We were already late, or so we thought. I had grown up near the Holy Name parish in New Orleans, and I don’t think there was ever a Sunday when we weren’t running late. There we were, Mom, Dad and I, crawling with the rest of the morning traffic among the imposing moss-covered oaks of St. Charles Avenue, with the streetcars sailing past sedately; they weren’t in a hurry. But January 20th, 2012, was a special day. Today a native son was returning home after many long years. He grew up just down the street from me, with his huge Irish/French Catholic family; they were jestingly known among us as ‘the Dardi.’ His brothers attended Holy Name of Jesus grammar school with me. They were always the polite, gracious and well-behaved Dardis boys. I remembered Billy especially, since he was closest to me in age; he was the ‘perfect’ boy, the one who always finished his deskwork before everyone else, who sat quietly in his chair, and most importantly to me, was never known to pull girls’ hair. Eventually Billy became a numerary of Opus Dei. And now his little brother was returning home to celebrate his first Mass at our paris: Fr. Stephen Dardis.
Mom as usual parked the car and asked in what general area Dad and I would be sitting. “On Our Lady’s side,’ I said. Our Lady has always taken care of us, and sure enough, there was space enough for three at the back. Mass had not yet begun, but the church was as full as I have ever seen it; many were standing in the back waiting for seats. I glanced over the beauties of this familiar church and felt very grateful that I had grown up in my faith among such gorgeous statues, stained-glass windows, but had never gotten quite used to it. The high Gothic ceilings, the sense of the sacred, was and is palpable…this had not changed. We couldn’t see so much since a pillar was blocking our view, but it didn’t matter; Our Lady’s altar was before us. The important thing was to pray, and then to hear and see what we could. There were so many other beautiful things to see; we had Our Lady’s white marble altar before us, the red and gold walls of the main altar, the fervor of the congregation. Our hearing also was filled with good things; the liturgy was taken from Isaiah and the gospel of John, the wedding at Cana. There was Fr. Stephen’s voice speaking of the great love of God for us, the love of the Bridegroom for his beloved bride, the Church. He told of how he had seen a young woman on the plane who was lost, sad, probably drugged up, someone who was not aware of her beauty before God, and the longing of God was there in his voice. I heard and saw everything with my heart. Especially during the consecration; long, slow, very lovingly and reverently done; the silence spread itself like a fragrance and I smiled, knowing that no one would dare to draw a breath…there was Jesus among us. And I wondered how many had seen a priest celebrate Mass like this. How many had seen and known what it is to have a Legionary priest celebrate Mass? How many had simply wandered into the normal Sunday Mass and had been surprised to see a new young priest there, and to know that they could receive a plenary indulgence? It was definitely a moment of grace for those who knew him and those who didn’t. He made Jesus present among us through the word and the Eucharist, the greatest work of any priest, because it is the work of the one High Priest, Jesus, through them.
What is most beautiful and mysterious about the priesthood and consecrated life is that the Lord chooses what is familiar to us, the neighbors we know, the things that are most commonplace, and reveals himself to us through them. He shows how extraordinary the seemingly ordinary is. There at that Mass I was surrounded both by total strangers and people I know, people who are close family to me in many ways, and Christ revealed himself to all of us. People who came for an ‘ordinary’ Sunday Mass realized, hopefully, that the Mass is never ordinary. Jesus’ coming among us in the Eucharist, in the priesthood, is never ordinary. It is a miracle of grace; Jesus chooses human instruments to make his purity, his goodness, his mercy come alive.