Visiting Benalla on the first weekend of September 1989, I attended a Saturday morning Mass said by Father in the F.C.J. convent chapel. At the Sign of Peace, there being no-one else in or around my pew, I exercised my legitimate option not to partake in the head-nodding and handshaking which, in any event, I find most distracting and unsettling at that point in the Mass. Instead, I chose to kneel and wait for the all important Agnus Dei.
In prayer, eyes closed, I thought I felt something touch my hands but ignored the sensation, until the touching suddenly became tugging. Startled, I opened my eyes to find myself confronted by Father who, having vacated the sanctuary for a hand-shaking tour of the chapel, had wandered some distance into the pew to wrap his hands around mine, all the while staring fixedly at me and saying, “Peace be with you, peace … .”
Shocked by this disruptive intrusion, I instinctively resisted the manhandling which only served to strengthen Father’s resolve and he pulled me more forcefully, still repeating his little chant — “peace, peace.” By this stage I was within a few inches of his face and our eyes met. There was nothing at all “peaceful” about his infuriated and fixed countenance which seemed more like that of a man experiencing significant inner turmoil. I said softly: “Father, return to the altar. That is where you belong at this moment of the Mass. Not down here.” In retrospect a rather pathetic rejoinder but the only words of wisdom I could muster under the circumstances.
Still squeezing my hands, his mouth tightened and, between clenched teeth, he spat out: “At my Eucharist, you give the Sign of Peace!” He then continued his chapel tour before eventually returning to the altar.
The whole encounter probably lasted only twenty seconds.
At the time, apart from my disbelief that it was actually happening, the thing that most impressed itself upon me was Fathers fierce emphasis on the word “my”, as if the Eucharist was something of his own making, a personal plaything. Yet, as Father James Schall, S.J., recently stated: “for any priest, the last thing in the world the Mass is, is ‘my’ Mass. The priest should never give the impression that somehow the Mass is ‘his,’ that he just sort of made up the important prayers and gestures, even his own explanation of what he is doing. He should not appear to be so independent of the Pope and the Bishops and the general rules in what he does at the altar that he seems to be a sort of private revelation to himself. The Mass is such an ‘awesome,’ holy thing that, unless it falls within the meaning and structure given to it by Our Lord from the beginning through the Church, it would be simply madness to hint that what goes on there is of one’s own making.” ii