Postcards from the pews: A child shall lead them

My daughter stands at the back of church just before Mass, the tallest of the altar servers this year. She holds the processional cross, six feet long. Looking up, vigilant not to bang it on the low-hanging balcony, she hoists it far overhead and steps into the aisle. The figure of the man on the cross precedes them all: children in white carrying candles, lectors, priest. It happens every week, but today it stops me: We hold up an image of a man dying in agony and entrust it to the hands of the young.

She carries the man on the cross to the front of church, turning him to face us. Over her head, above the sanctuary, are inscribed, in Latin, words from Psalm 43: “I will go unto the altar of God. To God, who gives joy to my youth.”

Holy Thursday night, Chicago. Singing words written by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, we stream out after Mass to process around the block with the Blessed Sacrament. Past the firehouse (please don’t let the alarm sound now), the prom dress store, the liquor store, the Mexican restaurant. The priests are far ahead, the song has ended, the procession takes on a festive air. My friend Irma appears: “You’ll come to my house tomorrow; I’m making Ecuadorian soup with 13 kinds of beans, our Good Friday specialty.” I hadn’t planned on any such thing, and she lives 45 minutes away, but Irma’s hospitality is not to be denied. She is a stellar cook, a true friend. So on Friday after the Stations of the Cross in the park, where a young bare-chested man shivers on a cross in Chicago’s snow, we drive 45 minutes for Ecuador’s Good Friday delicacy. My adolescent nephew, thinking of becoming a Unitarian, trudges the chilly Stations with us and comes along for the soup. He pronounces it the best he’s ever had.

First Communion Sunday, Feast of the Ascension. The pastor asks the kids in white dresses and little suits, “Don’t you sometimes wish you could send your body to school but also stay home in bed?” He explains the tricky reality of how, after the Ascension, Jesus was “not there” and yet “there” at the same time. “Is this confusing? Good. That means we’re trying to understand the mystery.” Bravo to him for showing confidence in these kids.

Pentecost Sunday, Boston. Our firstborn graduates from college tomorrow. At the Baccalaureate Mass he’s in front, singing in the choir. The priest asks us all to lay hands on our graduates and bless them. We stretch our hands out in our son’s direction. It’s sort of comical, really, but a good symbol. Even when we can’t lay hands on him, we can still bless him.

July 4, Our Lady of the Rosary, San Diego, family baseball trip. The elderly priest is bent over his walker, but his spirit stands tall. “We don’t stay in the church because it is perfect. God knows we have problems, big ones,” he says. “But we stay because we are part of God’s family.” I try to take in the immense blessing of being at Mass with husband, daughter, and son who will soon set off for another state. The kids whisperingly demand to know why I am crying. Why not? Something about the Fourth of July makes me think of my dad, gone for years now. That’s appropriate—the communion of saints is here in force. The apostles walk the ceiling; St. Anthony tenderly cradles the Christ Child upfront; scores have gathered in the huge crucifixion painting over the altar: saints, soldiers, and several pale dead people exiting a grave.

The man on the cross is here, too, of course. My daughter points out that all the light in the painting comes from him.

—by Catherine O’Connell-Cahill  from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the 2010 and 2011 General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association. Here’s a sample issue.

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