The world ends again

Sunday 22 November 2015 — Port-O-Call: Paris (in my mind) — Anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy 

The first time I personally experienced the end of the world was on Nov. 22, 1963. I was a junior in high school, passing the time in a study hall. An announcement crackled over the public address system. Some anonymous voice of authority informed us that the President of the United States had been assassinated. School was dismissed. I was stunned. I thought the worst. Has the government of the United States fallen? 

I wandered down the street in a daze, trying to wrap my mind around the news. I grabbed a bus back to my parents’ home and turned on the television. It was difficult for me to sort out report from reality. The television stayed on for three days. Meanwhile, I was in another room, but within ear shot. I needed to keep myself busy, so I painted the kitchen a cheerful yellow. 

Those days are deeply imbedded in my psyche. It was my first experience of the end of the world — or so it seemed to me at the time.  

My second experience of the end of the world was when I was a young pastor. It was a lovely autumn day. I took my greyhounds down to a local kennel so that the dogs could run around. The date was Sept. 11, 2001.

As I stood in the field, the kennel keeper approached with the shocking news that the United States was under attack. The World Trade Center had fallen and there were apparently other attacks still underway. 

I quickly loaded the hounds back in the truck and returned to the rectory to turn on the television. The images were overwhelming. What did it mean? 

I telephoned the pastor of the Protestant church in my village. It was a long distance call. He lived out of town. What to do? He said that he had already received calls from some of his parishioners. They wanted to pray, but the doors of their church were routinely kept locked. That was an easy problem to solve. “Tell your parishioners that the doors of the Catholic Church are always open. Invite them to come and pray.” And so they did.

The two of us then decided to hold a community-wide prayer service in his church. He would plan it. I would get the word out. I phoned other pastors, Catholic and Protestant.

There was in the center of town one of those signs with moveable letters. It was used to announce various community events. I walked down to the town hall and asked how to post a notice of an ecumenical prayer service to be held that evening. The secretaries informed me that the sign was under the control of the town building inspector. They would contact him and get back to me as soon as possible. To them, a town-wide prayer service sounded like an appropriate and patriotic response. I returned to my rectory to sit by the phone. I didn’t have to wait long. Permission denied. The building inspector proclaimed that posting such a sign would be a violation of the separation of church and state. Back to the town hall went I. 

I’m a quiet man (I was born that way), but this situation was too much for me. I must confess, dear readers, I caused a big scene in the main lobby of town hall. I’m sure I could be heard throughout the building. I intended to be. To put it politely, I laid the town administration “out in lavender.” It’s a good thing I didn’t get arrested, but at least I got the attention of the town bureaucrats. Then I went home. The phone was ringing. “Hello. This is Town Hall. How do you spell “ecumenical?” We had a lovely prayer service that evening. The church was packed. Everyone was there. We realized, though, it marked the end of the world as we knew it.

It was Friday the 13th. I turned to the news to see what was happening in the world. I could hardly believe it. “Breaking news: The City of Paris is under attack. There are bodies everywhere. Chaos reigns in the streets of the City of Lights.” It looked like the end of the world and, in a certain sense, it was.

What to do? Father Ray Cambra celebrated morning Mass as scheduled, but he used the Mass prayers in commemoration of several deceased persons. A memorial display (with flowers in the colors of the French flag) was set up in the church lobby. The Bible readings assigned for the weekend happened to be about the end of the world, affording the opportunity to address the subject of the attack on Paris. 

And so, you see, I’ve already experienced the end of the world several times. Although it eventually turned out not to be so, it sure seemed that way at the time. 

We all make mistakes, but being mistaken about the end of the world — now, that’s awkward.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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