When I was a young boy I was an altar server for many fine parish priests. I would get up very early to serve the 7AM Mass and after Mass sit on the stoop and eat a donut before school. There were lots of priests in those days. I remember serving for a priest who was very old. One day he was saying what is called a “private Mass.” That means he was simply saying Mass silently at a side altar for his own intentions and without a congregation. He was in his eighties and had probably been a priest for over fifty years and said Mass thousands of times. On this day after the 7AM Mass he was saying his private Mass on a side altar and, in my innocence, I interrupted the middle of his private Mass—donut in hand—and told him that when he was done practicing saying Mass I would come back and serve his real Mass. Today I laugh at my innocence.
There were happy priests and cranky priest, but they were all remarkably dedicated men. One in particular sticks in my mind because he would appear much later in my life. As a young boy, I would serve his early morning Mass and the one thing I remember about him was this: he would yell at me! In particular, he would yell at me to “stop ringing the bells so loudly.” Maybe he always had a headache—I don’t know. But he certainly didn’t like loud and surprising noises!
Many years later when I myself was a priest, and he an old priest I learned that he had served as a priest in the war. He was not only a priest, but a veteran of the American military. He had dedicated his life to both God and country, but in that order. One day I listened to him convey a story of meeting the American combat troops that had flown for many hours and halfway around the world. They had been confined for hours in a packed airplane and sought three things: a shower, a meal and sleep.
Whenever the planes arrived on the airfield from America and filled with hundreds of men, the stairs were pushed to the door of the plane for the men to disembark to the waiting busses. The buses, however remained empty, for sitting around the giant wheels under the enormous wings of those airplanes were priests from the military who were available for Confessions. The old priest told me that the exhausted men who were about to go to war, and most probably their deaths, wanted one thing more than a shower, or meal or even sleep; they wanted to confess their sins.
I’ll never forget that story. Perhaps now I understood why he was a bit cranky and didn’t like loud and surprising noises. I cannot begin to imagine the things he had experienced in war. You could tell he had been through a lot. But that image remains with me to this day: countless brave men who gave their lives for our country, kneeling humbly on rough concrete under the wings of those huge airplanes half a world away.
– Fr. Gerard Gordon