Mary O’Connell | Longreads | September 2017 | 18 minutes (4,609 words)
How we loved his very name: Monsignor Thomas O’Brien. The elevated French title — that magnificent silent “g” — coupled with his sturdy Irish name, which, imbued with our cultural bias, suggested all good things. Monsignor O’Brien can tell a joke like nobody’s business! Monsignor O’Brien loves Jameson shots and telling stories late into the smoky night! Monsignor O’Brien always carries Tootsie Rolls to give to children! Monsignor doesn’t stand on ceremony, no sir! Did you hear him mumble “Holy Shit” when his sleeve brushed the altar candle and caught fire?
Now Monsignor O’Brien belongs to a lost age, our personal Pompeii. Excavate us from the lava ash and see us in our innocence: our voluminous eighties hair and hoop earrings, our hands clutching cassettes tapes, The Go-Go’s, A Flock of Seagulls, LL Cool J. See the random fortune that shaped our days and gave us our bold, laughing profiles, the lowered eyes and caved shoulders of a different experience. It was a time when “monsignor” or “priest” was spoken without the slightest wince, without the explicit worry — uh-oh — before the saddest of the sad trombones replaced the golden crash of church bells at Midnight Mass, before the newspaper stories and the movie and the documentaries told a truth more devastating and inconvenient to the faithful than anything Al Gore could conjure, before Sinead O’Connor ripped up a photo of John Paul II on Saturday Night Live. (Note to my outraged 24-year-old self: Go ahead and proclaim Sinead a delusional attention whore, for that will amp up your moral vigor and you will feel ever so righteous, ever so wholesome! But she knows things.)
Back then, we believed the Monsignor was a holy man, but he also walked among us as a totally regular guy, so we pitied him his natural yearnings stemmed by sacrifice. We mourned with him when he gave a Mother’s Day homily about missing his own mother. We spied him driving through McDonald’s with nobody in the passenger seat, nobody in the backseat. The lonely subtext: Having a family of his own to sit down to dinner with was pretty much off the table.
Yet we imagined that loneliness as sublime. It was the waxen sweetness of ivory altar candles and spent wedding roses, the scrape and rasp of his black wing-tips on the icy church steps at dawn, a dinner taken by himself, something hearty, we imagined, something priestly: Shepherds pie chased with Folgers coffee in an earthenware mug stamped with a chunky Celtic cross. Later, if he craved a treat and if it wasn’t Lent, Monsignor O’Brien might eat an off-brand sandwich cookie leftover from a funeral luncheon while he watched the Chiefs on the small TV in the rectory. Later still, he might lay in bed with a notebook, laboring over his upcoming homily.
Perhaps he would rise and pace for a bit; the business of inspiration and enlightenment was surely stressful, the word of the Lord so far-off, so starry and oblique. In his endearing humility, Monsignor O’Brien would never quite feel up to the task of interpreting God for the rest of us. Did he console himself by thinking that the valor was in the effort, not the accomplishment? Did he click off his bedside lamp and listen to jazz on his AM/FM clock radio as his eyelids fluttered shut? Did Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman take him to his rest? Goodnight, Monsignor O’Brien. Goodnight, Jesus. Goodnight to all those saints and angels who have sung your praises throughout the years.