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A Priest, a Monstrance, and a Devout Dog

August 25, 2016


I spent my last week of July in the mountains of Tiger, Georgia with well over two hundred teens and their youth ministers at Covecrest, a summer camp run by LifeTeen. Since I do fulltime seminary work and don’t have my own youth group as I did when I was a parish priest, I really enjoy my week of camp.  Teens from parishes all around the country spend six days running through obstacle courses, playing ‘messy’ games, whitewater rafting, team building at high-ropes and low-ropes, swimming in the lake, playing music, making crafts in the art barn, and engaging in highly competitive games of flickerball.  But camp isn’t all fun and games.  Teens also have a daily ‘session’, which is basically catechesis delivered by a seasoned youth minister, they participate in daily Mass, have daily opportunities to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation, sing lots of praise and worship music, and also have time for individual and communal Eucharistic adoration.

There are two opportunities scheduled into the week for a communal Holy Hour with the entire camp, one on Wednesday and the other on Friday.  Since I broke my toe whitewater rafting late Wednesday morning, the other camp priest, Father Grebe, took the Wednesday night Holy Hour while I sat in the back of the room with my foot elevated on a chair to take down the swelling in my pinky toe.  It would have been difficult for me to process with the Eucharist up from the little chapel to the main hall and to do all that kneeling, genuflecting, and standing that night, so the plan was that I would preside on Friday instead, which is what happened.

On Friday night, halfway through the session I left the main hall and walked down to the small chapel where I met two seminarians and a summer missionary, who were assigned to serve the Holy Hour.  I threw on my alb, a stole, a cope, and the humeral veil, genuflected to the tabernacle, removed the luna and placed it in the monstrance, and then I followed the three servers who led the way about four hundred yards up to the main hall with incense and candles.  Since everyone was already in the main hall singing praise and worship music in preparation to adore the LORD in the Eucharist, it was a rather quiet and reverent walk up the little hill to the lodge.  I took careful steps since my toe was broken, and I briefly imagined what would happened if I tripped and fell – my eyes would be impaled by the golden rays of the monstrance and I would lose my vision forever.  (That’s what happens when you read too many Flannery O’Connor stories!)  Once we arrived at the doors of the lodge, we stood there for a couple of minutes and waited for our liturgical cue.

I don’t know about other priests, but I’m often struck by the humility of God in the Eucharist, especially when I’m holding a monstrance in my hands.  So I started thinking, “I’m holding God in my hands.  How weird is that? How strange is our God, yet how good!  That he would make himself so small is crazy, but it’s true.”  I don’t remember if those were my exact thoughts, but they were much like that in spirit anyway.  Then I started thinking about Eucharistic miracles.  The youth minister I worked with at my first parish assignment was very much into such miracles, and he would often tell teens about them when they were struggling with belief in the real presence.  Me?  I’ve always believed that Jesus was present in the Eucharist, not because of any miracle, but because Jesus said that he would be present in the Eucharist, especially in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.  Moreover, I’ve never seen a bleeding host or the face of Jesus in a host.  It’s not that I don’t believe that such things happen, it’s simply that I’ve never experienced such things, yet I haven’t needed such things to believe in Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist.  And just then the doors opened to the main room and we began Holy Hour.

Our time of Eucharist adoration was awesome.  If you haven’t seen what LifeTeen calls an ‘XLT’, check out the one at which Bishop Barron preached during World Youth Day in Krakow.  It’s like a traditional Holy Hour, but there’s a bit more procession and song.  (Matt Maher and Audrey Assad played the music for the XLT in Krakow.)

There is also time for silence, which is important for all of us, but especially teens, who are afforded very little intentional silence in their busy lives.  I like to tell teens at an XLT that we will begin by singing songs of adoration and praise to Jesus, but then we will quiet ourselves so that we can hear Jesus sing his song to each of us. Like your typical Holy Hour, we conclude by singing the Tantum Ergo, followed by benediction, and then Divine Praises.  Finally, it’s time to return the Blessed Sacrament to the tabernacle in the small chapel.  On that Friday night, this is where things got interesting.

I was being led by the three acolytes – two candles and incense – back down the hill in procession when about fifty or sixty steps in I noticed a medium-sized dog with dark brown hair and a white spot standing to my left, looking at me.  I had a very strange urge to show the Eucharist to this dog, and so I did.  I turned to my left and showed the monstrance to the dog, and would you believe that the dog bowed down?  It did!  Have you ever heard of the yoga position called ‘downward dog’?  Well, that’s exactly what this dog did when I showed him the Eucharist.  It lasted a second or two and then he straightened back up, but I’m telling you, this dog bowed down when I turned the monstrance toward it.

My servers were very focused, so they were still walking ahead reverently in procession when I whispered, “Guys, did you see that?”  But they didn’t hear me, so I waited until we got back to the chapel and I told them about this devout dog after I reposed the Blessed Sacrament.  They thought it was a cool story, but since they didn’t actually see it happen, they weren’t as impressed as I was.  Later that night I caught up with the leadership team and told them the story, and they too thought it was cool, but I think they liked my imitation of the dog’s posture more than the story itself.  When I got back to my room, I was still pretty excited and decided to tweet about the incident.  A few minutes later a brother priest tweeted back at me with a story that I had never heard.

Back in 1995, when Saint Pope John Paul II was visiting the United States, he spent some time in Philadelphia and stayed at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.  One night JPII decided that he wanted to spend some time praying in the chapel, but since this late night visit wasn’t on the itinerary, security had to first make certain that the chapel was secure, so dogs were brought in to sniff the place out.  As the story goes, the dogs went nuts, signaling to their handlers that someone was in the chapel.  But the handlers didn’t see anybody and nobody was there. Exactly where in the chapel were those dogs sensing someone’s presence?  Right by the tabernacle.

What do I make of all this?  Well, I am a priest who teaches philosophy for a living and I’m constantly making distinctions between rational animals and animals (as well as reason and faith, the natural and the supernatural, and things visible and invisible – the stuff of the Catholic both/and principle).  And I saw, with my own eyes, an animal bow down before a monstrance that I was holding.  Maybe it was just stretching?  But why stretch at that very moment?  I don’t know.  After all, a dog doesn’t even know that it’s a dog, so how could it know anything about God?  I’m not sure. But then I think of St. Francis of Assisi and his love for creation, but even more, his love for the Creator. And then I think, All Creatures of Our God and King.  If a dog can recognize its mother, maybe it can recognize its Creator too.  Maybe that’s it.  I don’t know.  Maybe sometimes you can’t explain why a dog bowed down at the sight of a monstrance, so you just sing, “O, Praise Him! Alleluia!” and concede that Catholic Christianity is wonderful and mysterious indeed.

Image credit: Leo Gonzales, flickr