[part 2 of a 2-part chapter of the first half of an early draft of a work-in-progress from my unfinished sequel]
High Mass, although rarely performed today, was the opera of my Catholic childhood. It involved pageantry, loud singing and seemed to run forever without an intermission. The priest, decked out in his most elegant vestments, would parade around the inside of the church, swinging a brass incense burner as if he’s trying to qualify for the hammer toss. With bowed head, assistants followed, carrying lighted candles. Someone played the organ, everybody sang. Cue off-stage voices chanting “Gloria in excelsis deo.”
In short, a High Mass was and is very theatrical. But the key role, second only to that of the priest, was assigned to a deacon, who would follow the priest, step by step, while holding something that looked like an umbrella over the priest’s head. The significance of the umbrella always baffled me since it rarely rained inside our church.
But there he was one Sunday, my own father, playing the role of deacon, dressed in a cassock and holding that umbrella thing, as he walked behind Father Mistretta, who chanted, sang, prayed, and swung incense with a vengeance. Unfortunately, my dad was much shorter than the tall priest and the umbrella kept banging into the back of Father Mistretta’s head. You could almost hear the sound effect of each collision. In my mind I was watching a Don Martin cartoon from Mad Magazine. THWACK! KREEEK! KA-THUNK! With each bump, the priest would grimace and look annoyed. At one point, Father Mistretta had had enough, stopped singing, turned and said to my dad loud enough for all to hear: “Watch what the hell you’re doing!” My dad backed off and left a comfortable space between himself and Father Mistretta, making the umbrella more implied than applied.
But it is in the nature of the Catholic priest to forgive, as well as to seek charity. Within months, Father Mistretta asked, once again, for my father’s help. A new movie was showing at a local theater and Father Mistretta was excited to see it. The good father was a good New Yorker and, of course, did not drive, so he asked my good father to take him. I tagged along.
The film was about a street-smart priest living in Brooklyn. A parishioner suggested it could be about Father Mistretta’s own early years, so off we went one evening to the Tower Theater, an art deco building on Main Street in nearby Roseville.
The movie opened with great promise. We watched as a man in his early thirties boxed in the ring, getting the better of his opponent. The film cut to the locker room where we watched the same man, now showered and dressed, put on his cleric’s collar. We followed the priest as he walked through his own slice of Brooklyn, clearly well known and respected. People greeted him as he passed by: “How ya doing, Fah-ther?”… “Morning, Fah-ther”… “Smack anybody today, Fah-ther?”
The priest paused on the street in front of his rectory, the church standing tall and holy next to it. After a beat, the priest opened the gate and entered. The camera panned to a close-up of the sign in front: “Saint John’s Episcopal Church.”
As if sitting on a launched booster rocket, Father Mistretta shot out of his seat, shouted at the big screen, “He’s a damn Episcopalian,” and stormed out of the theater.