Father Charles O’Malley was a young British priest who didn’t seem to realize Bing Crosby had long ago made him a household name.
I met Father O’Malley in 1966 when I was an Air Force chaplain’s assistant at RAF Stations Bentwaters and Woodbridge in England. Even at 20 I was familiar with Crosby’s great character in the 1944 film and when I was introduced to Father O’Malley I said, “Ah, so we’ll be going your way now.” But he knitted his brows in silent puzzlement and held out a limp hand for me to shake.
Father O’Malley was not an Air Force chaplain. He was a civilian priest and assistant pastor at a local church in nearby Ipswich. When the base’s two Catholic chaplains took leave to attend a Catholic retreat in Berchtesgaden, Germany, the senior base chaplain reached out to the local diocese for a priest who could celebrate Sunday mass. The monsignor, apparently hesitant to volunteer himself to help the Yanks, hurled Father O’Malley into the breach.
O’Malley was short and painfully introverted. The first thing I noticed about him was his soiled, rumpled suit and badly scuffed shoes, which were a startling contrast to the spit and polish of our chaplains. I did my best to engage him in conversation but the priest was unresponsive, only nodding occasionally.
“It’s hot in here” was the first full sentence I heard him say. It was early July and unusually warm for southeastern England. I was comfortable in my short-sleeve summer uniform, but Father O’Malley was perspiring as he vested in alb and chasuble.
“Do ye have an electric fan?” he asked? I said we had one in the supply closet.
“Can ye open a window in the chapel and put the fan in front of it?”
I set about immediately to do what he asked. After the mass was over Father O’Malley admitted he was thinking of a small window fan, not the two-foot wide industrial fan we kept on hand.
The fan was blowing warm air into the chapel as the mass commenced. Father O’Malley mumbled the liturgy and stepped from behind the altar carrying a gold-plated paten full of consecrated wafers. Worshippers began to slip into the aisle to receive the Eucharist.
Dripping with sweat, Father O’Malley stepped into the hot, brisk stream of air generated by the fan. Consecrated wafers lifted from the paten and swirled like snowflakes in the air. He froze in horror as the wafers seemed to hang in suspended animation over his head. Most fell slowly onto the chapel carpet, but one or two were sucked out of the open window.
In shock, Father O’Malley lowered the paten and more wafers fell to the floor. Communicants in the aisle looked stunned. I was surprised by the strength of the fan but, as a Baptist, was naively amused. I had no idea that Father O’Malley and others in the room believed they were seeing the body of Christ swept into the maelstrom. I bent down and started to pick up some of the wafers.
“Not you!” Father O’Malley screamed with surprising vehemence. He sank to his hands and knees and began picking up wafers.
“Help me,” he shouted to communicants who – unlike me – were in a state of grace. Several people crept among the pews to make sure every wafer had been recovered. I turned off the fan.
Father O’Malley stood and adjusted his chasuble. With the fan off and the window summarily closed, he was drenched in perspiration. He completed the distribution of the Eucharist and walked silently to the chapel offices to un-vest.
Father O’Malley walked slowly to his car, an ancient British Hillman, and drove away in a cloud of oil and smoke.
I never saw him again. A few days later, Chaplain Joe McCausland, the base’s senior Catholic chaplain, explained the hermeneutical significance of the fan and wafer drama I had witnessed in bemusement and ignorance.
Up until that point, my experience with communion involved the elements of white Wonder bread sliced neatly into half-inch squares, and Welches grape juice. Clearly, I thought, Wonder bread can only represent the body of Christ, not assume his metaphysical properties.
But I never forgot the incident of the and the wafers.
And throughout the rest of my life, whenever I felt tossed about by hot air and turbulent gales, I have been able to reassure myself:
If Jesus can take it, so can I.