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40 years of 11:15 p.m. Mass
In June of 1968 I finished studies in France and arrived at Georgetown to begin teaching theology. Bill Clinton had graduated from the University earlier that month. It had been a difficult year for both Georgetown and the nation. Several months before my arrival Martin Luther King had been shot, and several weeks earlier Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated as well. All the while the United States was engaged in an un-winnable war.
In my first year here I lived in the Jesuit Community and offered a private Mass. I found that 11:15 p.m. best fit into my own day. That year the semester began on September 24th and I began teaching “Problem of God,” a course that had been introduced three years earlier.
For my second year at Georgetown I moved into a freshman dorm, Second New North. In August I went to the University Chaplain, John Bennett, SJ, and told him that I wanted to say Mass both Sundays and daily at 11:15 p.m. He said that was fine, but he warned that he would not be able to get a substitute should I not be able to make it: “All the Jesuits are asleep at that time!” “Okay, but I would like to try it for one semester,” I said. Now I am in my 80th semester!
So, as the fall semester of 1969 began, I started saying the late Mass in Dahlgren. The daily format was much the same as today: we begin the Mass by reading a Psalm together. There are many candles on the altar, and the lights are lowered for the solemn part of the Mass. I end the Mass with the opening passage of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God.” For many centuries this Gospel was proclaimed at the end of Mass, but it was dropped with Vatican II. Since I had a long affection for the text, I have continued saying it on weekday evenings.
In December of my first year with the Mass, my server asked about using incense and having a special Mass before Christmas, and I said, “Fine!” Another student was standing there, and he said he was a carpenter and would like to build a stable over the altar. “Fine!” And with that, I began the Solemn Mass for Christmas on the Third Sunday of Advent, using the readings of the day. Because of the crowds, we moved this Mass to Gaston Hall and then, four years ago, moved it again to Holy Trinity. So the Solemn Mass for Christmas is also a 40-year tradition. We no longer set up the stable (you can still see it behind an iron gate underneath the west end of the Gervase Building), but each year we have a Solemn Mass with Christmas trees and some of the great music of the holiday.
The protests against the war in Viet Nam were increasing. And I recall several nights when the city was filled with protesters and large crowds of students would come to the Mass. I recall one evening after the bombing of Laos when so many students came that we moved the altar out onto the Chapel steps and I offered Mass before 500 students standing in the Quadrangle.
There have been other occasions when large crowds gathered in the Chapel. On several nights I was told that a student had died that day. We would offer the Mass for the student. I also remember the night of September the 11, 2001. There had been an afternoon Mass in Gaston, but I knew the Chapel would fill again at 11:15.
I called a recent Georgetown graduate who had helped me with music. I phoned him and asked him to provide music and end with “God Bless America.” He said he did not know it. I said firmly, “Then please learn it!” He did. I preached without knowing what to say. President DeGioia was there, and I invited him to say few words. The issue was bigger than all of us. Yet I found that coming together and invoking the Lord brought myself and others a measure of peace.
Back in the days when The Exorcist was being filmed on campus, Bill Blatty (author of the book and producer of the movie) would come to the Mass each evening and drop by afterwards to tell me some movie gossip of the day. I forget much of it, but I do recall the evening he explained why he wrote the book: “The reason people do not believe in God these days is that they don’t believe Evil is real. Yes, they will agree that all of us could be a little nicer. But that is not the same as confronting real Evil.” I thought there was great wisdom in what he said, and it gave me a better perspective on both him and the movie.
I made a wise decision in August of 1969 when I first asked about saying a late Mass in Dahlgren. I have been teaching and preaching here these many years. I like that double arrangement, for I think our academic life and our faith life need each other to be complete. This is who I am, and I gladly share this in both chapel and classroom. Faith and reason is the unity John Carroll had in mind in founding our University.
I look back on 40 years of teaching and preaching and know they have been happy years. I truly have been blessed. I love the University and the two-fold work it has enabled me to do.