The Beauty of Thy House
Growing up in Montreal, it would be hard for a Catholic child not to be inspired by the career of Brother Andre, the humble religious who spent his life honoring St. Joseph. So many healing miracles were worked in St. Joseph's name through the prayers and hands-on administration of Brother Andre that even in his lifetime he was known as the “Wonder Worker of Montreal.” Brother Andre's passion for his great patron, St. Joseph, knew no bounds. Overcoming demonic hostilities inside and outside the Church, the uneducated religious solicited the aid and financial assistance of the great and not-so-great in his grand plan. His determination and holiness caused to rise on the slopes of Mount Royal, the great edifice that would be known round the world as St. Joseph's Oratory.
Like so many others throughout the first half of the century, Nick Gruner went to the Oratory on the slope of Mount Royal many times and prayed to the famous servant of the great Saint Joseph. Also, like so many other boys in Quebec in the first half of the century, he was a Latin Mass altar boy by the time he finished second grade.
There, amid the high drama of the Immemorial Mass, once again like many before him, he underwent a special transformation.
There was a moment, in the Mass of the Ages, when many an altar boy made the transition from being just a child listening to the “blessed mutter of the Mass,” as Newman called it, as it issued from the lips of the priest, to becoming, at heart, a priest himself. The transition took place in the heart, on that landscape of innocence and trust, where, like a deer searching for a running brook, he had yearned for God, without knowing it, all his young life.
The moment was marked by the sound of running water. As he poured water over the fingers of the priest, he heard the priest whisper, ‘Lavabo ...’. At the sound of that word, decade after decade, since the Mass of the Ages was formulated, century after century, that word ‘Lavabo ...’, washed the world forever from the altar boy's heart and ushered him into the priesthood.
That moment of grace would remain a mystery all of his life, perhaps only in later adulthood could one pinpoint with accuracy the moment when the altar boy became a prisoner of Christ. Still, there must have been a moment of recognition shuddering through his soul the first time he heard the translation of the words into his own tongue:
Of all the moments of nurturing that demonstrated the sheer genius of Holy Mother Church none surpass that moment when the Bride of Christ, so breathtaking in Her grandeur, nemesis of principalities and powers, terror of tyrants and ideologues, turns all Her attention to the littlest of Her children, the pure and trusting boy on the altar, and gives him an embrace that makes of his past, present and future, a love story unequalled in the annals of romance, the pure and utter thralldom that can exist only between a young man and God.
Powerful enough to wed time to eternity, nevertheless the love that enters a boy's heart at ‘Lavabo ...’ remains within, without a pulse, until, as surely as the head is hinged to the shoulders, the boy, following an impulse he could not fathom, nor scarcely even acknowledge, leans his head back and looks up at the body of the Son of Man hanging above the tabernacle. His eye follows the line of those tortured limbs, all four of them drawing the eye toward their point of intersection, that Sacred Heart hidden within the constricted chest, and the altar boy's heart begins to throb, beating out the rhythm of the realization that floods his soul, the rhythm of the answer to the question that has haunted him since first he saw that Body on the Cross on the wall above his crib — ‘Why?’ For a moment the boy is lost in the silence of the Cross, but then the ticking sounds are pounding, pounding, pounding within his own chest. And he knows the answer.
Somehow, he makes his way through the remainder of his duties, changes into his own clothes, rushes out into the cold winter air of morning and flies headlong homeward through the snow crying, “For me. For me. For me.” And he is in love. And called to be a priest forever.
A mandate from God can come any time and when least expected. The Virgin in Nazareth was not expecting Gabriel. The shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem were not expecting a choir of angels, yet they were mandated to go seek a child wrapped in something special and laying in a manger. The shepherds on the slopes of Bethlehem, drowsy, cold, probably hungry and cranky, wanted nothing more than to doze off and be left alone. The most introspective of them might have sat gazing eastward over Jordan toward the Mount where he had been told since childhood that Moses was buried. Stories told in childhood glow with a sacred warmth that is never more welcome than in the cold heart of middle age. But, instead of being left to their rest, the shepherds were called upon to witness nothing less than the arrival of God on earth in the most unexpected of wrappings, the flesh of a baby child.
Far away from those famous shepherds in time and geography, three other shepherds — aged seven, nine and ten, had nothing more on their mind one spring day in northern Portugal, in 1917, than to rush their way through noontime prayers, when suddenly they were mandated to contemplate nothing less than the future of mankind.
So it is that greatness can enter the heart of a child and shape its future even as a boy runs home after early morning Mass, bursting to tell his mother what has just happened to him. He rushes into the kitchen, finds her at the stove, as he does every morning after Mass, but, instead of blurting out the news, he stands there speechless.
Only then does he realize the thing so recently planted in his chest is a secret, between him and God. He cannot even tell his mother. How does he know this? Well, how did the Wise Men know they could not return to Jerusalem and gossip? Heaven flooded them with the wisdom of doing otherwise.
