Tuesday, January 21, 2020 - Updated: 11:17 am
She sucked in her breath so fast and hard it sounded like a bark. My wife and I were sitting in the folding chairs at the back of Holy Trinity Church in Robinson Township Jan. 12. The woman had come in even later to the 7 p.m. Mass than we had and sat in the empty seat to my right.
She knew all the responses and the creed and said them clearly, which I appreciated. I thought she must be young because she had stuck out her foot when she sat down and wore those funny ankle-boot shoes with thick 4-inch heels, which I think of as a young woman’s fashion. Easily distractible as I am, I started wondering how anyone could walk in them because they must hurt, and how many steps I’d make before falling over. She had a young voice.
As the prayers of the people ended, the priest stepped forward and asked them to pray for the soul of Father Robert Herrmann, once the pastor, who had been living in the parish in retirement. He died of cancer at age 87 at 5 p.m. that day. That’s when she gasped.
The woman turned to someone behind her. She stopped responding and didn’t sing anymore. I wanted to see how she was feeling, and could see her out of the corner of my ear, but you shouldn’t turn to look at a person in the middle of Mass.
She kept wiping her eyes, but soon she started crying so I could hear her. It’s hard not to cry when someone in pain next to you cries.
As the Eucharistic prayer started, she knelt on the tile floor, her back straight, holding her clasped hands in front of her chest in a way that reminded me of a picture of St. John Vianney. I sat on my toes with my knees off the floor in what I think of as the baseball catcher position and admired her toughness in kneeling. She still made some crying noises, but not as many.
She felt the loss of this priest she had known so much that she cried. She cried while worshipping with two or three hundred people celebrating the Resurrection. Even after she had said the creed loudly and confidently — especially the closing about looking forward to the Resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come — she cried.
Because death hurts. I’m finishing a book on dying as a Catholic and have had to do a lot of reading for it. And the amount of cheerful happy-clappy rubbish some people write about death is amazing. They abuse the truth that Jesus conquered death. They write as if the person you lost was going on ahead for vacation and you would be joining them on the beach in a week or two.
That’s one of the great things about Christianity. It understands and affirms our suffering now, while telling us that the loss we feel will someday be healed. Our faith doesn’t pretend death doesn’t hurt. It comforts us by telling us it won’t hurt forever.
Jesus cried at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. He knew Lazarus would rise again. In fact, he knew he was going to raise Lazarus in a few minutes. Still, he cried. Because death hurts. It should not be.
That’s why we cry when we lose people we love. I’ve been with my father, mother and only sibling when they died. All three deaths were mercies because they were very sick. All three were Christians who trusted in our loving and merciful God. Each death still felt like a dagger in my heart.
At the sign of peace, before I could turn to her, the young woman stepped in front of me and held out her hand. About 30 years old, wearing the kind of tight clothing my wife calls a young woman’s outfit, and a curved silver ring through her septum, she smiled.
The priest she cried for would have been about 60 when she was born. I might have heard Father Herrmann’s name once or twice before, but didn’t know him from Adam. But I do know that a woman with a nose-ring six decades younger than he, cried when she heard that he had died.
Mills is finishing a book titled “When Catholics Die,” to be published by Sophia Institute Press.