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Navigating the Road Ahead: Turn "Rite"

by Joe Kraemer, SJ, 3rd year Master of Divinity student

When my aunt, Rosemary Kraemer, died last fall at the age of 74 due to complications of Covid-19, our family faced the painful truth that health restrictions would not allow us to gather for a funeral mass. To miss sharing in some final ritual is a reality many families have had to accept in this difficult time of pandemic. Often, we forget how deep our thirst is for the rites of our Catholic faith, rich in history and tradition until they are denied to us. While Zoom masses and other online social gatherings have consoled faith communities throughout the past year, there is a special energy to assembling under one roof, sharing our sorrows and joys, that can never be duplicated virtually.

As the vaccination process continues, and restrictions begin to lift in our houses of worship, the seminarians at Santa Clara University’s Jesuit School of Theology have been preparing for the day when these rituals can be practiced and participated in by faith communities in person once again. Last fall, the “Celebrational Rites” class, taught by Father Paul Janowiak, SJ, was the only course at JST to be offered in person. Father Joseph Mueller, SJ, the new dean of the school, explained some of the hurdles to making this a reality. These included interpreting the detailed and changing state, county, and city regulations with officials from Santa Clara University in an effort to make sure that the school operated within conformity of relevant rules. Father Joe also assisted students whose health situations counseled caution about participating in an in-person class and tried to see how they might make alternative arrangements. But the dean believed in the value of pursuing his plan. “This course resembles a lab course in physics or biology,” he told me, “in that the professor needs to show the students how to do things with their bodies. Whether it is learning how to draw liquids with a pipette or how to baptize a baby, the instructional model is similar. The students need to see their teacher and each other practicing the movements and words of the rite if the teacher is to play his proper role and if the students are to learn from him doing so. A dance or voice class would provide a similar analogate. The teacher and the student need to be in the same room so that the necessary lessons can be learned.”

As a second year Masters of Divinity student, I joined other classmates on the road to priesthood every Wednesday morning for class. We met in masks, and at carefully measured social distances, in the school’s Gesù chapel. The course— designed to prepare us for presbyterial ordination in the Roman Catholic Church— allowed each student opportunities to practice the principle rites of the Church’s liturgy. The Rector of the Jesuit community at JST, Father Marty Connell, SJ, described this experience in his own way: it was like we were learning to drive a car. “I can't imagine what sort of mess we'd be in if the DMV gave people a license after their having read a good book about driving and taking a test,” he observed. “It's safer for everyone if those learning to drive spend some time safely behind the wheel with the coaching of a more capable driver who can help the novice to begin to see the world no longer as a passenger but as a driver, with all the attendant responsibilities and possibilities.”

Over the course of a semester, we sixteen Jesuits— along with two classmates from the Josephite and Salesian orders— began to get comfortable behind the wheel of infant baptisms, weddings, anointings of the sick and Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. We slowly unpacked more involved masses, like the Easter Vigil, but took as much care familiarizing ourselves with the daily mass. As our “driving instructor,” Father Paul reminded us our first day that he hoped to “develop in presiders the necessary skills for gathering the ecclesial body and celebrating the sacramental rites of the Church.” This could feel like a tall order as I watched my classmates navigate their first “Zoom Eucharists” or the rites for RCIA, imagining what it would feel like when my turn at the altar arrived. Whatever the challenges— and they varied for each student— it wasn’t long before we sensed our skills deepening as we read our assigned books, followed Father Paul’s gentle and generous instruction and learned to trust the personal, affirmative critiques of our brothers.

