It was a warm Saturday afternoon in May of 1988. I was ordaining deacons for a religious community of priests who work with the Missionaries of Charity, the congregation of sisters founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In the front rows of Sacred Heart Parish Church in the South Bronx were the relatives and friends of those to be ordained, along with Mother Teresa and several of her sisters.
The church was filled to capacity. We had listened to the Readings. I had delivered my homily. And the actual ordination, with its litany, laying on of hands, and prayer of consecration, had been solemn and moving.
It was time for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The gifts of bread and wine were brought to the altar by the parents of the newly ordained. A Gospel choir and an Hispanic chorus from the parish accompanied the procession magnificently.
Silence ensued. I lifted the paten to begin the Offertory. "Blessed are You, Lord, God of all creation," I prayed. "Through your goodness we have this bread to offer."
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Suddenly from the rear of the church there came a shriek. All turned to see what was happening. In the center aisle a man, who appeared to be in his early thirties, was hurling himself toward the sanctuary, frequently falling and struggling to his feet. His face was covered with blood, as was a cloth which he grasped in his flailing left hand.
At the end of the aisle he fell facedown. His head landed just short of the stairway leading to the sanctuary. The blood-soaked cloth escaped from his hand and came to rest on the top step.
Mother Teresa and three of her sisters rushed to his side. He was sobbing bitterly. With the help of two men from the congregation, they assisted him into the sacristy. Even after the door was firmly closed, we could hear him crying and calling out for help.
When all had returned to their places, I picked up the paten and began again: "Blessed are You, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer."
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After the ceremony, the priests of the parish told me that they had brought the sobbing man to the emergency room of a nearby hospital. "We know him quite well," one of them remarked. "He is a heroin addict who has lost his job, his wife, and his children. He doesn't know where to turn. Luckily this time he wasn't knifed, just beaten up."
I returned to the sanctuary of the church to claim my Pontifical, the ceremony book for ordinations. In the half-light of the massive Gothic structure I spied the blood-soaked cloth that had been deposited on the sanctuary steps. It was lying folded on the floor near the altar. Evidently, someone had picked it up, perhaps at Communion time, and placed it there.
The heat was oppressive. Nonetheless, I made my way to the first pew in the Church, knelt down, and fixed my eyes on the cloth. Here was an offertory gift unlike any I had ever known. Yet, the more I considered it, the more I came to realize that it should not have seemed unusual.
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At Mass there is presented to the Heavenly Father but one essential gift, Jesus Christ, Who offered Himself in sacrifice on the cross for our salvation, and Who is offered in the sacrifice by the priest standing in His place at each and every Eucharist. All the same, Catholic piety has from the earliest centuries of the Church, inspired the faithful not only to join the priest at Mass as he offers Christ to the Father but also to present to the Father, at the Offertory of the Mass, gifts of themselves, their goods, their joys, and - above all else - their sufferings.
No one walks through life without being, at least to some extent, bloodied. The wounds may be known to all, as in the case of physical illness, public accusation of wrong-doing, inability to find employment, and the like. However, they are often unknown or known only to a few, as in the case of emotional illness, rejection by family or friends, addictions, and the like.
Each is to be dealt with according to its own specific character. Still, all - whether public or private - belong in the Offertory processions of every Catholic who understands and loves the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. When the bread and wine are carried down the aisle, you and I should follow them in spirit, begging our Father in heaven to receive, along with them, ourselves, our talents, our treasure, our achievements, and particularly our hurts.
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Nor should our sinfulness hold us back. If, again, in spirit, we have to stumble toward the sanctuary because of our failings, stumble we should, penitent and crying out for help. This is how Magdalene would have done it. This is how Augustine did it. This is how the Preacher Who first recounted the Parable of the Prodigal Son would want it done. There is no gift more cherished by the Lamb of God on the cross and on the altar than a contrite heart.
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I knelt motionless and could not take my eyes away from the blood-soaked cloth. Might its owner have been trying to place it and all the pain it represented on the altar next to the bread and wine? I would never know, though I prayed that this is what he had in mind.
Blessed are You, Lord, God of all creation. Through Your goodness we have this bread, this wine, this life of ours with all its joys and sorrows, to offer. Accept our gifts, as You accepted on Calvary, and accept at every Mass, the "Gift of Gifts," Your Son and our Savior.
Blessed be God forever.