Friday, January 24, 2014

First Word: Mary Judith Ress: Charm


The folks in promotion used to send us to what they called “charm school”—a fast track training course for neophytes on how to pitch fundraising talks. As part of our obligations as Maryknoll missioners, we were expected to dedicate time during our home leave to raising money for our missionary work. We were supposedly the “real thing” and could tell “firsthand” authentic tales of want and desolation in our mission lands—as well as human interest stories that would warm hearts.
            I always dreaded having to get up in the front of the congregation and tell my mission story at a string of Masses on a Sunday morning.  But I had been primed to be “charming”—and of course, politically correct.  I was supposed to comment on the Gospel of the day, then tell a mission tale to bring the scripture text home.  Finally, I was to remind the folks in the pews about how we represented them in these foreign lands, so they should be generous in the second collection, or- I was to infer gently -they would all go to hell—which meant that, with hindsight, it was my job to make these these good churchgoing folks feel remarkably shitty.
            The best line in my pitch was to describe the Andean village of Huarochiri—2,000 souls, 10,000 feet above sea level, no electricity until the comuneros built a small dam—then declare, “and when I left, I too believed in ghosts.”
Looking back, I learned a lot more about the U.S. Catholic population than the Catholic population learned about Peru or Chile.
            The first Mass out in the Bronx- in English- was attended by a handful of down-and outers who appeared to be homeless or perhaps mentally ill, an elderly Chinese woman and several stray dogs.  The priest stuttered.  There wasn’t even a first collection.
But at the next Mass- in Spanish- St. Patrick’s was filled to the bursting point.  Three priests concelebrated: the main celebrant from the Dominican Republic was accompanied by two guest priests, one from Spain and another from Guatemala.  As the guest homilist, I sat in the sanctuary next to a deacon from El Salvador who called me Madre. When I whispered that I had known their martyr Monseñor Romero, he squeezed my hand. Yo también. 
            There was a story here: I prayed he’d found someone who’d listen to him.  After Mass, a Bolivian woman in her wide pollera pressed five dollars into my hand and spoke to me in Aymara. I had the sense she was blessing me.
            Across the continent, I spoke in two wealthy parishes in the Bay area.  I found their pastors lonely, even slightly depressed.  At the first parish, the pastor was playing the organ as he waited for me.  A fine musician and a scripture scholar, he longed for a decent theological conversation.  His Masses were high church—he loved the liturgy, the vestments, the Gregorian chant.  His congregation was white and friendly in a non-committal sort of way.  At the coffee hour, I met an ex-Maryknoller.  “I got ya,” he winked.  A fellow member of the club. 
            As I walked into the second parish, some parishioners were holding a Novena to Our Lady of the Philippines.  Half way down the aisle, I realized that most of the congregation was made up of elderly Filipinos who had served at the US military base there.  My missionary appeal would compete with their efforts to collect funds for their folks back home.  As I was leaving, Father Javier confided that next month he was going on a sabbatical.  “Visit us in Chile,” I invited.
            My “ghost” crack worked in parishes both rich and poor.  But I was awfully glad I didn’t have to give mission talks for a living. –Judith Ress

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