For my part, I wanted to move beyond my comfortability range, so I volunteered to say the mass that frightened me most: a complete Funeral/Mass of Resurrection. This service would begin with a procession into the Church, so the first item of business was to secure a casket! Since we could not work with a funeral home as in years past, Hung Nguyen, SJ, a classmate, scrounged a Subaru cardboard box from the street. He crafted handles for it so our designated pallbearers could carry it into the chapel, where a sheet from one of our guest rooms substituted for a pall. I also decided that instead of inventing someone who had died, I would celebrate the funeral Mass that my Aunt Rosemary had never received. I copied her obituary and put it on each chair in the chapel so my classmates could see my aunt’s big smile and read about her life of service and care for others. My concelebrant was my housemate, Joel Thompson, SJ, from Guyana, who was a comfortable and reassuring presence during our preparations— choosing readers, a cantor and appropriate hymns—and later, by my side at the altar.

While I had delivered several eulogies in my life, I had never written a funeral homily. This proved a very different assignment. It needed to be a tribute to my aunt, but also a reflection on the first reading, from Ecclesiastes, and the excerpt I’d selected from John’s Gospel— all in 5-7 minutes! I gave this task my greatest attention, and later, when I received feedback from the other men, it seemed like I managed this part all right. But in devoting so much time to my homily, I didn’t practice the mass as much as I might have. I struggled with my “orans”: a Latin word for the prayer posture observed when the priest has his elbows close to the sides of his body and his hands outstretched sideways, palms up. I seemed to turn my hands in every direction but the correct one, which didn’t go unnoticed by my classmates. As I spoke the prayers through my mask over the bread and wine, trying not to let my glasses fog up, I watched their pens track all my mistakes. It helped to remember that this was a friendly practicum and not an actual church full of grieving relatives and friends.

I also struggled with the final incensation, since the space felt cramped as I moved around the Subaru box. Later, when I shared some pictures of myself with a Jesuit mentor, Bishop Gordon Bennett, he noticed, “I see that you hold the handle of the thurible in your right hand and swing the incense with the left. If you are right-handed, it's much easier to do the opposite.” He was right! And since another gift of the course was that we could try things again, we took advantage of Father Paul’s readiness to go back to whatever needed more time or practice, which my incensing definitely did. In our last class, he taught us better how to achieve a meaningful “chink-chink” when the thurible hits its chain just right. We all agreed that this seemed to add a unique sound to the ritual, and reminded us how these rites are for the people we serve, and carry their own music and refrains; fragrance of incense and flowers; and physical consolations— the Eucharist we receive or our embraces at the Sign of Peace— even if we had to put these aside for now in our effort to abide by the same protocols we knew friends were following all around the world.

Along with starting to really feel like priests ourselves, there was genuine excitement in watching men you had been in formation with for years start to look like “real priests” too. Eddie Ngo, SJ, who entered the Society of Jesus the year before me, observed, “There’s no denying the consolation I felt when I saw my brother Jesuits ‘play mass’: putting on albs and preaching messages of hope, love and faith. Never before had it been so palpable that we were all going to be ordained some day, working together in the vineyard of the Lord and meeting the needs of people.” Father Marty picked up on our delight when he saw us leaving the chapel after class, remarking that we seemed “full of energy, enthusiasm and hope.” This was true enough: being together in one room ignited a deeper sense of mission and common purpose. “In the midst of the circumstances of the pandemic,” he told me, “that was what we all needed. So while these rites were ‘dry runs,’ so to speak, they were nevertheless occasions of grace and consolation.”

As the people of God, we do not work out our salvation alone, but as a community. Imagining the communities we will encounter after we are ordained priests provided occasions of grace and consolation that hummed throughout our study of these beautiful rites. I never felt it more myself than on the day I practiced my first funeral mass: a service my aunt never received because of the Covid pandemic. That class happened the same day the Church celebrated the feast of another dauntless helper, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, a Sister of the Society of the Sacred Heart and an early missionary in this country. Like my Aunt Rosemary, I felt that Sister Rose understood an essential truth about the skills we cultivated in Father Paul’s class. Like her, we grew to understand that “We cultivate a very small field for Christ, but we love it, knowing that God does not require great achievements but a heart that holds back nothing for self.” What better way to till those fields than alongside companions we would meet again serving together in the vineyards of the Lord!