Holy Father Griffin
I always will remember the first time I saw Father John Griffin, the pastor of St. Bede the Venerable Catholic Church. It was May of 1963 and I was a six-year-old first-grader at John Crerar School, the public school I attended because St. Bede's Grammar School didn't offer kindergarten or first grade at the time.
On this memorable spring Saturday afternoon, I was sitting in the big, brand-new beautiful church that would open officially a few months later when Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Hillinger would dedicate it formally. I was sitting at the end of a pew about halfway down the east wall next to one of the two wooden confessionals recessed into the wall. Waiting for my mother to come out of the confessional, I couldn't understand what was taking her so long. I mean, what did she have to say in that tiny room that took so long? My mom didn't do anything wrong. All she had to say was "Bless me, Father, for I have not sinned. When will I be up for sainthood?"
As I looked around the church, there were lines of penitents, awaiting their turns to cleanse their souls. There must have been a lot of sinning going on during the previous week. Then, through the two glass doors at the back of the church, I saw a tall figure entering. He was dressed in the standard long black priest's cassock with a black belt, or cincture, tied around his middle and the white Roman collar across his neck indicating he, indeed, was a priest. He walked down the main aisle to my right. I could see he wasn't fat, wasn't skinny, that he wore glasses and his brown hair was graying.
His walk got my attention: perfect posture with his head tilted slightly to the right, looking down at the green rug in front of him as he made his way to the altar. For whatever reason, when he walked, he placed his left hand on his left side, just above the cincture as if he was holding his stomach. His right hand swung with each long step, giving him a dignified gait. As he passed me, I could see his face was stern, determined. He looked and walked like he was in charge, reminding me of John Wayne in priestly garb. Later, I learned he was in charge. I watched him walk up the plush, red-carpeted steps of the altar, crossing to the right side where the folding light brown door led to the sacristy.
When my mother came out of the confessional, she entered the pew.
"Move down, Johnny," she directed me.
I slid over as she pulled down the brown foam-padded kneeler and began praying.
"Mom, did you do something wrong?" I asked, wondering why she was praying after Confession.
"Shhhhh!" She held her right index finger across her red-lipsticked-sealed kisser. I decided to kneel down and ask God why my mother was praying.
As we walked out of the church that Saturday, I told her I had seen the priest. She had me describe him, and knew immediately it was Father Griffin.
"He's a very holy man, Johnny, very holy," Mom said, taking me by the hand and leading me out the glass doors at the back of the church. "He worked very hard to have this church built so everyone in the parish could go to Mass here. Remember when we had to go to Mass in the church next to the school?"
"Yes, the gym. Well, Father Griffin knew this parish was growing and deserved a big, beautiful church one that the Emperor Constantine himself would be proud of. So he asked everyone in the parish to donate as much as they could to help build it. Your father and I gave $400."
Now today, $400 doesn't sound like much money, but in 1961 it seemed a fortune. My mother's priorities which of course became my father's whether he liked it or not were her family and God, which meant the Church. And if the holy Father Griffin with the John Wayne walk asked for $400, she was going to find the money somehow. One thing I vividly remember growing up was the constant reference to that $400 donation.
From that point on, Father Griffin represented St. Bede's to me. It seemed he celebrated almost every Mass I attended. This was before Vatican II, so we would sit in the church and basically watch the priest and the altar boys perform the Mass. Mom, my sister Maureen, and I were the only ones attending Mass each Sunday because Dad was at home watching sister Kathy and our new baby brother, Danny, both of whom were still too young for church.
At six, I had no appreciation at all for the Mass. We didn't say anything, didn't do anything. We just sat, knelt, and stood when instructed, folding our hands in prayer. Every so often, the organist played a song and we joined in. The only time the priest addressed us directly was in the homily after the Gospel. Father Griffin usually talked about Jesus and why He sacrificed so much for us. There was something about his mannerisms and speech that indicated he was a holy man. But I couldn't help thinking of him as John Wayne in vestments.
And every so often after he finished talking about Jesus, he called on the parishioners to please give enough in the church offering to cover the expenses of the parish. He talked about the many bills he had to pay and prayed that everyone in the parish would do their part. Well, I knew my parents did their part. Mom turned in our family donation envelope every Sunday to help with the bills, just as Father Griffin had asked.
