People sometimes ask me what is different about my urban ministry in Cleveland, Ohio, and my work in our diocesan mission in El Salvador for 20 years. On different days I give different answers. When I am pessimistic, I say that my experience in the city has made me wonder whether what some fundamentalist Christians say about the rapture is true.
You believe that the rapture is coming?” one of my friends asked.
“No,” I say, “I’m worried that it has happened and that, like in those crazy novels and movies, my parish and I have been ‘Left Behind.’ ”
At times it feels like my church is located at the intersection of the Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Aging Avenue. The city councilman for this ward says that our zip code registered the highest rate of foreclosures during the recession of 2008-2009.
The demography of the area is daunting, to say the least. Schools are closing for lack of students. I have about 30 funerals a year but maybe five baptisms. Sometimes I recall where the deceased used to sit in the empty spaces in our nave that could seat 600 comfortably.
A priest I know, also departed, said to me that we are effectively burying our parishes. In that case you can’t even say, “Last one out turn off the lights.”
Coop was an exception to the trend in that he was a neighborhood guy who decided to become Catholic on his own. My RCIA is dominated by people in “the Program” because we do a lot of work with AA here.
They usually don’t permanently reside within the parish boundaries. Nathan Cooper — his full name — lived a couple of blocks away. He used to hang out almost every day at the Absolute House, a recovery program for addicts that rents our former convent building on parish property.
Our daily Mass is offered in what was the nuns’ chapel and the men at the center attend. Coop just sort of fell in line with the mostly younger men as they entered chapel at Mass time.
Since he wasn’t Catholic, I had to explain to him that I would give him a blessing at communion time. After about a year of daily Mass attendance, and his coming to two liturgies on Sunday, I wasn’t sure what to do.
Coop was schizophrenic and somebody said he had Tourette’s because he would talk a lot. He was 59 years old, but with his beard and his general poor health he looked much older than I am, even though I had six years on him.
Because of some kind of aphasia, he would call me “Daddy” when I think he meant to say “Father.” When I asked the men during the general intercessions for particular intentions, he always had something to say. I eventually got to understand he was praying for people he knew.
Ubiquitous was the word to use for Coop. He was always here, whether in church, or hanging out with the men on the porch of the halfway house, from whom he cadged cigarettes, or in our church hall where we have five AA meetings a week besides a community meal.
At times he laughed without evident prompting and rattled on incoherently, but at other times he was suddenly lucid in conversation. I was away for a few days and priests took my place as celebrant, so he said when he saw me again, “Was you sick or something?”
He was surprised to see me wearing sunglasses one day as I pulled my car out of the garage and stopped me to say, “Cool shades!”
I finally asked him one day what he thought about religion. “I was baptized Baptist,” he said, “but only come here.”
“Do you want to be a Catholic?” I asked him.
“I think I already am,” he said.
“God does the work if you let him,” I thought.
So Coop made his First Communion on Easter two years ago. I think he had already received because he might have slipped into line when a guest priest celebrated Mass. He was very happy after his formal initiation, however, and increased his attendance to three Sunday masses some weekends. At times I would have to hold my finger to my lips to remind him to keep quiet.
Our parishioners adjusted to Coop’s distractedness and to one of them he used to hold his finger to his lips as a greeting to her, because she did that for him so many times.
City congregations are more tolerant about some behavior that might cause great consternation in the suburbs, including inevitable processions to the restrooms during prayer but especially, it seems, during my homilies.
Coop missed Mass a few days in the weeks after Epiphany. Then he was back on Wednesday, Jan. 23. He would ask me for two dollars about every week but I don’t remember if he asked me that day. When I gave him his “allowance” he would usually say, “Don’t worry, I’ll do something good with it.”
The next day, Thursday, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, Coop’s brother asked me at our weekly community meal if I remembered Nathan Cooper. “Of course,” I said. “He died yesterday,” he told me. The brother also has some mental health issues, and didn’t have any details, so I wondered if the news was true.
Eventually, a policeman “in the Program” verified that his body was in the morgue. His family received the body and sent it to the crematory the city uses for indigents. His sisters are having a memorial service at their church, but I am negotiating with them to bury the ashes in the local Catholic cemetery.
Coop’s way of acting, his race, and the size of our congregation meant that everyone remembers him. His absence will affect us even more than his presence, I think. Like the song says, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” His death has been a shock to Holy Name Church and to the men of the Absolute House, even though they have had many friends die in the Opiate Wars.
“That’s not right,” one of them said, “He didn’t have to die.” I didn’t want to break it to him that we all do some time, barring the arrival of the Parousia. The trouble is, however, that I second that emotion.
His brother indicated that he collapsed on the sidewalk near our church, which means he must have died walking home from church, his last communion. I am told he collapsed on the sidewalk and was taken to Emergency at a local hospital to be pronounced dead.
I pray for his soul and trust he is praying for mine, because I got him into the Church.
The Latin author Catullus made a sad journey to his brother’s grave to mourn him with “gifts of sorrow” and wrote a famous poem that ended, “Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.” That is what I want to say to Coop: “And forever, brother, hail and farewell.”
Msgr. Richard Antall is pastor of Holy Name Church in the Diocese of Cleveland, a contributor to Angelus and author of the book “Jesus Has A Question for You” (Our Sunday Visitor, $11.95).
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