The Midnight Mass Express
Monsignor Francis X. Meehan (1910-1994) and Kerry McManus, Circa 1975
Back in the early Seventies, Immaculate Conception Parish in Marlborough was assigned a new pastor: Monsignor Francis Xavier Meehan.
Monsignor Meehan was an intellectual, theologian, and an educator At St. John’s Seminary in Boston for many years. Now, toward the end of his career, he was returning to parish work as a local pastor. It was a role he had requested, and truly relished. He was my pastor, mentor, and friend.
Monsignor Meehan was known for his willingness to help everyone, his good nature, and long, intellectual sermons (that most of us didn’t entirely understand, but which always contained at least one useful thought); and his dry sense of humor. I appreciated all of his gifts and talents, but naturally, his warmth and humor drew me closer.
We young, family parishioners would get together in little home groups from time to time, discussing church teachings, policies, ethics, and church experiences (good and bad). Nothing was off limits. Sometimes we discussed personal matters. Once he admitted he was named “Francis X. Meehan” for the famous Hollywood silent movie idol, “Francis X. Bushman,” after whom so many admiring mothers named their firstborn sons early in the 20th Century. His mother, like many mothers of her time, always insisted that she had named her son after the great St. Francis Xavier; but that one mother’s tale was suspect, and the great silent movie star, Francis X. Bushman, was believed to be the source of most of those young boys’ name.
That opened the door, and I asked Msgr. Meehan to tell us a light-hearted story from his own personal experience. One Christmas Season, after a glass or two of Jamison’s around my fire place, he told us of his first Christmas parish experience:
“At Christmas time in the 1940’s, just after World War II, the churches were packed with people during the Christmas holidays. The pastors would contact the seminary to recruit young priests, teachers, and even senior seminarians to come and help out at the churches. My first Christmas assignment was helping out at an old world Italian Parish in the North End of Boston.
“The parish was old world in every way. The senior congregation was first generation Italian-Americans. They had built the church, and their children and grandchildren filled it. They also had several traditions they followed without fail. One of these was irreverently called ‘The Jesus Express.’ You never dared call it that in front of the old pastor, but occasionally he did tolerate use of the alternate term, ‘The Midnight Mass Express.’
“The premise was simple: Before Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, there would be a choir festival. They would surround the stable scene and empty crèche at the foot of the altar, then step aside for the final hymn (“Joy to the World,” and “Silent Night,” were local favorites) . While they sang, the Baby Jesus was majestically lowered, sliding slowly along an almost invisible wire, that led from the choir loft to the empty crèche on the altar. It was rehearsed and perfectly timed. The little statue landed in the straw almost at the exact final note of the hymn. Then the pastor, his curates, deacons, and altar boys, all splendidly attired, would say a few prayers, bless the entire diorama, and proceed with Midnight Mass.
“The year I was on duty, naturally, there was an issue. The committee had allowed two of the altar boys to string the wire from the choir loft to the crèche and, as young boys will, they were more interested in getting the job done quickly than properly. They didn’t understand, for example, that the higher the choir loft end of the wire was raised, the faster the Infant Jesus would proceed down it when they released him from the loft. They hung the wire very high indeed. And, alas, no one checked their work.
“Came Christmas Eve, and the choir concert, a full church, and the clerical presence. The pastor gave the signal to the boys in the choir loft: “Release the Infant Jesus.” They did just that.. As clerics and congregants alike looked on in horror, the little statue of Jesus hurtled down the wire at a high and ever increasing rate of speed. One of the curates, who had been an Army chaplain during the war, reverted to his military training. He yelled, “Incoming!” and dove into the first pew for cover. The pastor stood his ground. The little statue hit the crèche at top speed, knocked it over, which in turn knocked over Joseph and Mary along with the shepherds and the animals, which in turn knocked down the entire stable.
“In less time than it takes to describe it, the Christmas manger scene was a shambles, flattened, and apparently destroyed.
“The pastor never blinked. He proceeded to say the prayers over the wreckage, blessed it with holy water, and walked triumphantly away to begin the Midnight Mass.
“After Mass, the pastor got all the participants together for a review of the disaster. The responsible altar boys received a talking-to and lecture that they probably carry with them to this very day. The pastor asked for a damage report. The custodian replied: “The shepherds and the angels are broken but fixable; The Holy Family landed in the straw and they are okay. I can set up the crèche easily enough, clean up the mess, and with a little help, we can hammer the stable back together in time for tomorrow morning’s first Mass.’
“For the first time, the pastor smiled: ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are all well? That will be our little Christmas miracle. As for the rest of it, fix the crèche and have the stable set up around the Holy Family before anyone goes home tonight.’ He walked happily away.
“And it was done just that way. By the 7am Christmas Mass, the Infant Jesus was safely back in his crèche, in the stable, and surrounded by his loving parents and attendant shepherds and angels.
“God was in his place and all was right with the world.
“And – after all – isn’t that a great message for Christmas?”