Cloud of Witnesses: Jesus Vasquez

As I was unfamiliar with the Spanish convention of nam­ing boys for the Savior, it startled me upon arriving in my new parish to read on the bulletin board: “If there is no usher at the 7:30 Mass, Je­sus will take up the collection.” So I came under the tutelage of sexton Je­sus Vasquez (1927-1996), a prototype and amalgamation of all the church sextons who would rather be a door­keeper in the house of their Lord than dwell in the tents of ungodliness.

This husband of a quiet wife and father of six children, who recipro­cated his adoration of them, sustained them on a small income with no ap­parent astringency of domestic man­ners. He was equally ebullient with his extended family of the many saints whose statues he dusted daily, some­times with groanings that could in­deed be uttered, especially when tak­ing up issues with Martin de Porres, whose statue he resembled.

As one tried in the fire, he ar­rived in the United States after being urged to leave the Dominican Repub­lic for having been a student agita­tor while in medical school. When he abandoned hope of a professional career, he retained the classical cul­ture in which he had been formed and grimaced if a clergyman mangled Latin. Other times he would peer from the sacristy door at a liturgical faux pas with a pained look freight­ed with all of the agonies of the Church’s suffering since guitarists and skirted dancers broke down the gates of the sanctuary.

For this Jesus, a high feast was the annual anniversary of his new citizen­ship. When he was semi-comatose on his deathbed, he recited the Pledge of Allegiance in the English he had la­boriously studied in night school. In turn, he taught me much Castillano, explaining that my Spanish tutor was teaching me expressions useful only if I had been summoned to the court of Alfonso XIII.

Politely unspoken condescension marked his face whenever I suggested some change in the daily routine, for of that routine he was master, and on more than one occasion he would summon the priest to rejoice in the dawn if he had not heard the alarm for Angelus. This Jesus had no pow­er to call the dead forth from their tombs, but he could weep as did Jesus in Bethany, often when he functioned as a sort of professional mourner at the funerals of people who had no one to keep vigil over their bodies. As a coffin was carried out onto the busy street, he managed to toll the tower bell once for each year of the departed life, and still be on the curb with hat off and head bowed for the final blessing. It was close to biloca­tion, and I never asked how he man­aged it.

A sturdy build served him well when he hammer-locked a pickpocket and dragged him from the pew to the street with an inconspicuous grace that did not interrupt the Gloria. He spied a thief carrying off my chalice as I was greeting people at the door after Mass and he leaped after him like a gazelle, knocked him to the ground, and pried the precious cup from the menacing hands. On busy days he would cho­reograph the confessional lines, and I feared that he might start dividing the mortals from the venials. Having been a serious amateur boxer, he was full of advice but bemused when I started boxing lessons, clearly perplexed by someone making a sport of what was for him almost a necessity: He lived in a neighborhood where the manly art of self-defense really was for self-defense. He was shot in the leg during some random violence near his home, and was back on the job as soon as he got out of the hospital. “I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beat­ing the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disquali­fied” (1 Cor 9:26-27).

Author

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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