February 26, 2010

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

One of the vocations that lasts forever

Cynthia DewesAs we prayed beside the casket of Father Albert Ajamie during the viewing before his funeral last month, I thought of the words, “Thou art a priest forever.”

Because he was, and he is.

The pope has proclaimed this the Year for Priests in order to bring attention to the vocation of those ordained as the principal sacramental ministers to the rest of us. Like every vocation, theirs is unique, holy, and worthy of examination and gratitude. It is one of the essential pieces in the human puzzle which God designed so cleverly.

Father Ajamie was a great example of the priesthood. You never doubted his faith or his determination to do God’s will. And these were reflected in his chief interests—social justice and liturgy. The large crowd at the funeral of this 86-year-old man testified to his influence in these and many other areas.

Father Al was of Lebanese descent, and permitted to say Mass in both the Roman and Melkite rites. The Eastern Church’s emphasis on music and chant and incense contributed to Father Al’s interest in creating good liturgy.

And as he told his priest support group more than once, the Eastern view of things was different from the Western in other ways. It often emphasized the spirit of Church rather than the practical problems of it.

Vatican II also encouraged Father Al’s belief that liturgy was one of the chief ways to help people grasp the mysteries of faith. He was the first person I ever heard say, “He who sings, prays twice,” and he would sometimes interrupt Mass to urge us to “Sing! Sing!”

He was interested not only in good music, but also in the selection of appropriate Scripture readings, inspiring church decoration and meaningful sermons. He understood the importance of ritual, but he also believed in that of parish community.

The ladies’ club at St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis discovered this the first time they invited Father Al to their annual

pitch-in dinner. Usually, the priest/guest would attend, say grace, be given a plate and utensils, and turned loose on the vast array of good food. But unlike his predecessors, Father Al brought a delicious Lebanese salad he had made to share, which naturally contained a lot of mint, his favorite herb. The ladies were enchanted.

Social justice was a major concern for Father Al, who championed the cause of blacks long before that was considered fashionable. He was the pastor of Holy Angels, a largely black parish in Indianapolis, and encouraged its young people like Father Kenny Taylor to enter religious life.

When St. Bridget School in Indianapolis closed, he invited its mostly black students to come to St. Monica School. Several families left the parish in protest, taking their contributions with them, but Father Al and his remaining parishioners stood firm because it was the right thing to do.

On another occasion, Father Al was correct, if not tactful. During a Fourth of July Mass, he presented a slide show depicting homeless people, slums, poverty-stricken families and other American social ills. This was not well-received by those who felt insulted on a day devoted to patriotism.

Father Al’s funeral liturgy was beautiful, moving and faith-filled. When I told Charles Gardner, the archdiocesan director of liturgy and worship who led the funeral music, that, “Father would’ve loved this,” he replied, “He does love this.”

Indeed. Father Ajamie was, and is, a priest who lives out his vocation joyfully and passionately. It continues to inspire us.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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