I HAD ONLY been home from the seminary for a few days last year when the phone rang early one morning.
"The archbishop will see you at 6:30 a.m. next Saturday," the voice said. "Bring your alb (a long white tunic) and a stole. You'll be the deacon for him at the mass in his private chapel, then you'll have breakfast with him."
That mid-June morning found me cooling my heels in Archibishop James Hickey's parlor in Hyattsville. "Getting the assignment" is one of those awkward rites of passage that newly ordained Catholic clergy go through. Even though I was 36 years old, had passed two bar examinations and appeared before a few dour judges, I was still nervous. I kept wiping my perspiring palms on my pants leg and tapping my foot up and down.
After mass and breakfast, the archbishop handed me an envelope and said, "Peter, I'm sending you to St. Francis Xavier. It's a mostly black, middle-class parish in Southeast Washington. It has a school and a day-care center and programs for the elderly. Right after you get there, your pastor, Paul Hill, is going on sabbaticalfor a few months, so you'll be in charge. I know you can handle it."
We shook hands and I asked for his blessing. That was it. No discussion, no nothing. It may seem odd to trust someone else with such major decisions in life, but actually it is kind of freeing. The priesthood is more of a marriage than a profession. We marry the church. Like Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof," you trust the matchmaker. In St. Francis Xavier, I got a good match.
My appointment did not take effect until a month after ordination, but I couldn't resist a solitary look at the "plant," as priests invariably call the parish buildings.
Although I had lived and practiced law in the city for several years, I had not been in Southeast often. Like so many white Washingtonians, my mental map followed the Metro Red Line with permissible detours to Capitol Hill and Georgetown. Moreover, my last four years had been spent thousands of miles away at the North American College in Vatican City.
Since I didn't own a car yet, I took the No. 36 bus. Coming across the Sousa Bridge I could see a red tile roof that I realized must be the church, my church. When I got off at 28th Street, I was impressed and distressed: Impressed by the size of the red-brick buildings, distressed by the grafitti on the front of the school. Somebody named "Classy Chris" had inscribed himself all over the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance. His writings have since been removed, at great expense, and the kids in school tell me that they know where he lives. A fact I have stored away for future reference.
Parishes are a kind of compact little world. Ours stretches for a block from 27th to 28th Streets, and the buildings tell a lot about what has happened to the Catholic church and to inner-city parishes in the last few decades.
The church, like so many these days, was locked when I tried the door. Thirty years ago this would have been unthinkable, because Catholics are great ones for stopping into the church during the day to "make a visit." Today we usually lock up the church after morning mass, a concession to the modern Visigoths.
Physically, St. Francis Xavier is pretty typical. There are the usual church, rectory, school and convent. The church has a Spanish architectural style befitting our patron saint, Francisco Javier, the great 16th-century missionary to India and Japan. (Remember the "black robes" in "Shogun"?)
Our convent is no longer a convent. Twenty sisters once lived there and taught in the school. Today, the building has a senior citizens' center on the first floor known as the "Dwelling Place" after the line in Psalm 84, "How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord, God of Hosts." We don't have hosts there every day, just 40 or so seniors who stay for lunch and bible class and socializing. Upstairs is a sinister sign of the times: a shelter for battered elderly run by S.O.M.E. (So Others Might Eat), an interfaith group. The victims who stay in what were once the nuns' bedrooms are homeless or beaten or abused. Many fear their own families. They arrive at all hours, referred by hospitals or the police. Sometimes they just knock on the door.
Our school also mirrors the times. Once there were over 500 children and it filled two buildings. They were all Catholics in those days, and most kids came from families with a mother and father in the home. Today we have 210 students in one building, two-thirds of them non-Catholic. The other building is used for a day-care center where 80 bambini, aged 2 to 5, spend from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. -- indicative of our many working parents and single-parent households. I love going to see the little kids. They are so tiny and affectionate. They run over and hug your kneecap.
Our parish territory stretches from the Anacostia River to the District line and from Massachusetts Avenue to about Good Hope Road. (The Catholic church is the only church in the world arrogant enough to have divided the entire globe up into parishes. No matter where you live in the world, even the North Pole, you're in one.) We have about 630 families, give or take a few. (The church takes census by families, not individuals.) Perhaps a thousand people in all, most of them elderly. Like the neighborhood, they are 70 percent black, the rest white. A typical weekend will see about 600 in church, fewer in summer. That means that four in 10 of our people don't make it to mass on an average Sunday. Twenty years ago that would have been unthinkable for Catholics, but today . . . ah, well.
