So sometime Saturday night during our French inspired chicken dinner with French cafe music playing in the background I remembered something. I remembered that Richard was due to read the narrator part of the Gospel of the Passion at St. Mary’s of the Lake Parish in Uptown on Palm Sunday. I know this because in a very selfless way he invited me to join him at Mass on that day as I’m sure he invited many others. I told him I would love to if I happened to be in town but I wasn’t sure. As always he deflected any sense of obligation and told me that he would be delighted if it so worked out. As it turned out it worked out, but in a way I never imagined or had hoped for.
So Christiana and I woke up Sunday morning and got ready for Mass and were comforted to know that we would be on Richard’s home court even if he would not be reading. What happened exceeded even my wildest expectations. As we arrived at the beautiful church we saw that the 8 a.m. service was just exiting. We found a priest on the steps of the church who was greeting exiting worshipers. I introduced myself and asked him if he knew Richard Harsch. He responded that indeed he did and then I told him the news. Like many over the last few days he heard the news by being taken back and shocked. He asked what happened and offered his sympathy. He then proceeded to take us into the church and introduce us to other priests and lectors and parishioners who all came up and offered their sympathy and kind words and told stories of how Richard influenced their lives even in the six short months he had been attending St. Mary’s. The depth to which I continue to be humbled by this man’s life seems to know no ending point.
Just before the service started Father Jim came over to us with an usher and asked us if we would like to bring up the gifts. If you are not Catholic or are less familiar with a typical mass, bringing up the gifts amounts to taking up the bread and the wine to the altar before communion so that the priest can bless them before sharing in the Eucharist. I can’t imagine a more deeply touching or appropriate honor on this day and so with a few tears in my eyes we graciously accepted the offer and the Mass proceeded. All during the morning I felt a sense of Divine presence and knew that of the many times Richard asked to attend Mass with him and of the very few times I accepted that this would be the most special. I wished I was sitting next to him but in a way I understood I was. We had gathered palms to share with a few others who could not join us and we held them in honor and took them home until we could pass them on.
St Mary’s is not a high profile Chicago Catholic church. It is sparsely attended. The make up of the congregation is a melting pot of race and socio-ecomonic situation. It is mostly a gathering of the truly faithful individuals in need of a community. As I looked around the pews I saw many with physical handicaps, many were with canes or walkers or wheelchairs. Some of them wore oxygen respirators and at the same time there were a number of young families of every ethnic descent. I could see why Richard felt and home and even needed here. I can’t even imagine the good he would have done in a truly Christ-like fashion if given even a few more years.
After the communion service I returned to my pew and reflected. I began to weep but for the first time in the last few days they were not tears of sorrow but rather they were tears of joy. I had a vision of Richard and my father meeting for the first time. My father left us in 1997 and if I had to list my most important mentors in my lifetime my Dad and Richard would be at the very top of that list. I could only feel love and support from above and I envisioned the two of them looking down on me with smiles. I don’t know that I have ever felt more at peace or loved in my entire 49 years.
As Mass ended I looked around at the altar and at the stained glass and just knew that I would come back to this place again either once or repeatedly. We lit a candle and remembered as is the way. No moment in time will equal this but I try to remember that it is finding the unique in the mundane that is the path to divinity and not only waiting for the earth shattering. That is the lesson that he would want us to learn here…