Watching a true shepherd at work is a remarkable -- and even -- moving experience. I invite you to witness a Sunday morning experience that my friend, Dick, had recently in Wisconsin. I believe you'll be moved to tears, as well...
"I give you a new commandment: love one another.
As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.
This is how all will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another." John 13: 34-35
The above is from St. John’s gospel for the 5th Sunday after Easter. Nancy and I saw it in action as we attended Mass at St. John the Baptist
Church in Jefferson, Wisconsin. Here we are in this over 100 year old Gothic church in a small Wisconsin village and the church is buzzing.
A crowd of people are here for a baptism of their youngest relative. Five pews on the left front full of the family. Nancy, as usual, takes us within ten pews from the front. We are on the right side of the church and surrounded by people who are residents of St. Coleta, which is an organization serving folks who have developmental handicaps. St. Coleta’s has been part of the village for decades and their residents are now part of the community. The folks have different levels of ability to participate in Mass. Some must move around in the church to be comfortable; others are simply present.
We are looking at the sanctuary in its post-Easter mode. It is full of flowers and floral trees. Add to that a plentiful showing of candles and you have a feast for the eyes. The Easter candle, by the way, is front and center, and now with a baptism will play an important role in the ceremony.
Enter Father Tom, long time pastor, and a real-life character. Tall, lean and old, white haired wearing glasses with keepers that won’t allow him to lose them. The man exudes warmth. (His alb is short enough that I can’t help but notice his footwear which are heavy work boots.) His first sanctuary trip is to peruse the altar and make sure all accoutrements needed for the liturgy, including the baptism, are present. After adding several items he is content and now Father is greeting the baptismal family and giving instructions for how the ceremony will work. He looks around the church and smiles and waves to some present. Now the robust choir begins to sing praise music to set the stage for the liturgy.
Mass starts and Father welcomes everyone and announces the presence of Kendall Terrance who will be entering the Church as the parish’s newest child of God.After the readings Father initiates the sacrament of Baptism for Kendall. He comes down to the front pew and invites the baby, his parents and Godparents to join him at the center of the church and introduces them to the congregation. Father then brings us all together and the baptism will include everyone in the church. We join Father in asking the fidelity questions, then Father asks all of us to renew our Baptismal Promises, and for Kendall a 1st time promises. Father’s approach is so totally pastoral that you cannot help being thrilled to be part of it. He treats all with such dignity and respect.
(Father is sidetracked momentarily because a little girl in the 1st pew right side is throwing up. This is not just spitting up, this is projectile vomiting that clearly must be cleaned up before Communion. The choir is singing so he grabs some tissue and begins to help her while mom is organizing a rescue squad and moves the girl to the side of the church.) Father is back and the offertory begins, and I notice the man in front of Nancy, a lay man from St. Coleta is con-celebrating with Father Tom. I don’t mean mimicking; I mean this man knows every prayer and as Father recites the prayer this man is right with him. It is amazing, even through the Consecration the man prayerfully stays with Father Tom.
So the community prepares for the Eucharist. Three women join Father and will act as Eucharistic ministers. Father gives them brief instructions. The women will take care of the congregation while Father Tom gives Communion to the Baptismal party and then to St. Coleta residents he knows who do not come forward with the crowd. He mentions their name, gets their attention and gives them the Eucharist. It is beautiful to watch. Following Communion and the prayers for the Faithful, Father leads the congregation in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, a practice I have only ever seen at this church. It is in recognition of first responders and men and women from the parish serving in the military.
Finally, there is the dismissal. Father challenges everyone to go out and love everyone in the community. So it is to keep doing what has been modeled for them in the last hour.
This was a Sunday Mass one doesn’t forget. I usually don’t cry at Sunday Mass at home.