Sunday, March 05, 2006

Do You Hear the Clergy Sing?

Watching Philadelphia TV this weekend, you couldn't miss it if you wanted to: Les Mis has returned. For the last time.

That sound you hear is the gasps of horror from the Les Mis-ites out there, of which there are more than you'd think.

I've found that there are two kinds of people in this world: Les Mis people and Phantom people. (And they hate each other.) I'm really not all that into musical theatre -- except Rent -- so I'm in the "none of the above" category.

I know I'm woefully outnumbered. And, as we all know, that is the story of my life.

Another thing I've found is that clerics love Les Miserables. Love, love, love it -- like the Fruits of Wojtyla love their Gammarelli.

Two examples for you: once upon a time, on an apostolic visitation far from home, I was having dinner with a pretty well-known American cleric in an ample Italian restaurant -- in a place, mind you, not necessarily known for its Italian cuisine. But it was still quite good.

We got to talking about culture, the arts, the sublime things. So I asked him what he listens to in those rare moments when he gets a chance to unwind. And he told me, "I've been to La Scala, the Met, all over. But there is nothing -- nothing -- like Les Mis."

As it turned out, we were at one of those lovely eateries where the waitstaff are trained vocalists. So, in between arias, our waitress -- a beautifully exotic woman who looked to be in her late 20's -- traipsed over and greeted the good Mons., asking if he'd like to hear anything.

"Do you know anything from Les Miserables?" he asked.

She smiled and replied, "I can do 'The Dream' for you."

A red hat wouldn't have made this guy as giddy as he was at that moment. The waitress moved about 30 feet away and launched into "I Dreamed a Dream." And my host-cleric was just floating on air, mouthing out the words. It was such a charming sight.

The virtuoso rendition ended, we both clapped and the good Father started cheering "Bravo! Bravo!"

I tried to do my best ventriloquism and started verbally egging him behind a smile, "Brava! Brava!"

He got the hint. And it was just fantastic.

Your humble scribe dreamed a dream on that trip, too. I met a woman on it who, in the mystery of Providence, served as the lightning which, as when a bolt hits a transponder, detonated my thoughts of priesthood -- grazie Dio -- and gave me a new clarity, opening a new era of my life and the door which has led me to this moment and this work.

So now you all know who to thank. And, suffice it to say, the moment and its means were priceless gifts of God. I really believe that. And when I had to return home knowing things couldn't work at a distance, when I telegraphed back to my buddy that "life has killed the dream," no further explanation was needed. To the core, however, I remain ever grateful for that most blessed of experiences.

My boyhood pastor is a Les Mis devotee, too. The one and only time I've ever seen it was with him and a group of his fellow frequent-pilgrims -- and I felt like I was out of the loop, being the only person in the Forrest Theatre who was seeing it for the first time, because every other last attendee was singing along. Like hypnosis. Like a cult. Like Rocky Horror, just $75 a ticket and singing sixty-somethings as opposed to the pierced-freak crowd.

They stopped just short of dancing in the aisles.

That performance was Father's 14th time, give or take a couple. By now, he's probably up to 25 or more -- we've lost count. His affinity for it led me to coin for him the nickname "Diva."

Yes, that's right, I call my teenage pastor "Diva" -- in jest, of course. And he gets a chuckle out of it. And I've never known a priest more committed to and in love with his ministry than he, and I doubt I ever will. Because what he does is so effective, and so real, so concrete, it's not glamorous by any stretch -- he rarely sleeps more than three hours a night, and such is his bond with his people that they know they can call at 3am, and that he'll be there to listen and help them through even at that God-forsaken hour. He goes out for an hour, comes back, and the stack of messages is half an inch high, people rely on him that much.

In his humble city parish -- which he's refused to leave, despite being offered posts which would be much more comfortable, not to mention less taxing -- he's a member of every family and has that rare gift of seeming omnipresent: graduation season means no fewer than 15 parties to drop into per weekend, on top of the weddings, the wakes, the sick, the baptisms and the Sunday liturgies. His well-worn albs have ring-around-the-collar. The tab of his clerical shirt is rarely around his neck and usually hanging out of his chest pocket. And Les Mis is the one luxury he affords himself. That's it.

Now that's what I call priesthood.