A few years ago I attended my first Catholic mass in a busy church outside Birmingham. It was Easter Sunday. I sat in the nosebleed section.
People greeted me with the words, “He’s risen.”
And because I was not raised under a rock, I answered with: “He’s risen indeed.”
I was not reared Catholic. I was born into a fundamentalist family with a mother who sometimes prayed in tongues over our meatloaf.
But after my father died, I learned that he had been raised Catholic. He went to Catholic school, he played Catholic baseball.
He didn’t talk about it. I never knew that version of him.
All I knew was a man who did not dance at wedding receptions for fear the pastor would catch him.
There in the Catholic cathedral, the priest announced, “He is risen.”
“He’s risen indeed,” said the congregation.
I was an outsider in the room. The priest recited the Liturgy of the Eucharist, people formed a single-file line to drink out of a chalice.
Easter Sundays in my family were nothing like this. My father was an usher at our little church. He’d stand by the front door and hand out bulletins that advertised upcoming Baptist church events.
—Thursday fundraiser, dinner on the grounds. Bring a covered dish.
—Young men’s Bible study, 6 P.M. Bring a covered dish.
—Women’s Sunday school class is holding an upcoming prayer vigil against beer. Bring a congealed salad.
—Men’s group is recruiting for its annual mission trip to Biloxi.
On Easter, my father always gave folded bulletins to those approaching. He would say, “He is Risen.”
And any Baptist worth his salt would answer with, “He’s risen indeed.”
Most who attended our church on Easter were only visitors. They came twice per year. My father called them “nosebleed Baptists.”
I never heard anyone else use that term. I asked my father what this meant.
“Well,” he said. “Some fans only come to games once a year and sit in the nosebleed section. And other fans never miss a ballgame, even when the pitcher stinks.”
“Which ones are we?” I asked.
“You’ve heard our new preacher, you tell me.”
Our preacher delivered fiery sermons. He would remove his jacket and preach to heartless sinners, drunks, and those who danced at wedding receptions.
The church services of my youth were lengthy. Someone in the congregation would either faint from low blood sugar, or be suddenly overcome with the spirit of narcolepsy.
But this Catholic business was different. Mass was foreign to me. It was exoctic, and beautiful.
All my life, my father refused to step foot in a Catholic church. And he wouldn’t even talk about it.
But then, there was that one time.
On the way home from a Boy Scout meeting, he pulled into a Catholic church. I knew my father was having a rough time at work. I’d overheard him talking with my mother through the hot-air vents.
“The boss is killing me,” my father once said. “I can’t sleep, can’t eat…”
At night, sometimes I found my father vomiting in the bathroom from stress. I would ask what was wrong, he would tell me to go back to bed.
That afternoon, Daddy wheeled into a Catholic church and turned off the truck. There was a man cutting the church lawn with a push mower, he wore a white collar.
My father told me to wait in the vehicle.
Daddy was in that chapel for almost two hours. When he came back his face was wet and his eyes were pink. I never asked why. And he never told me.
Anyway, Easter mass was lovely. I’ll never forget it. The priest told the people that “Easter is when dead things come back to life, when we remember how the finger of God can touch dead wood and make it green again.”
I had to write that down I liked it so much.
After the service, I stayed in the chapel until all people had left. The priest sat in a pew behind me. He introduced himself.
“Father,” I said, “I’m not Catholic, but I really enjoyed mass.”
“Yeah?” he said. “Thanks for celebrating the Resurrection with us.”
“Can I ask you a question, Father?”
“Have you ever lost anyone?”
“Yes. I lost my mom, my dad, and my brother.”
“Do you think about them a lot?”
He ducked his head. He let out a sigh. “Every second. Actually, I was thinking about Mom this morning. You know, when I was growing up, she would always laugh about the big Easter crowds and call them ‘nosebleed Catholics.’ Isn’t that funny?”
It sure is.
On my way out of church, the priest and I took a slow walk down the aisle. I admired the statuary, and the beautiful stained glass windows.
The priest hugged me, then said, “He is risen.”
And well, you know the rest.