Priesthood of Jesus Christ that we share, and the Holy Mass that unites us each day, came home with me as my most precious heirloom.

Monsignor Smith