This part of Southeast is a little gem. Residents like to call it the "Chevy Chase of Southeast," this area known as Hillcrest and Randle Highlands. Even though the Capitol dome is visible from many houses in this hilly neighborhood, we might as well be in South Dakota for all the visibility we have to the power-brokers on Capitol Hill or K Street. The houses are mostly owner-occupied and neatly kept. In the 1960s the neighborhood changed from predominantly white to predominantly black, but remained solidly middle class. The heart of the parish, of course, is its people. The thing that keeps the blood pumping through that heart is prayer. It begins early: We say the morning prayer, known as the "office," at 7:25 a.m. Our church has a cool darkness to it at that early hour. The colored light coming through the stained-glass windows reminds me of the "dappled things" Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote about.
There are mostly elderly ladies at morning prayer. Our modern saints. We say the psalms and sing a hymn. After we finish the prescribed prayers, I go to the room just off the altar, the sacristy, and get ready for mass while the ladies pray. They have their own ritual, and it gets rolling like an express train every morning about 7:40. They say the rosary, followed by a litany of the "divine praises," then the titles of Mary (Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven, etc.), then the prayer to St. Michael to cast the evil out of the world (a tall order, even for him!), followed by prayers for the conversion of Russia (and how do you explain glasnost?) and prayers for the intentions of the Pope. I'm sure I left something out. They have to move to get it all in by 8, when mass begins. Two days a week, we aren't done even when mass is finished. After mass there is a novena -- a prayer for special intentions. We come up for air about 8:45. Southeast Washington starts its day well supplied with prayer. We need it.
Celebrating mass is the high point of priestly life. However, my first Sunday mass at St. Francis Xavier was one of those disasters that makes you reconsider your line of work. It was a humid Washington morning. The air was so thick that scuba gear would have been appropriate attire. Standing in the back of the church in three layers of polyester vestments, I was drenched in sweat. I was nervous, having only celebrated mass about five times. How could I have gone to church all my life and remember so little?
I labored long and hard over my first homily. I wanted to say something "truly important," as all young priests do. Today I would settle for something truly coherent. My parish would settle for something truly short.
During that mass, I noticed a well dressed woman moving about the church. In the middle of my sermon she came up on a side altar and lit a candle. I really got worried when she moved to the front pew just at the consecration, the most solemn moment of the mass. She made everyone kneeling there move over and plopped herself down.
A few minutes later, just before the distribution of communion, she jumped out of the pew and sprang into the sanctuary. Nobody moved. She stood opposite me, with her back to the people and both hands on the altar. She said, "I've been a Catholic since I was born. It's on my birth certificate. I want it now!" She pointed to the communion bread and wine.
I remember thinking, Her religion is not on her birth certificate, it's on her baptismal certificate. An odd, legalistic thought. I let the point pass. "Madam," I said sternly, "you'll have to stand to the side so we can continue with the mass. We'll talk about it later."
She moved off to the side but was not to be delayed. Next thing I knew she was next to me, pressing up against me! Oh God, I thought, my first mass in the parish and this psycho is going to desecrate the altar. I put myself between her and the Blessed Sacrament and said, "Move aside."
She was furious. "I want it NOW," she said, and then uttered an unprintable expletive straight into the microphone hanging around my neck. I almost fainted. The congregation let out an audible gasp, as if they were watching a high-wire act.
Then she turned and stormed out of the sanctuary. Halfway down the aisle she paused, looked over her shoulder, bent over, lifted her dress and mooned me. My glasses slid down my nose and fell off. A couple of ushers chased her out of the church. The cantor jumped up and said, "Let's all say the Hail Mary for that woman." It was a good idea to calm us down but I couldn't help remarking to myself, "Why not? I'm clearly not in charge here."
After mass, people came up to me flabbergasted. Nobody knew the woman. "Father," one said, "I've been in this parish 50 years and I've never seen anything like that."
"Stick around," I said, "It'll get lots more exciting."
It did. A few days later, Father Hill went on sabbatical, leaving me suddenly in charge of 40 employes. They never told me about any of this in seminary.
In almost every Catholic parish in America the priest's residence, known as the rectory, is right next door to the church. At St. Francis Xavier, it is attached by a little archway. This proximity has its good and bad points. The good point is that the people always know where to find Father. The bad point is that the people always know where to find Father.
You don't have to commute, but you don't have any solitude either. Once I was in my bathroom and somebody walked right in.
I've discovered that Catholics expect three things to be open 24 hours a day: the hospital, the 7-Eleven and the rectory. Even non-Catholics seem to know that the priest is always around, especially when it comes to material assistance. Last year we gave out $12,000 in food and rent assistance "at the door" from our St. Vincent de Paul fund for the poor, given by our people.
The phone rings all the time too. Last Ash Wednesday, I got a call at 3 a.m. from a man who wanted to know what time we would be giving out ashes that day. I was too stunned to get angry. After I told him the times I asked, "Do you always call complete strangers and ask questions that could easily wait until morning?" He responded, "You're not a stranger, you're a priest."
