I offer this month’s reflection in honor of Fr. Charles F. Meisel. He died recently. I remember him most fondly as “the voice of God” in what has become one of my most beloved stories to tell. Enjoy.
I grew up in the Catholic Church, but not in the ways you’d imagine. It’s true I wore my special Sunday dress to Mass, the one with the flowers and the ribbon tied in the back. I sat in the pew next to my parents.
Ours was a modern church, built in 1970, with art-deco stained glass windows that cast giant waves of tiny colored swatches all around us. Framed with tan brick, the nave of the church was simple and clean. No vaulted ceilings, no portraits of saints, no side altars with candles. There weren’t even kneelers in the pews.
My brothers, in their plaid polyester pants and clip-on ties, sat in the front pew to the left of the altar. I watched intently as they carried up the book of prayer, held the water and the wine, and led the procession in and out of church. Every Sunday, they sat as altar boys, one head higher than the next.
I wanted nothing more than to be up there with them. The youngest of four and the only girl, I vowed that anything they could do, I could do. I didn’t like being left out.
One Sunday, when I was nine years old, I got up my nerve to ask if I could be an altar boy too. The pastor smiled, but said no. I tried to push down my tears. The next Saturday my father walked me and two of my neighborhood friends into the church library. It had something of a new car smell to it with its long line of metal bookcases and orange carpeting.
To my surprise, sitting around the table were several girls our age, all from well-known families in our parish. They were stapling church bulletins, the white collection envelope in the upper left hand corner of the two-sided golden rod paper. We joined in, signing songs and giggling as we raced to beat our fastest stapling times. I returned every Saturday morning for years.
To our delight, the priests bought us lunch in return for our service. I hadn’t known that priests dined at such fine establishments as Burger King and Roy Rogers, even McDonalds on occasion. I only knew that I rarely did. In my nine-year old mind, this was the equivalent of God sanctioning fast food.
I can still remember my moment of triumph, sitting around the conference table with Fr. Meisel at the head, two priests, a seminarian, the church accountant, engineer and my friends, when I graduated from eating a Whopper Jr. to a full-fledged Whopper. Everyone cheered.
After we finished stapling, we’d head off into the church to set it up for Saturday evening Mass. We straightened the hymnals in the pews first and the run into the sacristy, the room behind the sanctuary where everything needed for the Mass is housed. Our job was to lay out the linens for the entrance tables, prepare the altar boys’ table, and fill the holy water fonts. When we were done, we explored.
There was not a cupboard or drawer we left unopened. I ran my hands over every one of those freshly starched altar cloths. We played hide and seek in the closet where the priests hung their vestments, breathing in that odd mix of incense and cedar. We stood in awe of the walk-in safe and quietly dared each other to touch the gold.
We discovered the boxes of candles used for the eternal flame (which was not quite as divinely inspired as I’d imagined). We even read through the priest newsletters and homily suggestions we found in the back of the three-ring binders the priests used for their weekly sermons. It was like reading the Cliff Notes to the Bible, something I assumed priests were forbidden to do.
Our favorite thing to do was to play Mass. My friend Tammy was a great singer so she was the cantor. Everyone else, myself included, took turns being the presiding priest and imitating the preachers we’d seen on television. Our biggest coup came the day we figured out how to work the sound system. With microphones full blaring, we thought we were the real thing.
One Saturday in the midst of our regale, we heard these words reverberate throughout the entire church: “This is GO-O-O-OD.”
I dove under the pew so fast my legs were shaking. There was a lot of screaming and when that finally subsided, there was a very long pause. Then we heard: “Lunch is here.” To which, we sprang to our feet, turned off the microphones and raced each other to the conference table, our laughter echoing down the hall behind us. The priests just shook their heads as they passed out the French fries.
Looking back on it, I can see how the foundation of my faith was shaped on all those Saturday mornings. In my experience, the church was very accessible and very human. I learned that there were people, and there is God. And that God is both inside and beyond the walls of the church.
I didn’t understand how God worked back then (anymore than I do now). I just had this sense that God is big—bigger than all the linens in the drawers, bigger than all the gold in the safe, and bigger than all vestments in the closet.
Forty years later, I still believe in the bigness of God and at the same time, the infinite familiarity of God, like the smell of the sacristy or the sound of laughter running down the hall.