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Sunday, December 8, 2013

St. Spooner's Day

With the previous incumbent in the White House, sloppy speech became a national trend. Entire books are devoted to Dubya’s verbal faux pas, as was an almost-nightly segment on The Late Show with David Letterman called, “Great Moments in Presidential Speeches.” But this bit of fluff isn’t about Dubya, it’s just about a couple of  slips of the tongue, malapropisms and spoonerisms at Mass, and in one particular that is forever part of today’s gospel for me. This is the day Bill Fraher has made, let us laugh and rejoice in it.

I've heard a number of eye-raising malapropisms and spoonerisms at Mass of late. The best to me, because of the truth embodied in it, was when one of the priests, reading Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation 2, said that Jesus “is the word you stretch out to sinners,” having just told us he was the “hand that brings salvation” as well. Yes, I thought, in this church at least, Jesus truly is the word stretched out to sinners. Most priests won't use a word when a paragraph will do.

There is the usual list of massacred names of the sick and dead, as if the relatives didn’t have enough to be worried about, but honestly, as bad as it is to have that happen, my sympathy level is low because of this Catholic rage of everyone having their name announced at every turn: who is the mass being said for, who the priest and deacon are, who’s bringing up the gifts, who’s sick, who’s dead, who are their relatives. Cripes. It’s not a liturgy, it’s a Welcome Wagon. I don’t know how all that got started, but someone really ought to turn it off. Everyone matters to God, whether we know their name or not. This litany of helpful people is not helping. Then at the end of Mass Father often has to thank everyone by name who did anything more than tie his shoes properly, and a new litany starts. We need a homily on Luke 17:10 maybe, “when you have done all you have been told to do, say, We are useless servants: we have done no more than our duty.” Instead, we want a plaque in the vestibule for putting the altar cloth on.

Where this meandering journal is really going, though, is to that delicious gospel phrase from today, "brood of vipers," John the Baptizer’s epithet for the temple elite who had come out into the desert to check up on him. I’m pretty sure that, having lived in a camel-hair shirt and eaten grasshoppers for a few years, JBap knew snakes when he saw one. But the very phrase makes me leave Galilee and take a trip with friends of mine back to DeAndreis Seminary in Lemont, Illinois, thirty-five years ago, to this very Sunday in 1978. It was the day Bill Fraher was deacon for mass, and reading this gospel, lost it, and became a part of Vincentian legend.

Here’s how the story goes, and believe me, it is legend among his contemporaries in Congregation of the Mission, the community that runs DePaul University and a number of parishes around the country.

Bill is currently the director of concert choirs at Old St. Patrick’s Church in downtown Chicago and a former Vincentian. He and I weren’t classmates in the seminary, but we’re the same age. He was a year behind me, but actually went through and finished the seminary, was ordained a priest, worked for a while in the parish in Perryville Mo., then went out to the Bay area to study preaching at GTU in Berkeley with the likes of Walter Burghardt, S.J. After discerning priesthood wasn’t going to be his future, he took the job as music director at Old St. Patrick’s around 1990. He built an energetic, enviable, enthusiastic music program there, and those are just the adjectives that start with "e". Recently he has taken a step back to oversee the concert program and handle the choirs' major shows and fundraisers, while the wonderful Dominic Trumfio has taken over the day-to-day, Sunday-by-Sunday music direction of the music program.

Anyway, Bill was reading this gospel as a deacon, understandably nervous, because it would be his task to preach in front of his peers publicly at Mass - you didn’t get to do this too many times before ordination. And as he read the gospel, he got to the passage where JBap confronts the scribes and pharisees, and with Fraher-like unforgettability, bellowed the epithet heard ‘round the Vincentian world:
YOU BRIDE OF VOOPERS! 
Bill can’t keep a straight face about anything, and started laughing, and then everyone started laughing, and I don’t think he was ever able to restore any gravitas and give the homily. No one who was there will ever forget the day or fail to tell the story when the opportunity arises. To this day, whenever I have to a meeting with a bride, she may be a saint, but she is a “bride of voopers.” Bill’s entire career at GTU in Berkeley was probably an attempt to redeem that one moment of diaconal glossolalia. At St. Anne’s, it probably wouldn’t even have been noticed, tossed by a “wandering Armenian” into a “smoking brassiere,” if I understood the gospel reader, of “unquestionable fire.”