Only three weeks into my tenure, I learned that in a concrete way.
The phone rang about 5 a.m. An anxious female voice said, "This is Patricia West. My father Joseph West is dying. Come right away and annoint him." To most Catholics, receiving the sacraments, especially the annointing of the sick before death is a matter of greatest urgency.
"What's the address?" I asked. They lived on a nearby street, just off Branch Avenue, but I had no idea where it was. I still didn't own a car, so told her I would get a cab. (At 5 in the morning? In Southeast? Who was I kidding?) She said no, she would be down to fetch me. I fumbled to get dressed and ran over to the church, struggling with my 300 keys to the kingdom. I had never annointed a dying person before. I didn't even know the prayers.
Worse, I couldn't get the blessed sacrament or the oils for the annointing. The tabernacle key and the oils were locked in the safe and I couldn't remember the combination. Back to the rectory. I ransacked my room looking for the number. Found!
As I struggled to open the safe, I could hear Patricia out in the parking lot yelling, "Hurry, Father, my father is dying! I don't know how long he will last." It seemed to take forever to open the safe. Finally I tumbled down the stairs to the parking lot, oils and hosts in hand, shirt-tail untucked. On the way to their house I prayed, "Oh God, don't let him die before we get there."
He didn't. Mr. West lived a few more hours. Long enough for the last rites and prayers with the family. Afterward I visited for a while with the Wests. They were wonderful people. I was moved to tears by their love.
Back home in my room, I thought, What a privilege the priest has. A complete stranger, new in the parish, and yet I am included at this sacred and private moment. This job has compensation that Wall Street knows nothing about.
Pretty quickly, the priest does come to know many people; and there are a few that everybody knows. One is Francis Muir. He was blinded at birth by some ghastly accident in the hospital. His mother named him Francis after our church, the one he has attended all his life.
The first time I noticed Francis in church he had his guide dog, Homer. Homer takes Francis down the center aisle right to the front and stops at the step to the sanctuary. Like all Catholics, Francis genuflects before he enters the pew as a sign of reverence for God's presence. When Francis drops to his knee, Homer does too, going down on his front legs while his hindquarters remain aloft. Praise the Lord, brother dog! Francis of Assisi would like that.
Even if I don't know everybody, people always seem to assume that they know me. To them, I guess, we are almost fungible. A priest is a priest is a priest . . . and we're easy to identify. Our "uniform" of clerical black suit and roman collar gives us a kind of instant identity. Since I came to this role in my mid-30s, it took a bit of getting used to.
People treat you better sometimes. I once got bumped to the front of the line at the post office, which is surely at least a second-degree miracle. Once in a while you are approached as if you were an old friend. About a month after I arrived in the parish, I was on the Orange Line subway when a man walked up to me and said, "Father, I've just joined the Marine Corps. Do you think it's a good idea?" I didn't know him from Adam. We talked as we rode and when we parted he said, "I just wanted you to know." Okay.
These chance encounters can happen anywhere. One night this past year I was on my way home from a wake at a funeral home on Suitland Road. I stopped at a gas station to feed my behemoth '73 Ford. A car pulled up to the next pump island. There was a young woman in the back seat holding a baby. She looked over at me and her eyes got very wide. She opened the door and yelled out, "Are you a Catholic priest?" She seemed brand-conscious. "Yes," I said, still pumping gas.
She jumped out of the car, without the baby, and ran over to me. "I was raised a Catholic," she said. "I went to Incarnation. You know it?" Why do people assume that every priest knows every other priest and church and school in the world?
She said, "Father, will you talk to me?" Then without waiting for an answer, she talked. She told me an incredible story. She was 19 and had a 3-year-old son. She had not been with him lately because she had gotten into drugs. In order to support her habit, she said, "I've been doing things I shouldn't." I got her drift.
"With men?" I asked.
"Yes," she said, with tears in her eyes.
"For money?" I asked.
"Yes" again. I sighed. "You don't want that. You want true joy, not pleasure. There is a difference. Pleasure is for the moment and leaves you hungry. Joy is forever."
She told me she was stopping all that stuff. Her family was going to help her. She was going back to her son. I hoped she could. "Father," she said, "you gotta help me. Give me a blessing."
I looked around the gas station. As good a place as any. "Kneel down," I said. I replaced the nozzle in the pump. I put my hands on her head and with the customers and station attendant watching, I bent toward her and prayed softly, "May God bless you and keep you, may He protect you and your son, may he guide your steps to goodness and may almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit bless you now and forever. Amen." I made the sign of the cross over her head and she made it on herself. She jumped back in her brother's car and they drove off. I had a lump in my throat. Never saw her again.
God uses everything, even my old car and black suit.
Peter Daly is associate pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Washington.