Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Monsignor on High

In 2002, Monsignor Anthony Rubsys passed away. I knew him as plain old Father Rubsys, Manhattan College professor. In what were, in retrospect, less complicated times for the both the wider world and for me, I had this genuinely pious Catholic priest for a course called “Islam.” While I knew Rubsys was of Lithuanian descent, I didn’t know much more about the man. Until I read his obituary, I was unaware that he had escaped from a German prison camp during the Second World War and was on the run, and in hiding, for years.

Father Rubsys was a humble and gentle soul. This man of the cloth was godly—the real deal and, from what I’ve observed through the years, an exception to the general rule. He had something of an ethereal glow about him—literally. Rubsys would have his students write “reflection papers” on various subject matter and return them with such comments as “What a delight it is to follow your mind in action.” He was always in the classroom before any of us, too, feverishly writing on the blackboard with the skimpiest pieces of chalk. By the end of the day, his priestly threads were invariably rumpled and chalk stained.

In fact, we students arrived at each and every one of Rubsys' lectures to find a blackboard festooned with “Coming Attractions,” as our professor humorously dubbed what was in the offing. A paper was due one day, an exam held on the next, followed by a slide presentation after that. The classes immediately succeeding exam dates were always slide shows, which were usually of the good father's personal vacations in the Middle East, replete with snapshots of famous landmarks and sacred holy places. I recall him riding a camel in one shot, to which he intoned, “Lost in the desert.” After all our paper writing and exam taking, he considered these fifty-minute or so visual productions well-earned moments of “rest” for his at once hard-working and over-worked students....

When I read in his obit that he had achieved the title of “Monsignor”—sometime between when I sat in his classroom in 1983 and his death in 2002—I looked up the word. One would think I’d have known what made a “monsignor” before then, but I didn’t. The monsignors I had known in my youth, and subsequently in and around the local parishes as an adult, were typically “good businessmen” and—more times than not—men prone to chiding their ever-hemorrhaging flocks. They were far cries from godly, let’s put it that way. The haughty, hotheaded principal of my high school for the four years that I was there—a monsignor—subsequently got ensnared in the church's widespread and unseemly abuse scandal. The New York Archdiocese surreptitiously paid off his accuser the not inconsiderable sum of $100,000.

According to Merriam-Webster, “monsignor” is “a Roman Catholic prelate having a dignity or titular distinction usually conferred by the pope.” Dignity—well, that was Anthony Rubsys in spades. It was not, however, applicable to the other monsignors I've known.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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