Monsignor Preston Moss: Look into the light
Fr. Preston Alexander Moss typically arose before sunrise to pray and to exercise. He began each day bathed in light, the light of Christ in prayer and the light of a new Bahamas day dawning over and warming the ocean as he swam at the beach nearest whichever parish he pastored at the time.
He loved visiting the Family Islands because he could swim alone and pray in the ocean, indulging a blessed freedom and solitude, allowing the grandeur of God’s creation to recreate in him a sense of awe and joy. And the promise of new life.
He delighted in the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “God’s Grandeur”, a poetic tribute to creation and the striving, yearning, struggle of humanity for union with the Creator:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
For a man who struggled with the sickle cell trait throughout his life, which often left him exhausted, and who experienced the early deaths of a number of relatives during his adolescence and young adulthood, he marveled at each new day, imagining them as gifts and as blessings.
In humility, Monsignor Moss knew that he needed the light to enlighten his own soul, to suppress, in his words, “needless anxiety”, and to help him to minister to other souls often weary, broken and on the verge of defeat or hopelessness or even suicide.
He offered the light of his faith and love to those whom he helped rescue and restore from heartbreak, the news of a terrible diagnosis, loneliness, the death of a child, spouse or parent, abandonment, betrayal, indifference by the church and the other suffering and ravages of life and dying.
While ministering to the dying and offering last rites, including to those who sometimes endured difficult and painful deaths, Monsignor Moss would often repeat: “Look into the light! Look into the light! Look into the light!”
The beloved priest took to heart the admonition of Fr. James Keenan, SJ, that mercy is “the willingness to enter into the chaos of others”. On occasion he had to physically rescue others paralyzed by addiction, fear and hopelessness, counselling others to “never absolutize” any moment in life.
He was a source of light for many prisoners, accompanying five men to death, who were hanged by the state. He vehemently opposed capital punishment, unyieldingly believing in the power of mercy, forgiveness and restorative justice.
Monsignor Moss’s empathy and compassion were naturally born but perfected in the furnace of suffering caused by the early deaths of his father, mother, grandfather, grandmother and sister. His only brother predeceased him years later.
He was a young teenager when his mother died in New York City. He was unable to attend her funeral. But he was compassionately ministered to by a lady at the office where he worked.
She told him to come to work dressed in a tie the day of the funeral. Around the time of his mother’s funeral she had him sit alone in a room with a candle as a mark of love and respect for his mother and as a way of mourning her death.
He looked into the light for hope and solace, his desire for faith growing stronger, a burgeoning vocation developing.
His spiritual growth and conversion to Roman Catholicism were nurtured by a number of lay people and by the force of nature of Fr. Brendan Forsyth, OSB, then rector at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral. A young Preston converted to Roman Catholicism in 1956 at age 16.
On the eve of the church’s renewal through Vatican II, Preston Moss was ordained a priest on June, 4, 1965. He joined a company of other Bahamian men ordained to the priesthood, some as diocesan priests and others as priests in the Benedictine order.
He began his priestly ministry amidst the powerful and complex crosscurrents of the early days of Vatican II and the early days of majority rule and independence.
Within years of his ordination, the local presbyterate was decimated by a wholesale departure of his Bahamian confrères. It proved a sad, lonely and difficult time for a young prelate, on whom was now thrust an extraordinary burden of leadership and continuity in the local church.
Typical of his spirit of healing and love, he did not judge nor did he shun his former fellow-priests, a number of whom he loved as if they were blood brothers, and with whom he retained lifelong friendships.
He became an example and a source of light and inspiration for other Bahamian men considering the priesthood, including Archbishop Patrick Pinder, the first Bahamian to serve as ordinary of the archdiocese.
Monsignor Moss helped nurture a new generation of Bahamian priests, in what some termed, “the Second Spring”. In significant ways the local church was sustained and restored because of his light and his example.
Though he spent decades in the Chancery, including as vicar general, Preston Moss was at heart a pastor, serving in a number of parishes, including Our Lady’s, St. Joseph’s, St. Bede’s, St. Francis Xavier Cathedral and St. Anselm’s, where he will be interred.
St. Anselm’s symbolizes the life of Preston Moss. It is a church bathed in light and a Bahamian ethos, enriched by the symbols of salvation history and scripture and the liturgy of the church.
Monsignor Moss carried the people of each parish in his heart. One could see the light in his countenance when he preached or presided at mass.
Generations of students at every school in the archdiocese remember “Monsignor” whose presence as a Bahamian celebrated our nationhood and our possibilities as a people. He is rightly deemed a Bahamian prince.
A friend recalls this story. In the early 1970s, Fr. Moss went to a local Catholic school to mingle with the students and stayed to share lunch. He brought along a rather large Johnny cake and laid it on the table, inviting the students to break bread and to hold it up for a blessing.
The friend managed to break off a particularly large piece of which he gleefully boasted to someone sitting next to him. Observing this, Fr. Moss did not miss the moment or the lesson to impart.
To this day, the friend is convinced that Fr. Moss was looking directly at him, when, with a smile, he told the students that in the spirit of sharing and brotherly love he wanted them to pass their piece of Johnny cake to the person standing next to him.
When Monsignor Moss laughed, his entire body shook, engulfed by a humor aptly described by the title of Milan Kundera’s novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”.
Amidst his own struggles and the crosses he helped others to carry and endure, Preston Moss possessed an irrepressible joy, the gift of gratitude and surpassing generosity. He lived a life of simplicity eschewing the clutter of mind and material goods which often obscure the light around us.
During a retreat in the desert in the United States some years ago, he recalled the sun rising over the mountains and the barren desert sands, all of which he viewed as a master metaphor for life, with the darkness and the deserts of life banished by the possibility of new life, new light and resurrection.
Monsignor Moss died at the beginning of Lent and on the first day of the Lenten Mission for the archdiocese for New Providence.
By the manner in which he lived and departed this life he has offered an extraordinary Lenten meditation as we prepare for our own deaths and the dawn of Easter.
Our dear departed brother and friend is now fully, resplendently and eternally one with the light. He invites us still to look into the light.