Standing in the darkness, behind a noisy blowing fan in a corner of St. Francis de Sales church, on the parking lot side, is a tall quiet statue of Jesus with broken fingers.
For the first few decades of our history, the statue took pride of place beside the altar, at the front of the church, clearly visible to the priest and congregation. Then, in the 1960s, the reforms of Vatican II called for the sanctuary to be “de-cluttered” to better focus on the modernized Communion ritual with its new forward-facing altar. The statue was moved, and moved again, until it found its current out-of-the-way resting place.
So what does the statue mean? Its upraised right hand, with two fingers and thumb outstretched, is a gesture of blessing – supposedly based on the ancient Roman orators’ gesture for “speaking.” Its wounded heart reveals “Jesus Christ′s physical heart as the representation of his divine love for humanity” — the crown of thorns showing that “the meaning of love in the life of Jesus was especially evident in His sufferings” and the flames representing “the transformative power of divine love.” Devotion to a representation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – based on a vision experienced by a Visitation Sister in the 1670s — is a longstanding form of Catholic worship.
As to its place in our history: our statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was described as “a specimen of his best work” in an article about Adolfo de Nesti in 1915 – the last information we have about the Italian immigrant sculptor who created so many of our church decorations, before his “American dream” ended and he abruptly disappeared.
What is a metaphor? An online dictionary defines it as “a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.” So our statue depicting the “divine love” of Jesus was moved away from a central location to a dusty corner. We took its existence for granted, as part of the church furnishings, and it received little attention – especially after the candle stand illuminating that corner was removed a few years ago. The statue has changed with age, since the fingers making its gesture of blessing – and “speaking” – have been broken and roughly mended. But it has always been a part of our church.
Now, in shadowed times, as we rediscover our history, our attention is pulled back to the statue and we are called to find inspiration once again in the light and power of “divine love” that it represents.
In 1947, parishioners at Saint Francis de Sales Church were invited to submit questions to the rectory, to be answered in the Parish Bulletin. Some of those questions and answers — from a time when all Fridays were meatless and Catholics were required to fast from midnight, the night before taking Communion — offer insight into the mindset and small details of life before Vatican II:
“Does cleaning the teeth before receiving Holy Communion break the fast? Brushing one’s teeth before Communion is even recommended….The fact that the flavor of the toothpaste or powder (not all toothpaste was paste!) and the moisture remains after rinsing the mouth does not break the fast. It is permitted to swallow one’s saliva, and the few drops of water that remain become part of the saliva…”
“Do nose drops break the Communion fast? (Addictive nasal medication led to chronic stuffy noses). No, even though one is certain that a quantity of the fluid passed into the stomach…the substance must pass through the mouth. For the same reason food injections taken through the arm would not break the fast.”
“Does smoking before Communion break the fast? No, it does not. One, however, may well forego this pleasure, making the sacrifice part of the preparation for Communion” (This in a time when most adults smoked, and indoor air was generally thick with haze).
“A person arises during the night and takes a drink of water. The next morning, he cannot remember whether or not it was taken after midnight. May he receive Holy Communion? Yes. Where there is a doubt as to time the doubt may be resolved in favor of the person…”
“Does Daylight Savings Time make any difference in the observance of Friday abstinence from meat? In other words, is a Catholic permitted to eat meat at midnight (DST) Friday? Yes, a Catholic may eat meat at midnight (DST) Friday, even though that same time is an hour before standard time…Canon 33 says…in the observance of fast and abstinence one may deviate from the common custom of the place and follow the local true time, or the mean time, or the legal time, or any of the several ways of computing time.”
Trained by Depression scarcity, wartime experience, and an educational system that still included spanking and other physical punishment, Catholics were used to life framed by rules. The obsession with details seems rigid today, but it also reveals a people actively engaged in their faith – and looking for a straightforward path to navigate an increasingly complicated world.