Thoughts on Holy Week Liturgies


During the liturgies of Holy Week with their appropriate emphasis on ceremonies, and hearing the arguments about liturgical purity, the Tridentine Mass, whether women’s feet should be washed on Holy Thursday, etc,  I can’t help thinking back to the most memorable liturgies I have celebrated, all of them in Viet Nam. Among the most memorable was one of many Masses on Thanksgiving Day 1970 somewhere in the Americal Division’s 11 LIB AO.

It was a rainy day and I was flown out to the hillside in a Primo 11 BDE Aviation LOH. It was not a nice neighborhood, and the locals were not friendly. First, I held a non-denominational service with whomever wanted to take part. The soldiers who did not take part provided security. After this service the catholics came together and the other soldiers pulled guard. About ten of us were huddled together in a very small tent made of shelter-halfs. We all sat crossed legged (I could do that back then). The altar was the soldier sitting across from me, his hands on his knees: one hand held the paten, the other held the chalice. For communion we passed the paten and chalice around. It was a brief Mass, but an emotional experience for each of us. Considering what came later, it was worth while.

No doubt some folks will be upset with this. Everything I needed for masses I carried in my pockets as the chaplain’s kit was too big for some operations. I did not wear vestments, since doing so would not be a good idea in a semi-tactical situation when the idea is to blend in and not make oneself a target. We did not have an Entrance Procession or an Offertory Procession. We did not kneel for the Canon, as it was called back then. Also, I did not use latin or celebrate “ad orientem”. I did not ask where the soldiers stood on optional celibacy, ordination of women, contraception, abortion, marriage equality, if their marriage was valid by church law, who was catholic, etc, since it just didn’t matter. All of us on that hill were living our own ministry of “selfless service”. A common thread back then, and in all of my military service, was taking care of each other.

That experience, along with many other similar masses, leads me to see the current hot-button arguments about liturgical things as so much fluff having more to do with egos than anything else. I have learned to adapt liturgies to the circumstances and exigencies of the given situation. There are times and places for liturgical extravaganzas and for simple celebrations. Whatever it takes to serve the folks – do it.

I think I learned to hear confessions on a hillside in Viet Nam. As we were waiting for the helicopters to come and take us  out to a bad place, a soldier asked me to hear his confession. He was in the kind of situation that meant he could not receive the sacraments. When I told him this, he cried, literally washing my boots with his tears. Then it was as Jesus himself was standing there with us asking me who was I to decide who he would forgive. Wow! So, I asked the soldier to forgive my pride and stupidity, and went on to hear his confession and a plot of others. It was a life changing event for me. I owe that young soldier a lot. The rest of the afternoon was bad.

I have known many folks whose marriages were/are “irregular”. So what does that have to do with approaching Jesus? As that young soldier on the hillside taught me, nobody has the right to to tell anyone not to come to Jesus. There is enough suffering in life, and we need not add to it while claiming to act in Jesus’ name and doing something he never did.

Just sayin  .  .  .

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Richter

    Your Easter Thought will preach! So many issues that working class men and women face these days…and others too….are only a matter of degree from what you describe on that hillside. So very many U.S. senior Catholic leaders just don’t seem to get it. Why they cannot do at their level what the Pope is obviously doing at his level can only reside in in the shadow side of their social conscious awareness, or the Court of Constantine or the Holy Roman Empire…which was neither Holy or Roman. If I thought you would accept the nomination I would nominate you for the board of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests. So many Padres create a parallel universe to reality and then live in it. My thought is that they could use a heavy dose of reporting back from the real world on that hillside you describe as a way of keeping touch with reality. Just finished the book “Redeployment” by Kley and it provides from our current wars an updated version of what you describe from the sixties on that hillside. Bob

  2. Sheryn Gillard. Glass

    Hello there. Thank you for your thoughts on Holy Week which I have just read on Easter Sunday morning. It is 9.40 am here in Christchurch, New Zealand. Happy Easter. Kind regards and blessings Sheryn Gillard Glass

  3. Barbara Duff

    I am a vietnam veteran and am a Roman Catholic woman priest. At the ripe age of 75, I understand your thinking and appreciate hearing your thoughts based largely on your vast experience. Blessings dear priest. Barbara a. Duff ARCWP

    1. Phrogge

      And blessings back to you, sister priest.

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