I've been cantoring for 15 years this year. I started cantoring when I was a sophomore in High School as a volunteer in my Parish. I've been able to help support my family through this ministry up to now. I've sung in various settings: rowdy high school Masses, Funerals with loved ones wailing for their departed, weddings where people sat ticking the time away until they could get to the reception, regular Sunday Masses where I take it for granted that things just happen. I've pretty much been around the block, and thought I had seen it all, and then there was tonight.
I was cantoring at my job in a Parish in our Diocese for the 5:00 Vigil Mass on Saturday evening. I had just sung at a wedding that afternoon, and was able to come home for a 1/2 hour between "gigs" to spend a little of the beautiful afternoon with my family. My 18 month old daughter is sick with a cold, so I was able to hold her, and tuck her in in front of a movie with a cup of juice before leaving again. I kissed her on the forehead goodbye, and something told me to kiss my other little ones as well. My 3 y.o. son was outside playing with walkie-talkies and handed me one which I used until we broke up our signal about a 1/4 mile from our house. I said "Goodbye Honey, I love you. Be good for Dad" about 10 times until that signal was lost. I couldn't help but think in a poignant way what it would be like if those were the last words I said to him.
I got to Church, warmed up, reviewed the Psalm and Gospel Acclamation, and proceeded upstairs with the organist. I sat down in the front of the Church, waited for the Prelude to end, and then got up to make the announcements and start the opening hymn. I noticed him immediately. He was across the aisle from me, two pews from the front, a man bigger than my husband, looking very much agitated and restless. I started singing, and he did too. Loudly. Screaming the lyrics. About 1/2 step off and about 1 measure (approx. 4 words) behind me and the congregation. I knew something was up at this point. I ignored him, began using my internal metronome, and plowed on. I could not outsing him and knew it was against my ministry to try, so I backed off the mic enough to keep from competing, while maintaining a steady voice to keep my organist from becoming too distracted. I prayed my S.O.S prayer to the Holy Spirit to keep me from breaking, and forged on ahead. We sang all the verses of the Hymn to accomodate the Procession, and it felt endless. Something was not right about this man, and I immediately felt sympathy for him. I tried not to let it affect me, but it was a prayer to make that happen.
The opening prayer was said, and everyone sat for the first reading. Turning so I could focus on the ambeau, I listened to the first reading. I was again distracted by this man, whom I could see in my periphery, swaying in his pew rocking back and forth, back and forth, and drumming his fingers violently on the pew beside him. I saw the lector finish her reading, gave the appropriate response, waited until she returned to her seat, and then said a Hail Mary. Usually I use this prayer as a spacer to give adequate time between the readings. At this time, I was fervently asking for the Blessed Mother's intercession. I got up, walked to the ambeau and began the Psalm. When I signaled the congregation to come in, there he was again, screaming the lyrics, a half measure off. I was grateful he was not trying to sing the verses with me (I have had that happen before too!), and I used that time to pray through the Psalm and gather strength for the refrain, ironically "If today you hear God's voice, harden not your hearts." I finished the Psalm, and walked over to the lectern, and turned my attention back to the lector who was beginning the second reading.
