. elsewhere . . letters from the inaccessible .


10 June 2001

kissed by the angels

During those hazy days of my past, all the way back into the Catholic elementary/middle school era (a time which I very rarely recount in detail except in the most taut revelations of trauma, of which this, surprisingly, is not one), I remembered today one of the priests in the parish: Father Johnston.

Like every (ostensibly) devout Catholic-schooler, I made my first confession and my first communion, and eventually became an altar boy. (I don't know what they're called now, because the altar-service industry has gone co-ed, with my whole-hearted approval.) There were many perks to being an altar boy:

First, you got to dress up in these very severe and almost aggressive looking robes.

Second, you got to indulge any childhood fire-fascinations by lighting the brigade of candles before each mass.

Third, you sometimes got to ring the little bells as the priest consecrated the hosts (it was, in a sense, my first experience with performance art: as a younger child, I never knew where that ringing came from, and thought it was the mystical sound of the Spirit of God itself coming to rest upon the priest and congregation; this was done as the priest lifted the big host, which the congregation didn't get pieces of, just the small ones which I'll go into further detail later, and the chalice of white wine mixed with a little water: Father Johnston put just the barest drop of water into that chalice).

Fourth, you somtimes stole some of the little hosts (those little wafers of bread for communion) from the cupboard, and, so long as they weren't consecrated yet, or so we told each other, we wouldn't go to hell for taking them. I also took the periodic sip of the sacramental wine; again, pre-consecration.

Fifth, if you were altar boy for the 6:30am monday-friday mass, the priest would take you out to breakfast at a local pancake house on friday, and the recess ladies would give you a bag of candy.

Sixth, you got paid for weddings on saturdays, and they were optional. One wedding, I got paid 20 dollars. That is no small amount for a middle schooler.

Seventh, if you were altar boy for the 8:00am monday-friday mass, you got out of the first hour of school, and the recess ladies still gave you a bag of candy on friday. How can you beat that?

Eighth, if you were altar boy for the midnight Christmas Eve mass (only once, in sixth grade; it's an honor to be asked), you got an old 2 dollar bill (I think I was the only one to appreciate this).

Ninth, you got to go on the annual altar boy fieldtrip, which was to Disneyland one year. Usually it was an Angels baseball game (no, the symbolism was not lost on me) or something. But heck, it's a weekday fieldtrip when everyone else was in school....

But I believe I was talking about Father Johnston. Father Johnston was in his 80's when I was in middle school; bald and stooped, he walked with a cane. And he was by far the coolest, and kindest, Catholic priest I ever knew. Not to put too fine a point on it, as I alluded before, my elementary and middle-school experience was miserable, but Father Johnston was the kindest, gentlest man I'd met. He was always there with a silly phrase or a kind word to anyone who came across his path: he truly had the love of God with him. Would that the Catholic church permitted priests to marry, he would have been an amazing biological father.

He would sometimes tell a joke or a sharp little quip (he was a little barbed in his jokes, but never hurtful, because they were never directed at any person, kind of a non-cursing George Carlin), and provoke a smile from me. One day, he noticed my dimples (which I still have to this day), and said, in his slight brogue, "Ah, this one's been kissed by the angels."

He was never in the best of health, and had retired from his full priestly duties some time before, but he spoke mass at the 8am time slot, always to a small clutch of devout old ladies (who, by the way, I can still hear saying their Hail Marys in their lilting sing-song way in my head: the 'lead lady' would intone the first half of the prayer, and the others would reply; she always ended up her part with what I can only describe as a Courtney Love-esque tonal dropoff when she got to "and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, JeeEESUUus...").

Father Johnston, I believe, set a Land Speed Record for the mass. He spoke quickly and his movements were efficient: you can tell he'd spoken the mass thousands of times, and wasted no effort, but in the same way, you can see that he didn't rush, he was always most reverent. Just very fast. There was another priest in the parish who, by comparison, was as slow as the proverbial molasses in January compared to Father Johnston. And when he mixed the water with the wine during communion, he tended to put the least water in the chalice to dilute the already weak, sweet wine.

I was looking in the mirror today and thought of something which amused me, and I smiled. When I noticed my dimples, I remembered what he said: "kissed by the angels." I don't know if he ever knew how much of a model of compassion he was for me, and I wish that you all had had the opportunity to meet him when he was alive.

musings of señor prod.

The Revolution keeps, um, revolving.


©2001 Timothy A. Clark -|-