The first parish to which I was assigned was a newly formed one in Atlanta, Georgia. At that time there was a relatively small group of people. The task before this small group was one that requires a considerable amount of faith before embarking; while the task of their young priest was of convincing, “selling” (to use business terms), this dream to those who lacked the aforementioned faith. Perhaps it was this lack of faith that led to a constant shortage in funds or maybe it was a combination of different things. Whatever the case, we very frequently found ourselves in that case.
But it was the faith, not to mention dedication, hard work and commitment, of a few (which is the case, sadly enough, of most communities) that somehow gave us the strength to survive those first years. I remember one of the many sunny days in Atlanta when the members of the church board began arriving, one by one, to the office of a parishioner, Marjorie, who served as secretary that year and so the meetings were held in her office. As we casually entered her spacious conference room, filled with the bright, late afternoon sunlight, we found her father sitting at the table. He smiled as we walked in, pretending not to notice our surprised looks at meeting him there. The meeting began with a prayer and after the first items of the agenda Marjorie’s father suddenly and rather calmly announced the reason for his attendance. The parish’s financial problems were obvious enough, he noted, things were tough, but the fact of the matter was that you can’t have a church without a priest. He carried on about the church he grew up in, to the stories (which I had heard times before) of how his grandfather opened his doors and let the church use his basement until they could buy their own property. He spoke to the board members and pointed his finger at me to make his point more clear, That’s your church.
This introduction of his led him to his rather outrageous proposal to solve our financial problems: each month that our expenses outweighed our income he would cover the difference. The plan, I’ll admit, made me feel probably the most uncomfortable. After all, the majority of the church’s expenses were directed at me. Yet, he again pointed that finger at me and repeated his claim that the priest is the church.
Marjorie’s father’s name was Charles Mancini and just as his tale of his grandfather’s hospitality to the young church in Aliquippa seemed like it was ages ago (too long ago to be relevant) that meeting in Atlanta, which was only a few years ago, now seems to me as if it had been much longer ago. We have moved since from Atlanta but we stay in regular touch with Marjorie. She called early this morning to tell us that her father had passed away.
As outrageous as it might have sounded, Charles ended up carrying out his promise. I don’t know how much he ended up paying but I do know that Atlanta still has a church, a growing one at that. In fact, I don’t know how much faith Charles had – he was, after all, the first to admit that his church attendance could easily be categorized as poor. Actually, now that I think of it, whenever he’d tell me the story of his grandfather Eli Gvoich, or of Fr. Tomich whom he remembered from his childhood just as when he spoke to us that afternoon, I don’t think he talked to us about something he believed in, I think he was trying to tell us that this was something he sincerely loved. He loved his grandfather and his heritage and family and the priests he had growing up as much as he loved his wife and daughters – as much as a man can love anything I suppose. I think, in the end, it’s our love for things and the outrageous things we’re willing to do to show how much we love them that ultimately define our faith.
May his memory be eternal.