I know we’re already hurtling into the second semester, but part of me is still lingering in December, with Father King in Gaston Hall – at the Solemn Mass for Christmas. That Mass, and the man who presides at it, are great blessings to the Georgetown community.
Father Thomas King taught me in the class “Teilhard and the Theology of Evolution” when I was an undergrad. This is one of the few undergraduate courses I still think about, one of the few undergraduate courses whose books still occupy space on my bookshelf.
In retrospect, King’s idiosyncratic style was a large part of what caught my 19-year old attention. I remember a 1979 debate among my friends in our Healy basement pub about whether Father King slept hanging by his toes. We came to no consensus. I’m still not sure what the answer is.
But it was the content of the course that changed my life and opened me up to new ways of thinking about the world and the ways God may be at work in it. That course and Father King helped me learn an important Georgetown lesson: there is more than one authentically Catholic way to think and talk about our lives and our world.
Looking back on the 1970’s, I also clearly remember attending King’s Mass for Christmas. I don’t think we called it solemn then. In fact, in those less politically correct days, I think we just called it Christmas Mass – what with the Christmas trees, Christmas carols, Christmas readings and all.
It was held in Dahlgren Chapel. It won’t fit there now. I loved that Mass then.
I still do.
It is a strange Mass, replete with forced Christmas themes in the very heart of Advent. It plays fast and loose with all sorts of Church rules. In fact, on its liturgical face, it’s a Mass that makes no sense at all. But in its graced heart, it’s a ass that makes all the sense in the world.
Georgetown is a second home for us Hoyas. So, of course, we want to celebrate Christmas Mass here, with one another, in our home – even if it requires a theological wink and nod, things not unknown at Jesuit schools for almost five centuries.
Think about it: On a winter’s night, on a high-powered American college campus, in the middle of finals week, more than 800 people are willingly crammed into an overheated hall – the vast majority of them undergraduates hoping to be fed with Word and Sacrament. It’s a powerfully important Georgetown Mass. The music is always excellent, the homily perfect, and Gaston Hall comes alive with faith and hope and love.
It’s a powerful Georgetown Catholic moment.
To carp about such a Mass, even with its irregularities, requires a pinched heart and a cramped imagination, neither of which is a sign of healthy Catholicism.
I was lucky enough to concelebrate the Mass for Christmas this year. It was a beautiful and moving experience.
After Mass, on the way down the stairs in Healy, I overheard one attendee complain that Father King’s liturgical irregularities make him “just another cafeteria Catholic.”
I remember thinking to myself, a cafeteria Catholic? Funny, I just think of Father King as . a Catholic, and a good one – someone who knows that human life is complicated and that in the midst of our complexity, prudential judgment and pastoral flexibility are more important than legalism.
Now, Thomas King and I are very different men. I’d be surprised if we’ve ever voted for the same presidential candidate. I doubt that he owns one Bruce Springsteen CD, much less all of them.
My guess is that we differ on plenty of theological questions as well. But after 25 years of paying attention, I know that we share a deep commitment to the on-going adventure that is Roman Catholicism and the project of Jesuit higher education which it includes.
Let’s face it: Georgetown’s Solemn Mass for Christmas is a liturgical nightmare. It’s also, I bet, exactly what God wants for Hoyas. Folks with common sense and a healthy Catholic insight into the complexity of human experience understand that.
So, let’s be grateful for what we have at Georgetown: for our beloved Father Thomas King, for our Christmastime Mass in Gaston, for our bred-in-the-bone Catholic and Jesuit sense that knows when rules need to bend in service of a greater good.
There will always be folks who criticize Father King and the Jesuits and Georgetown for having such a sense. Let them rail, I say. They just don’t get it.
Thanks, Father King, for getting it.