The mother glances back from the stove to the doorway and sees the altar boy returned. Sees the snow melting from his cap onto his brow, coursing in miniature brooks down either side of the face. In a second of time so tiny only angels could measure it, she has recorded the change in him. She looks at the light in his eyes, the words shaped on his lips but arrested there by some mysterious grace with which she has always been sharing this child. “Don't drip snow on the floor,” she might say. Then, perhaps, “Breakfast is on the table.”
Simple banal words, spoken since time immemorial at this time of a winter morning, between mother and son. But this time by a mother to a priest.
Faith comes through the mother, said De Maistre. It always has. It always will. Who can doubt that the Three Wise Men had three wise mothers?
Padre Pio received the faith from his. Cardinal Mindzenty from his. Father Fuentes from his. They grew into three of the most persecuted priests of the Twentieth Century. One can easily suspect that it was in those silences between a mother and her son, a boy with his secret, a mother with hers, that Pio, Fuentes and Mindzenty gained the strength to stand alone against the most horrific forces this century could throw at them, and emerge with their defense of the Cross intact after years of vilification, betrayal and persecution. Is there a boy at your kitchen door? Look closely before you answer. Could he be a Fourth Wise Man, perhaps an inheritor of the mantle left on the river bank by Pio or Mindzenty? The Catholic child standing at the schoolhouse door on his first day of school in 1948 was a new creature on earth, one living under the threat of the nuclear annihilation of whole nations, unaware that his Church, too, was an endangered species.
A child entering grade school in Catholic Quebec went prepared with five or six years of home catechism. When Nick Gruner was five, his mother said she wanted all her children to grow up to be not just nominal Catholics, but good Catholics. She taught them about the Immaculate Conception at home, before school. It is the wise mother who reserves this precious teaching for herself in those early childhood years. The child accepts the Immaculate Conception with the greatest of ease. What, after all, to a pure child could be more natural than for God to create perfect purity to be the Mother of His Son? To learn of this treasure from a mother is to be awarded a trophy of the faith that cannot be lost to any adversary, on any battlefield.
Like Catholic children the world over, Nick learned the story of Fatima at home, long before he ever saw a school door. Just across the street from the Gruner home lived Mr. Leonard Hynes, future President of C.I.L., his wife, Jessie, and their four children, each aged within a year of four of the Gruner children, including Nick. One day, in their house, during a recitation of the Rosary, he heard them inserting at the end of each decade the prayer “O my Jesus ...” dictated to Lucy by Our Lady of Fatima. He objected to it since he hadn't heard it said before. It was then that they told him about the Message of Fatima. He took the details home and inquired about them of his mother.
It was in the 5th grade of St. Joseph's School in Montreal that the teacher told the Fatima story to the class. After hearing it, he had gone home and announced that he was pledging to say the Rosary every day for the rest of his life. He was reminded by his mother that such a pledge was a solemn promise to the Mother of God and should be entered into with great caution and even greater resolve. The presence of the Mother of God in one's life was not to be taken lightly.
Father Nicholas Gruner would later recall the legacy of Marian devotion left by his family: “On my father's side of the family, devotion to Our Lady was quite deep. My father had been an Anglican and heard the arguments against devotion to Our Lady. Still, when I was in my twenties, he defined for me his attitude towards Mary — namely, that just as a king delights in honoring his queen, Jesus, who is King, delights in honoring Our Lady, who is His Queen.
“Grandfather Mullally had founded a hospital in Montreal and named it St. Mary's, after Our Lady. He had been born in Prince Edward Island and his uncle had been a sea captain. Once, the captain had to get rid of a drunken sailor who was causing trouble. As he was about to leave the ship, the sailor cursed the captain and the crew and the ship. Afterwards, off the coast of Newfoundland, a storm destroyed the ship. Nevertheless, not one of the men were lost, for, when the ship went down, my grandfather's uncle had them all praying the Rosary.
“My grandmother, Mary Mullally was an artist who painted pictures of Our Lady, including Our Lady of Fatima, which I now have in my house. When an art exhibit in Montreal once displayed a broken lily, symbolizing the artist's denial of the virginity of Our Lady, my grandmother severely upbraided the curator, taking him to task for including it in the display.”
In the late Forties, when Nick was in early grade school, the essentials of the Fatima story and the beauty of the characters were known to nearly every Catholic. What was not known, and could not have been at that time by the father and mother catechizing their children in far away Canada, was the drama that had been still unfolding within the Church regarding both Our Lady's Message and, in particular, the Third Secret.
Pope Pius XII called himself the “Pope of Fatima”. In 1950, he performed a unique and vital act of leadership. On November 1, Pius XII declared as infallible teaching of the Church that Mary had been assumed body and soul into Heaven upon Her death.1 The Dogma of the Assumption would give a world living under the shadow of extermination a reminder that life did not end here, that no matter what evil man might bring into the world, the company of a loving God for all eternity was our true destiny.
1. Pope Pius XII, From the Apostolic Constitution, Munificentissimus Deus, promulgated Nov. 1, 1950; Denzinger - The Sources of Catholic Dogma 2331-2333.