11 April, 2009

John M-

For the past fourteen or fifteen years I have prayed for a man who probably never knew my name. That's a little ironic because we share our given name, John. Our family names are different; I'll omit his. Aside from his name, I know almost nothing about him; I saw him generally from a distance at daily Mass at Nativity Church in Flagstaff, AZ. I want to say a little bit about him.

John was in his mid-40s, I think. He had black, tussled hair, and was short, but well-built. He wore glasses, faded jeans, and a leather vest over whatever shirt he donned. His arms sported some tattoos, and his face was somewhat wrinkled from a smoking habit. If I recall correctly, his non-quiet, openly heartfelt responses at Mass distracted me. The Eucharist obviously meant a great deal to him.

One day I was scheduled to serve at Mass, and John walked into the sacristy beforehand and asked Father Bain first to hear his confession. Father Bain asked me to make sure that no one came into the hall where he would hear John's confession, so I stood there waiting.

Now, usually no one walked into the sacristy before Mass, but on this day a sixty-ish woman did, and asked for Father Bain. "He's in the hall," I rather stupidly pointed, then started after her as she headed that way, exclaiming, "Wait!" Fr. Bain heard me and turned as the woman made her way down the hall, and although I don't recall how we did it, we convinced her to wait in the sacristy until he came back.

Fr. Bain wasn't angry with me—he was, in many ways, a wonderful priest—and when he finished with whatever it was the woman wanted (my memory does not permit me to recall that), John asked him for a photo. So I took a photo of the two of them, Fr. Bain smiling his simple smile, and John beaming as if he was in heaven already.

He wasn't finished yet. Subsequently, during Mass, he took photos at completely inappropriate times: during the elevation of the Host, for example. Fr. Bain was visibly annoyed with that one, but said nothing. After Mass, John walked out with everyone else, and went along his way.

Time passed, and some months later I noticed that I hadn't seen John in a while. So, before one daily Mass I asked Fr. Bain about him.

Oh, he died, he said sadly.

What? I was somewhat taken aback.

Yes, he had back problems, Fr. Bain mused. It caused him a great deal of pain. You might remember how he took photos during Mass one day; he was going to the hospital in Phoenix for an operation on his back, and so he took those photos with him.

Sometime after the operation, he was found drowned in the river. The police think he was walking along the bank and lost his balance, and because of his back problems, once he fell in he wasn't able to turn himself over or get back up, so he drowned.

I was left aghast. This was a man whom I had seen nearly daily for months, whose obvious devotion to the Eucharist had made me think of him as a kind of family member to me, even if I never so much as exchanged with him any more words than an occasional "hello". And now he was gone—not only gone, but I had not know he was gone for weeks, maybe months.

I liked John in part because his expressive responses at Mass mirrored what I often felt, but didn't say. I had recently entered full communion with the Catholic Church: fifteen years ago today, on Easter Sunday, 1994. My first penance and my first communion were both from Fr. Bain.

An online search reveals that he has gone to God himself, on Sept. 2 of last year. Now, I hope, neither he nor John has need to carry a photo of the Eucharist with them: they likely see the Holy Eucharist face to face. If you don't mind, breathe a brief prayer for both.

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