You never know what to expect when a visiting priest arrives at your parish with a handful of spiritual talks prepared, folded in his back pocket, and ready to present in a four-night long parish mission. So I am quite happy to report the recent mission at my home parish, Saint Francis of Assisi, was spiritually edifying and equally challenging all at the same time.
The visiting Vincentian missionary priest, Father Ron Hoye, took us on a journey with Christ, encouraging us to grow in friendship with Him. One talk in particular, “Transformed in Jesus,” stirred my soul. Father Hoye passionately advocated that we need to develop a deeper appreciation for the Eucharist, to understand it better. It is the source and summit of our faith and can feed us for our earthly mission while awaiting our eternal rest in Heaven.
At one intense point in the talk, Father Hoye walked over to the altar, slapped his hand down hard and proclaimed, “I don’t need this to remember Calvary. If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it!”
I was ready to explode out of the pew and give this priest a standing ovation. But you could also hear a pin drop at that moment, so I quickly rethought my impulse. After Father’s talk was over and people were enjoying refreshments in the social hall, there certainly was a buzz about the parish. It felt like fellow parishioners were also deeply moved.
Or so I thought . . . but I’ll get to all that in a moment.
That quote “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it!” was familiar to my husband and me, but we couldn’t quite place it while discussing it during the drive back home that night. A simple Google search revealed that the words are attributed to Flannery O’Connor, an American novelist and short-story writer whose Catholic faith provided a strong foundation for her work. In the book The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, one of her letters highlights how the quote came to be.
I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, “A Charmed Life.”) She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. . . . Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.
Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.
That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.
. . . And now back to the story.
Two weeks after Father Hoye’s visit, I attended a meeting at church where the parish mission was discussed. And the survey said? A brilliant experience except for one minor part — the part where Father said, “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it!” Some felt it was a little too abrasive and could be offensive to our Protestant brothers and sisters.
Seriously? Those who know me well will not be surprised to learn that I simply, but forcefully, reacted as follows:
“What?! But it’s the TRUTH!”
My response was probably equally offensive to the same folks, but frankly, I was offended! And I was especially miffed that some even asked our priest to tell Father Hoye about his “offenses” in an evaluation letter that needed to be completed for the Vincentian Parish Mission Center.
As I started saying earlier, I think the majority who heard the “Transformed in Jesus” talk were stirred and challenged by Father Hoye’s points. I could sense the Holy Spirit was causing many people to shift in their seats, sit up a little straighter, and think twice about what was said. And that was probably Father Hoye’s intent all along — to get us pondering more deeply about the truth of the Eucharist and what it means as a Catholic to receive this sacrament. And then how deflating to hear just a few weeks later “It could be offensive to our Protestant brothers and sisters”!
It is maddening that any Catholic would be so cavalier about the truth of the Eucharist. And like Flannery, it is also my center for existence, so it’s disheartening to learn this cavalier attitude is happening right under my nose.
As our meeting progressed, new topics were discussed and we began preparing for all the various activities and Masses scheduled for Holy Week and Easter Sunday. We are a very large parish, and an evangelical “mega church” sits immediately across the street. Between the two facilities, many vehicles come and go on holy days likes Christmas and Easter. Parking is always at a premium in both locations, and the mega-church goers have been known to rest their tires in our parking lot when theirs is full. So during the meeting we brainstormed ways to ensure our parking lot would remain accessible for those attending scheduled events within our parish.
Still a little dumbfounded by what transpired during the meeting regarding the Eucharist, I came up with an idea that I thought was just perfect. (Warning: sarcasm ahead!) Why not allow the mega-church goers to park in our lot, and while they attend their services across the street, our parishioners could stick flyers under their windshields. These flyers could state some facts about the Catholic Church, including a special note about sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith. Then in big letters, a caption could read: If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it! Great opportunity to evangelize to non-Catholics and catechize the Catholics, right? Well, you can probably guess how that went over? Yep, to hell with it!