“The Blessed Eucharist is precisely food, which explains why it is the one sacrament meant to be received daily.”
~ Frank Sheed
“How’d you know Mrs. Rice?”
The question came from a St. Pat’s regular I recognized, but rarely speak to. A midweek, midday Mass had just concluded, and the church was emptying.
“Mainly from here,” I replied. “In fact, I couldn’t help looking over to her pew when I came in today.” I paused and added, “I’ll miss her.”
He nodded. Mrs. Rice had passed away a couple weeks prior, and my questioner and I had both attended her funeral Mass. After a brief exchange regarding our mutual connections with the Rice family, he and I departed St. Pat’s to get on with our days.
The great thing about that subtle interaction is how perfectly it illustrates the singular experience of daily Mass habitués, especially the anonymity. Daily Mass-goers frequently gravitate to churches other than their home parishes. It’s a matter of geography and chronology: “When can I get to Mass today? Where will I be? What is the closest Mass I can get to?” More often than not, it’ll be some little parish downtown, or maybe a Catholic hospital or college chapel, so the crowd that gathers for daily Mass will be gathering from home churches all over town. Sometimes we know each other by name; typically we don’t. We nod to each other in recognition, we take our usual spots, we worship, we line up for Communion, and then we leave — again, with acknowledging nods — until we meet again: maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day.
What binds us together is that unspoken common concession that we’re losers in need of grace — that we all have gaping chinks and deficits, and that we all share a craving for Christ. Each time we show up for weekday Mass, we’re silently admitting our weakness to the strangers around us, and we’re confident that, in some way, those strangers around us have our spiritual backs.
That was certainly true for Mrs. Rice, whether you knew her or not.
Her full name was Mary Elizabeth Rice, but she was always Mrs. Rice to me. She was a commanding figure in the South Bend Catholic community, and not just because of her family connections and progeny. It’s true that she’d been married to legendary Notre Dame law professor Dr. Charlie Rice, outspoken defender of the Church, the unborn, and traditional family values – and that she’d supported him in all his many undertakings for over 50 years. Moreover, it’s also true that Mrs. Rice raised a houseful of children (11 in all) who’ve become prominent figures in their own right — not to mention her many accomplished grandchildren. Mrs. Rice embraced her vocation as wife and mother with a fierce devotion.
Plus there was also her own industrious volunteer work: Founding a center for training in natural family planning; supporting the work of the Women’s Care Center and other pro-life organizations; teaching CCD and catechizing First Communicants; helping out wherever needed in her parish, parish school, and beyond. “Her empathy and kindness led others to share their life stories within minutes of meeting her,” reads her obituary, “and she helped countless people with the smallest of problems and the most overwhelming of tragedies.”
But that’s not how I remember her.
“She was a daily Communicant,” the obituary notes, which is something I can attest to myself. Sometimes at the Medical Center, sometimes at the Cathedral, but usually at old St. Patrick’s or St. Hedwig’s in downtown South Bend. She always sat towards the back, and frequently took her seat in the pew just as Mass was starting, so I wouldn’t see her until the sign of peace. Turning and seeing her there at those moments, I never failed to experience a mini rush of solicitude and grace — like, “Phew, there’s Mrs. Rice.” Her wee nod and quick wink at that point, instead of the classic peace sign or wave, was such a gift — like a muted, Julian-like affirmation that “all shall be well,” regardless of what worries or missteps plaguing my thoughts.
Mrs. Rice would be the first to admit that we don’t go to daily Mass because we’re holy. We go to Mass every day because we’re not holy — because we want to get holy, or sometimes because we just want to want to get holy. Deep down everyone is desperate for the divine, and daily Mass-goers are utterly convinced that the liturgy is a readily accessible threshold of heaven — that the altar is the place where the divine crashes to earth each day; the place, right around the corner, where we have the outrageous privilege of physically approaching God.
“If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured,” the woman with the hemorrhage says in the Gospel — that’s us at Mass, isn’t it? At least it’s me. I’m so screwed up, I’m selfish and petty, and even my meager attempts to be virtuous are fraught with ego and mixed motives — if only I can touch what is touching him! That’s what daily Mass is all about, even when we don’t receive Holy Communion. We’re there to bask in his presence, to retreat from our patterns of pride and our routine rebellions, to gain hope, eternal perspective, and, often enough, the sustenance to carry on. Ridiculously, he calls us to be saints, and yet he matches that unprecedented demand with the stuff to carry it out: himself, his own life, his very love-drenched personhood extended to us as a morsel. “Take and eat,” he says, and when we refuse that offer, for whatever reason, he says, “Take your time — for now, just rest nearby.”
And, speaking from experience, I know that kind of Communion-less rest, when it has to happen, goes a lot easier when folks like Mrs. Rice are praying along with you. She was like a latter-day Anna the prophetess, a parochial fixture whose very being quietly “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Like I said, I’ll miss her at Mass — as will others who may not have known her name. What’s more, I’ll continue to look over to her pew at St. Pat’s, confident that she’s praying along with us still.
image: Pecold / Shutterstock, Inc.