Sunday, November 28, 2010

Father Micheas, Fort Bragg priest of peace

I was surprised to be approaching intake at an Emergency Room as we went into Mass this morning. It was a hospital on post at Fort Bragg, and Mass was held in a small room on the third floor. As we entered the chapel, the paraphenalia of the rite was being assembled on what passed for a sanctuary. Given the military setting, I was struck by the similarity to hurriedly making camp after a day's march. It seemed like a bivouac Mass.

The priest, an elderly man with piercing blue eyes, began by calling attention to his purple robes. He said purple was proper to the celebration of Advent, which started today. Holding up what I would have called his sash, he said his stole was from Vietnam. He pointed to the wooden stand upholding the Bible on the altar and said it was from India.

He began a prayer, explaining he was using the Canadian version; the Canadian bishops, he said, did a better job with many prayers than the American bishops did. He showed us the book of Canadian bishop prayers he would read from and admitted the book was borrowed. His original copy, he said, had been lost in shipment from the north of Turkey when he left there.

Sitting in a pew, an American with a wife from Togo, surrounded by her family from Ghana, I was deeply pleased by his casual internationalism, especially on a military post. The U.S. Army, after all, is not commonly associated with the more enlightended, compassionate, humanitarian aspects of internationalism.

The surprises were only beginning. The first reading was from the prophet Isaiah. It included the following: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again."

"Nor shall they train for war again"? Fort Bragg existed specifically to train for war!

The second reading, from Paul's Letter to the Romans, was more of the same: "Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light". The "works of darkness" that agitated Paul were orgies, rather than acts of aggression, but I know Fort Bragg does not hand out "armor of light" as standard issue to its infantrymen.

I knew, because the priest has taken the trouble to tell us, that these readings were ordained by the Church as part of its scheduled cycle of readings. I wondered what, if anything, he would make of this pacifist stuff in his homily, addressing an Army post parish in a time of war.

He went right at it. He said the prophet Micheas also spoke of turning swords into ploughshares. Then he pointed out a statue on the altar. I had noticed it earlier; it looked like a burly man doing something vaguely athletic. The priest pointed out that it was Micheas beating swords into ploughshares. He wished he could pass around the statue, he said, but it was too heavy. I found it touching that he wanted these military parishioners to hold in their hands this aggressive symbol of peace.

He dwelled on the subject further. He produced a picture. He said it was an image of Micheas from the National Shrine. This image was more static, less active, but there he stood, holding a hammer in his hand, the hammer that turned swords into ploughshares.

After Mass, the priest invited us across the hall for juice, cookies, and fellowship. We joined him and a smattering of the parishioners. I waited my chance to approach the man. Up close, his pale blue eyes were all the more piercing. His nose was veiny, and he had a scar on his chin that looked like it had been a nasty wound, once.

I mentioned the scripture about not training for war anymore. "That would put Fort Bragg out of business, wouldn't it?" I said.

He nodded, and said, "That would be a good thing."

I asked for his contact information - I was only visiting - and he produced for me his card. His name: Father Micheas.


Image of the prophet Micheas from the Lady Chapel, Gloucester Cathedral, borrowed from Vidmus.

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