He was getting more agitated and upset, this time he began playing with something in the pocket of his hoodie sweatshirt. He kept swaying in his pew, and began mumbling to himself. I kept my sight on the lector, but my attention was divided. The lector finished, returned to her seat, and my cue to start the Gospel Acclamation. Father began the Procession and broke it to approach this man. My heart was filled with pity when I heard him say that he just "wanted to sing" because his mother had died and he was grieving for her. "Father, you should know her, the Mother Mary?" I kept on singing, trying to give my organist visual clues in his "rear view mirror" to keep the acclamation music going. Father broke with this man, and went to proclaim the Gospel. As I stood beside the lectern listening to the Gospel, I was relieved to see this man had calmed somewhat. And then I saw this man become agitated once again. He began swaying in his pew, looking around him at other people, and playing with the pocket of his hoodie. What did he have in his pocket? What if it were a gun? My heart froze as I saw him pull something shiny and black from out of his pocket. "Thank you God for allowing me to kiss all my children and my husband goodbye", that was my first thought. I made an act of contrition and prayed ardently for the state of my soul, having wished I had made it to confessions held before Mass that day. I began to wonder what I should do. At the close of the Gospel, and with the realization that the man had pulled out his cell phone, I made it back to my seat. Again, I watched Father, but began to pray the "St. Michael's Prayer." My adrenaline must have affected my unborn child, as she began to stir violently within me. I glanced above Father's head to see the Church's statue of Madonna and child. I begged the Blessed Mother, that if I were to go today, that she would allow me to carry my unborn baby through the gates of Heaven. The Church was silent, everyone was focused on this man, who by this time was mumbling louder and louder, he began to pull his hair, and never stopped swaying in his pew.
Suddenly, during the Intercessions, this man stopped swaying. He became still and calm, composed even. I could hardly breathe as I walked to the lectern to announce the Offertory Hymn. I had a fleeting thought as to whether or not I should walk to the back of the Church and sing this hymn in the choir loft with the organist. No, I resolved to stay, and prayed to God for all in our Church that evening. I began to sing, and right on cue, he was singing too. A little less scream, a little more off in timing. I forged on ahead, composed in prayer. I was horrified when I saw Father approach this man a second time. The man's face turned deathly white, and then terribly red. He began talking so vehemently that spittle was flying into Father's face. He raised both fists and began shaking them at Father. I watched in horror as I saw two men from the back rush to Father's side. I thought for sure Father was going to be struck. Again, Father quickly broke with this man to receive the Offertory gifts. We ended the Hymn, and I turned to pray with Father. It was then I noticed the Altar Server. She was a small 9 y.o. girl, and she was visibly scared. Next to the table where the cruets and such are kept for Mass, she was hovering, and staring longingly at her mother and father about 3 pews from the front, across the Aisle from this man. I longed to reach out to her, to show her support, but I knew not to break this already distracting Mass. I sang through the "Holy, Holy", debating in my head whether or not to kneel with this young girl in front of the Altar while she rang the bells, to show solidarity with her, and to protect her if I could. I knew that would be a huge distraction for Father and the congregation, so I opted to kneel in my normal spot in front of the Tabernacle, behind and to the right of the Altar. The little girl knelt and wiped away her silent tears. My heart wrenched within me to see this little one crying, and I prayed for her. I got up to lead the Eucharistic Acclamation and the Great Amen. This man was not kneeling, but was still again. He wore the most sinister, twisted look upon his face. We all stood to say the Our Father, made it through the Doxology, proceeded to the Lamb of God and the Sign of Peace. I made a point to give peace to the little girl altar server, and she visibly calmed a bit. The man stopped singing with me through the Lamb of God, he never opened his hymnal for the Communion Hymn, he just sat and stared violently at Father. I noticed as I turned to announce the Communion Hymn that two police officers were standing in the back of the Church. Obviously someone had made their way out to call them, and they stood at attention at the doors in the back. We finished Communion, had a moment of reflection, Father made a few announcements, and gave the final blessing. As the Procession lined up in front of the Altar, the man sent a steely gaze through Father's back. I saw him collect saliva in his mouth, as if preparing to spit on him, thought the better of it, and let Father exit in peace. When the Collect had departed, the man turned his attention back on me. He continued to try to get my attention, and I avoided his gaze. He just watched me as I finished the Hymn and then I saw him leave his pew as I was kneeling down to say the "St. Michael's Prayer". He walked in front of me, slowing as if he wanted to say something. I did not bring my head up to meet his gaze, and after a moment he walked out. Noticing there were police at the back of the Church, he turned and exited out a side door.
Thanks be to God, I was able to go home and see my family for one more day.