By Mark Piper
May 6, 2019 — I've made many a Sunday obligation. Until the ravages of old age and his companions of various forms of memory loss take hold of me, however, I will never forget that Mass this second Sunday of Easter at the Sisters of Mary’s motherhouse in Omaha, Nebraska. Never. And I won't forget it because of how deep of an unexpected encounter with grace it was. I experienced a beautiful communion that is unseen.
I was in Omaha co-facilitating an international gathering of Servants of Mary (Servite) Associates. We were meeting at an off-site location, but drove to the sisters’ motherhouse for Mass. The Associate who drove me there smiled and said, “Unless things have changed, Fr. Larry Gillick, SJ, will be our celebrant today, and you’re going to love him!” The name seemed vaguely familiar, and then as the Associate shared Fr. Larry’s biography, I recalled seeing a YouTube video about him some years ago. Fr. Larry has been blind since childhood.
The Order of the Mass was the Order of the Mass. Yet, both the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharistic were so different because of Fr. Larry. I had never seen a presider read the Word from braille. Fr. Larry held out that cream-colored booklet, which in one sense had no words on it — no letters, no characters, just meaningfully organized dots. And I could see him press his fingers unto the page. From the page, to his fingers, out to his mouth came the Word of God. They were the same prayers I would have heard at any parish that day, but because of the braille the cadence of speech was slower. Everything was so much more deliberate: a deliberateness borne out of necessity yet integral to the beauty of this liturgy. Fr. Larry spoke loud and clear; I listened so intently as we experienced the Word together.
Then we moved into the Gospel. Again, with a deliberate, slower cadence, we heard of the fearful disciples, of Christ visiting them without Thomas, and later Christ’s visitation with Thomas, and I moved to the front of my seat, craned my head so as to directly look at Fr. Larry as he read, “‘Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed’…. The Gospel of the Lord.” Read by a man using his fingers. And I thought: grace, this is all grace. At once, grace turned into questions! What must it be like for Fr. Larry – for any person who is blind – to hear or to read those words? Are those words of Jesus a source of pain or consolation?
As the Mass transitioned from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, Fr. Larry moved from the ambo to the altar with the assistance of a Servite sister. Now, we heard again the deliberateness in cadence — even with the Eucharistic prayers he recited by memory — with the image of this priest, in persona Christi, being guided to the bread and wine by trust in this woman. I have never seen anything like it. But it was the internal movement within me at communion that was the source and summit of this beautiful liturgy.
Since my First Communion about 25 Aprils ago, I’ve received the Eucharist in the hand in our standard, fast-paced, Catholic assembly line-like transaction: walk, bow, take. Not this Mass. Not with Fr. Larry. Unable to see the communicant, he took the body, just as he took the Word, deliberately. Only then did he firmly impress the host into my hand. I didn’t “get” communion, I didn’t “take” communion, I was deliberately given and thus I truly received communion.
There was an unexpected grace in that Eucharist. Grace borne of the mingling of divine power and human frailty. Through the celebration of Christ’s sacrifice, Fr. Larry helped every person in the church experience a beautiful grace that is not observed with human sight. His very life is a sign and a sacrament. The experience imbued me with a desire to also be a sign and sacrament for others.
Mark Piper, a Packers fan in an unholy land, resides in Chicago with his wife and two children. He is mission-driven, has a master’s in public policy and mingles his professional and personal interests of leadership, communication, spirituality and strategic planning. He is an alumnus of Amate House.