No one really got to know any of the priests very well in those days. They didn't stand out at the front of the church after Mass to greet their flock. The final procession took them right back to the sacristy. In the early 1960s, the priest seemed a dignified and somewhat aloof figure whom everyone in the parish admired and respected for the dedication and commitment he made to the church. I believe this is why so many mothers wanted at least one son to become a priest, so they could talk about how admired and respected their son the somewhat-aloof priest is among the parishioners. With so many good Catholic families following the teachings of the Church and practicing the Vatican-approved rhythm method of birth control, five or six children was common. And of the five or six, two or three boys was fairly common, which meant the mothers wanted one of them to make her proud and become a priest.
I'm sure that's why Father Griffin became a priest. His mother probably watched him walk around and said, "John Griffin, you walk around like you are in charge and remind me a little of John Wayne with that strut. I think you should become a priest, because everyone will think you are holy and will admire and respect you and tell me what a great son I have."
Most kids I knew in those days would agree quite quickly that Mass was the most boring thing they were forced to do each Sunday. And if we complained about it...
"You be quiet, young man. You sit and kneel and fold your hands in prayer and ask God to forgive you for complaining about Mass. You are lucky to be at Mass in a country where they allow you to do this freely. People have died for the right to be at Mass. They have been tortured and killed because they believed in Jesus Christ and wanted to celebrate their faith through the re-creation of the Last Supper, which is the Mass and the receiving of Communion, which is Christ's Body. Do you understand?"
At six, I didn't have any idea of what my mother was talking about, but I clearly knew one thing: If I complained about Mass, she got angry. And when she got angry, she yelled at me. And when she yelled at me, I felt bad. So to avoid feeling bad, I chose the boredom that was the Mass of the early 1960s starring the holy Father Griffin with his John Wayne walk.
Little did I know back in first grade how big a role Father John Wayne would play during my grammar-school years. I watched him at that time thinking him such a holy man, such a good man just as my mother had told me. When he held his hands together in prayer, they were pointed perfectly toward Heaven. I thought that was pretty good, because everyone knows that your fingers have to be pointed toward Heaven for your prayers to reach God. Oh sure, this priest was boring, but I figured I was just a stupid little kid and didn't understand the significance of his homilies about Jesus. Maybe someday when I grew older, I would understand why the parents sat in the church with eyes gazing straight at Father Griffin, appreciating every word and action on the sacred altar. My mother looked like she was watching John Glenn's space capsule orbit the Earth on television. She was enamored with the entire ritual.
"Mom, don't you think this is boring?" I asked.
"Shhhhh," she sternly directed me with the right index finger over the red-lipsticked kisser signal. And shush, I did.
Even though I was only six, there were portions of the Mass that I looked forward to each Sunday. I could always count on the ushers to keep things interesting. The army of men in dark suits, smelling of Old Spice, marched down the aisles every week after the homily. Each was armed with a woven-straw collection basket attached to a six-foot-long wooden handle. These guys were experts at shooting that basket handle through their left hand while holding it with their right to reach those in the middle of the pew. No one could evade the collection basket.
I liked to watch the people's faces as they reached in their pockets for their weekly envelope. With each pew collection, as the usher shot the basket to the middle of the pew and began pulling it back toward him like a fisherman of the religious treasury, he would give each parishioner ample time to drop the envelope into the church's kitty. When someone didn't seem to be reaching in their pocket for an envelope, the usher held that basket in front of them just a few seconds longer, so everyone in the area could see and stare daggers at the uncharitable person who sat in Father's Griffin's church.
And people did watch!
When someone didn't give, the eyes grew wide and the heads turned to the neighbors to make sure they were aware of the stingy Catholic. This had to be embarrassing for anyone who didn't drop at least some money into the basket. I wondered why anyone would expose themselves to that shame.
Geez, throw an empty envelope in there, I thought.
But why shame yourself in front of so many during a service where you're supposed to elevate your spirit, not have it torn down by the usher with the basket and his band of wide-eyed finger-pointers.
And everyone knew who was the most feared usher at St. Bede's. I used to call him Mr. Chubs, a rotund usher with about four chins who sweated profusely all over his Sunday's best whether it was winter or summer. Each week, he made his way up the aisle with his basket, shooting it down each pew and bringing it back slowly expecting an envelope, cash, or coin from every single adult. Anyone who didn't fork over some type of donation was admonished by Chubs with a loud "Ayhem!" clearing his throat and directing his growing wide-eyed stare at the non-donator.
