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  • Writer's pictureFr. Austin

When We Eat This Bread and Drink this Chalice...

When I was growing up – in fact, until I was 24 years old – I only knew one pastor: Msgr. Francis W. Fortenbaugh. That was his name; we called him “Monsignor Fortenbaugh” as kids, but everyone else called him “Footsie.” It was a nickname that he had, apparently, earned as a young man, owing to his soccer skills. But, when you were talking to him, he was always “Monsignor.”

One day, while I was in seminary, I got a phone call from Msgr. Fortenbaugh. He has recently been moved to a nursing home, and his health was failing.

“Austin,” he said in his gravelly voice.

“Yes, Monsignor,” I replied (even as a deacon, I knew my place with Footsie!).

He got right to the point. “Austin, I want you to have my chalice.”

I was silent.

“Have you ever seen my chalice?”

“Yes, I have, Monsignor.” In fact, I had served Mass countless times for him with that chalice. Of course, I remembered it.

“Will you take it when you’re ordained?” He seemed almost vulnerable – something I was not accustomed to with Footsie.

“Monsignor, I’d be honored. Thank you. Are you sure?”

“Absolutely,” he answered. “You’re the pride of St. Agnes.”

“Well, thank you so much,” I repeated.

“You’re welcome,” Monsignor said. “Goodbye.” And the call was over. Footsie was nothing if not blunt.

He died a few months after that, and, true to his word, his chalice came to me (via my grandmother). As I was preparing to be ordained a priest, she had it polished, and added the ring my grandfather gave her to the base. This is that chalice.

On the bottom, it is engraved. First, it reads “Fr. Francis W. Fortenbaugh, Ordained June 12, 1947” Below that, it declares that the chalice was a gift from his parents: “From Mother and Dad” And in Latin is says, “Deo dederunt sacerdotem. Benedicat eis in aeternum.” “They gave God a priest. May He bless them forever.” My grandmother added my name and ordination date on one side. This is that chalice.

This chalice was on the altar when I made my First Communion in 1980. It was there at the Mass of my Confirmation. And it was the chalice that I used for my first Mass. It sat on the Altar for my grandmother and my father’s funerals.

And it is here on this Altar, as we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper and live stream it into our parishioners’ homes because they cannot be here now.

Brothers and sisters, separated though we may be, we are still connected! We are connected in this Eucharist. We are connected in our faith. We are connected in Christ!

Even as we are kept from one another’s presence, we are connected by memory. And that is what this night is about. As the Jewish people observe the Passover, recounted in the First Reading, they recall the marvelous work that He has done for them. And that memory has been handed down even to today.

Paul, recalling the institution of the Holy Eucharist, acknowledges that he is handing on what he himself had received from the Lord – just as the Apostles did at the Last Supper. It’s this same gift, this same memorial, this same ministry that Msgr. Fortenbaugh has handed on to me.

We are all part of a vast chain of witnesses, having received what has been handed down to us – connecting us through time and space – uniting us to Jesus and to one another. In the Rise of Skywalker, there’s a scene where Luke shares with Rey, “A thousand generations [of Jedi] live in you now.” The Jedi master Skywalker had taught her, and he himself had received that gift from his master, Yoda. Now, as he was told, he has “passed on what he has learned.” And here I am, holding Footsie’s chalice, celebrating the Holy Eucharist with and for you.

On the bottom of this chalice, there is room for one more name, I think. Who will that be? To whom will I pass on what I have learned? To whom will you pass on what you have come to know? Jesus is the only worthwhile possession in any of our lives, and He is meant to be shared – handed on.

Tonight, we give thanks. This night is about memory. It is about connection. You and I, wherever we are, gathered around this very love of the Lord, are always united in communion. I want you to know that.

I want you to have that.

And I want you to share it.

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