(This is my monthly column, “Bridge Work” from the April 2015 issue of Ministry and Liturgy Magazine.)
Touching the hem of leadership
When I returned to Sacred Heart Church in 2013, nearly thirty years after I was assigned here in 1984, I went into the sacristy and opened the vestment closet. The original wool vestments that my pastor, Fr. LeRoy Clementich, CSC commissioned in 1984 were still hanging in the end of the closet. An entire liturgical set of vestments with hand-woven, overlay stoles were designed and sewn by a monk in Minnesota.
These vestments brought back more than just good memories of celebrating the sacraments with wonderful people. These vestments were from an era when we still believed that all church art was to be reinterpreted in the modern era. The 1980’s were still the time that our faith in Christ Jesus was to be interpreted on the local level in architecture, stained glass, vesture, statues, music and hymn texts and all artistic expressions of being church.
I fear that much of our artistic expression within the liturgy, especially in vesture, subsided in that era. It is no wonder that these vestments have been pushed to the corner of our closet. Now with polyester fabrics, the designs and symbols, the style and execution of most vesture is made to look more traditional, from an era before the Second Vatican Council.
So in the colder months since I arrived back to Sacred Heart, I have been wearing Fr. Clem’s vestments. They mean more to me than a fine memory. As I pull down the heavy wool cloth over my body and surrender to the stole over the chasuble, I pray that I may fulfill his role of leadership that so many people loved and admired.
I recall his fine leadership more today than I appreciated at the time I was with him from 1984-87. I ask Jesus to be with me in the celebration of the Eucharist in the ways the Holy Spirit built up our community with the same vesture decades ago. I also pray for Clem who turned 90 in 2014. I want now what he had then when he celebrated the Eucharist, to be open to Christ’s presence and love every day.
The mantle of leadership that the heavy stole represents is never easy no matter if it is designed by hand or machine. This leadership goes back to the power of Christ Jesus. We hear this in Mark’s gospel on the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time that a woman approached Jesus in the crowd and longed to touch the hem of his cloak. Once again, a woman who was powerless in the culture knew what Jesus could do for her in her greater powerlessness of being ill. This moment also represents Jesus’ resurrection when Mary Magdalene came to his tomb and found his body not in the tomb and a cloth lying in the corner. The small piece of cloth that wrapped the head of Christ becomes our own baptismal garments so that we will all be healed.
Jesus garment was not mass produced by machines, not ordered from a catalogue or designed to look like it came from some other time and place. His garment was significant because he was wearing it. His garment was significant because his healing power could not be contained within it. Jesus’ garment did not hide the fact that healing grace flowed through the material. His sweat-stained garment with a filthy hemline from traveling the road was considered to be all that people needed to touch so that their spirits, bodies and souls could be made new.
Many clergy today would consider Fr. Clem’s hand-made vestments to be out-of-date. However, the real meaning of the chasuble and stole is authentic in any generation. All of these vestments must lead people back to Jesus’ dusty, sweaty garment that was touched by many who needed healing. Today, our vesture must be connected to our baptismal garments and the new life that comes from our sacraments. This garment is also connected to communion veils and wedding dresses, to school uniforms and hospital gowns when people face change and opportunity in life. We need to connect our vesture to the body bags of the dead and even the second-hand clothing worn by people on our streets. Our liturgical vesture is even connected to our death shrouds that will cover our people in burial.
The white chasuble designed by the former monk has now yellowed. The modern designs of the stoles look dated from years gone by. The memories of Clem’s leadership seem alive and new when I feel the cloth on my body. The weight of leadership as a priest and pastor will always be a balance on my shoulders, within my heart and in my prayer and my utter dependence on Christ Jesus.
I know I cannot pray at the Eucharistic table or even live without connecting these heavy wool vestments to the love Christ has for our people and for me. I stand at the altar of God raising my hands in prayer feeling even more the weight of the vesture and the grace that flows from the Eucharist and the hem of this ancient garment.