The "Ayhem!" was the worst torture one could receive at St. Bede's. Not only did it draw the attention from those around the victim, but on one occasion Father Griffin, upon hearing Mr. Chubs clear his throat several times in succession, glanced down from the altar to view the disturbance. The entire congregation at the 10:00 a.m. Mass that Sunday was amazed. The elderly, balding white-haired man with a stubble-beard face, tattered gray suit, and worn-out brown shoes was so embarrassed, he stood up and stumbled his way over the others in his pew to escape. As he reached the main aisle, he looked up at the grinning Mr. Chubs. Then he glanced at Father Griffin and shook his head in disbelief before limping down the main aisle and out of the church. It must have been a long, painful walk as he made his way from the third row. When he reached the glass doors, he turned around and left with a sad and disappointed expression across his face.
I had never seen him before. Maybe he was new to the parish and just didn't realize what he was walking into. Maybe he didn't have any money, although that excuse wouldn't wash with my mother. She never had the money, but she found it somehow, even if it meant going into debt.
Money was always an issue at St. Bede's, and somehow the Gospel messages didn't reflect the actions or words of Father Griffin, who would stand up at the pulpit and tell us how money wasn't important to Jesus. "Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's," the priest quoted from Matthew, Chapter 22: 15-22. Money may not have been important to Jesus, but it sure was a priority for Father John Wayne telling his flock to fork it over to his ambassador of embarrassment, Mr. Chubs. I never saw that old man in church again.
The other segment of the Mass that always was interesting was Communion. I would sit in the first row watching all of the blessed make their way up to the white marble altar rail, where they knelt and waited for one of the priests to arrive in front of them with the consecrated hosts. The altar boy then placed a six-inch wooden-handled golden round platter, called a paten, under each communicant's chin.
I liked to watch the way each person received the host. It was like watching a parade of the religious, semireligious, and those forced to be there. The way each person dressed, walked, and acted during Communion said so much about them. These Catholics were not taken from a cookie-cutter mold. No, each was different, walking up to the white marble altar rail and kneeling down.
One fairly tall teenage boy with unruly hair and dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt reacted to the priest's "Body of Christ" as if the entire ceremony was an infringement on his time. He stuck out his tongue with a look on his face that said "C'mon, let's get this over with." As he stood up and walked back to his pew with hands in his pockets, he began to chew the host as if he were eating breakfast at Denny's.
The midfortyish woman next to him, wearing a nice blue ankle-length dress and looking as though she had just come from the beauty parlor presenting the Jackie Kennedy look of the day, received the host on her tongue in a very solemn manner, as if Jesus Himself was giving her the blessed bread. Then she closed her mouth just as respectfully, slowly made the Sign of the Cross, rose and walked back to her pew with hands pointed toward Heaven. It must have been her daughter next to her, because this grammar-school girl with the curled brown hair and a light blue knee-high dress looked like a carbon copy of her mother, so respectful in her walk and manner. This went on with each person approaching the holy process a little differently than the person before.
I looked around to see if others were watching. They certainly were. It made for great religious theater still does to this day.
At the end of Mass, I always looked around to see who had eaten and run. Depending on the Mass, sometimes I would see only a few open spaces in the pews. The later the Mass, the more people would be gone after Communion, especially during football season when the Bears were playing.
Ducking out after Communion was not as risky as stiffing Mr. Chubs, but it did take some strategy to pull it off. Those who did it regularly were like professional church-escape artists. They usually sat in one of the side pew sections near the exit or toward the back of the church, also close to the escape doors. Those in the side pew areas received Communion and made their way back down the aisle toward their pew, looking like they were just walking back to their seats. But as they passed by the exit doors, they quickly made a left turn and were out the doors before the wide-eyed finger-pointers could record the early departure. Those in the back of the church understood that by the time they were returning to their seats, the few parishioners in the rows behind them most likely would have been headed down the main aisle in the Communion line. So they had a clear getaway.
After all had received Communion and Father Griffin was finished cleaning and organizing the chalices, patens, and extra hosts with the altar boys, he would sit back down on his throne behind the altar table while the lector read the weekly announcements. As I grew older, I understood how important these announcements were for us. After all, how else could you find out when basketball tryouts would be held? Oh sure, those announcements were printed in the weekly bulletin, but that would require reading not for me.
Once the lector was finished, Father Griffin would stand and mosey back around the altar table to the middle of the altar, where he would peruse the crowd to see how many had ditched the final blessing. He would say his final prayer, bow toward the crucifix, and then follow the procession of two altar boys back down the steps and left around the white marble rail and through the two heavy brown wooden doors.
This was not the last time I would see Father Griffin come in and out of those brown doors. No, it was just the beginning. Copyright © 2007 by John Bernard Ruane