Msgr. Massett: The glory of God – and pinch-hitting
Long before the “mercy rule” and Little League participation trophies – the logical extension of Dr. Spock and his parenting bible of self-esteem – the St. Cecilia CYO baseball team in the mid-1950s was the New Orleans Catholic church equivalent of the Bronx Bombers.
Coached by playground legend Firmin Simms, St. Cecilia mostly pounded opponents into submission, but in a very Christian way.
Just one or two runs at a time.
St. Cecilia was crushing yet another overmatched opponent by double digits late in the game one evening when Bob Massett, then a 15-year-old Holy Cross junior, limbered up in the on-deck circle at Stallings Playground. Simms, an Army vet, had never read Dr. Spock, but looking at the score, he tapped Massett on the shoulder.
“Bob,” Simms said, “you don’t mind if Rusty pinch hits for you?”
“No, man, put him in there,” Massett replied.
Rusty, a redhead, was 10 at the time. Rusty – as in Rusty Staub – went on to play 23 seasons in the major leagues and collect 2,716 hits, including 292 home runs.
As Msgr. Bob Massett, the ultimate storyteller, reflects on his 50 years as a priest, he absolutely knows he is the only priest in history that Staub ever pinch-hit for.
“Rusty would hit ’em over the right field fence, which was maybe a good three-quarters of a block,” Msgr. Massett said. “The park backed up to the 5th District police station on Poland and St. Claude. There was a grocery store on Lesseps and St. Claude called Beros. Rusty would hit ’em over the fence and sometimes break a window.”
Msgr. Massett, 77, officially retired from active ministry on July 1, but, as always, there’s a story. He has taken up residence at Metairie Manor, a senior residence run by Christopher Homes, where as “the high priest on the 11th floor” he will offer his homespun version of the Gospel while still doing an occasional weekend Mass at St. Mary Magdalen Church, where he has served as pastor since 1995.
At a recent funeral Mass for Deacon Angelas Robin, the deacon’s daughter delivered the eulogy and referred lovingly to Msgr. Massett, the retiring pastor, as the “soon-to-be pope of Metairie Manor.”
“All I know is Archbishop Aymond pledged me his allegiance,” Msgr. Massett said, laughing.
Msgr. Massett always laughs.
He has spent his last few weeks at St. Mary Magdalen going through a lifetime of books, photos and memorabilia. One thing he took with him is a poster of “The Holy Cross Man,” a statement of life’s purpose for every Holy Cross student.
“The Holy Cross Man,” the school code says, “is a refined gentleman who lives by faith. Devoted to his soul’s welfare, he reflects often on God. His daily actions are sanctified by prayer, the practice of virtue and manly piety. Since sanctity is his goal, he has a deep devotion to Our Lord, to Our Lady and to St. Joseph, patron of his school.”
“If you got punished, you had to write it 10 or 12 times,” Msgr. Massett said. “Most of us remember it by heart.”
A pencil is an amazing thing.
Msgr. Massett wasn’t much of an athlete, but he loved sports and played basketball as a senior when the school needed a relatively tall body to fill out the team picture.
“The only time I got into a game was when we couldn’t win or couldn’t lose,” he said of his career as a two-minute closer. “I did have four points one night against Nicholls. That was our neighboring school. My father used to take up tickets at the gym as a volunteer, and whenever I did get in a game, I just heard one voice: ‘Shoot, son, shoot!’”
Unlike his classmate Jack Regan, who entered the seminary right after high school and went on to become Benedictine Abbot Patrick Regan, Msgr. Massett spent two years at Tulane University studying engineering and not giving the priesthood any deep thought.
“I really wasn’t that mature,” he said. “Then I found out engineering was a deeper mystery than the Blessed Trinity.”
But he could not shake the idea of being a priest. “I finally came to the point where I said, ‘I’ve got to try this. If it’s not for me, then I’ll look somewhere else,’” he said. “But once I got in, everything went pretty smoothly.”
He was ordained on June 11, 1966, at a time after the Second Vatican Council when some priests were beginning to walk away from their ordained ministry. It was a confusing time, but Msgr. Massett took it in stride and even found a way to comfort his concerned mother.
“She told me one day, ‘Boy, I’m listening to all this talk about who’s running around with whom, and I’m getting nervous. If they ever mention your name, I’ll kill you.’”
Msgr. Massett sensed a tailor-made opening: “I said, ‘Mom, if I ever get married, you’ll be the first one to know.’ She threw me out of the house.”
Over the years, because of his affinity for youth and young adult ministry, Msgr. Massett wound up presiding at more than 1,500 weddings, earning him the monicker of “The Marryin’ Priest.”
He has classic wedding stories. Some can even be printed.
“A couple of times the groom has kind of passed out at the time of the vows,” Msgr. Massett said. “All the people are aghast because they don’t know what’s going on. I usually say, ‘Well, we all knew Suzy was a knockout.’”
Another time a reluctant ring bearer started to walk up the aisle before falling prostrate. He would not be budged, either with candy or dynamite.
“The bride and the father stepped right over the kid,” Msgr. Massett said.
One of his favorite spiritual insights comes from Blessed Columba Mormion, a Benedictine abbot who wrote: “Joy is the echo of God’s love in us.”
“I think I’ve always been a basically happy person, and I was able to identify with that real good,” Msgr. Massett said. “I always try to bring joy and uplifting words and some humor into every situation.”
The happy priesthood.
“It’s meant everything to me,” he said. “It’s been very fulfilling, and still is. But I always think back to what my brother told me. He said, ‘Bob, you made the right choice. You never could handle a real job.’”