Archimandrite Athanasy [Mastalski] of Saint Tikhon’s Monastery here fell asleep in the Lord on Friday, February 5, 2016. ...Andrew Mastalski knew he wanted to be a priest when he was 4. So like lots of pious boys then, in American Catholicism's heyday in the 1950s right before Vatican II, for years every day there was the parish's Mass at which Andy learned to serve as an altar boy, in Latin, then after Catholic school in his room there was Andy's Mass, on a dresser turned into a decent folk copy of a baroque altar, statues and all. School was wonderful too; the black-and-white habited Sisters of St. Joseph teaching at St. Hugh's in Lower Northeast Philadelphia loved the devout Polish-Irish boy and he loved them. There was arguably a miracle in his life: he fell from an upper-story window at home, shattering an arm. His mother prayed at a popular shrine of St. Anne (for whom she was named) and the arm healed, against doctors' expectations. So unlike some Philly Catholic guys, Andy kept his love of God and the church as a teenager. His mother worked for the Pauline Fathers’ (from Poland, fleeing the Communists after World War II) shrine to Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown; Andy was once well known in Philly's "Polonia" (Polish community). So because of all that, again in a boom time to be an American Catholic, 100% Catholic and 100% American like Jesus is all God and all man, after graduating from Northeast Catholic High School Andy tried his vocation, first with the Franciscans, and then the Marine Corps of the church, the Jesuits. Off to Fordham University and a long formation as is the order's way, staying to become a member of the order, Mr. Andrew Mastalski, S.J.
Back in Philly, this boy enthusiastic about anything to do with God had met some Russian exiles from World War II (fleeing the Communists), getting to know their parish priest, Fr. Eugene Lyzlov, and their wonderful, mystical Byzantine Rite. That memory stayed with him, and interestingly the Jesuits at Fordham had among their specialized ministries one to try to convert the Orthodox by taking their rite and spirituality to heart. There were a few Russian Catholic parishes in big American cities manned by Jesuits. Fordham had a school/working model for this, its Russian Center, led at the time by an English eccentric, Fr. Fyodor Wilcock, who ended up in L.A. as pastor of St. Andrew's Russian Catholic Church. These Russian Catholics took to heart St. Pius X's directive creating that particular church: don't latinize; do exactly what the Orthodox do, "no more, no less, nothing other." At the Russian Center chapel Fr. Fyodor took down an icon of his own order's founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, not because he didn't love the church or the order but because it went against the rite, which controls what is done in church. Among Mr. Mastalski's roommates was the saintly Fr. Walter Ciszek, another Polish-American, free after 20 years in Soviet prisons, and as Fr. Athanasy told me years later, a secret bishop sent behind enemy lines to make sure the Catholic Church survived there. (I've read With God in Russia and have an autographed copy; a relic?) So Mr. Mastalski was on his way to a fine career as a Catholic priest.
Then Vatican II happened. The church's culture and the order in the form that Mr. Mastalski had pledged his life to? "They took it away from me." Was he happy? "Renewed," on fire for the Lord? It gave him a breakdown, clinical depression, which put him in a mental hospital, in the late 1960s, getting electroshocked, and he told me he wasn't the only "religious" in the ward. The council and its aftermath tore him apart.
He left the order, dropped out of college, and, inconceivable only a few years before, left the church. Another casualty, another lost soul, from the era, but at heart he still believed, and "liturgically I was always straight," keeping the Russian Byzantine Rite he had been so meticulously taught. He became a vagante priest, liturgically Russian but "freelance," ordained by minor legend Walter Propheta, and out among the hippies and other burnouts the nice Catholic boy from Northeast Philly tried his best to minister, but pretty soon he realized that was a dead end, which took him to... another dead end where he ended up.
Understandably he next went to Fr. Eugene's church, the little Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, basically an attempt to continue the tsarist church free from Soviet compromise, serving World War II exiles in America and a few other places. He was ordained again and became a monk. I didn't know him in his early ROCOR years but I understand he was understandably mad at the church so he bought into this sect's born-again anti-Catholicism, a mix of old Russian chauvinism (comes with the territory in Orthodoxy) and more recent occult junk these folks took in, as they did fanatical Greeks and Arabs, anti-Catholic, reacting to the Sixties. ROCOR wasn't originally fanatical, just Russian. That's what Fr. Eugene's Philadelphia parish, Our Lady, Joy of All Who Sorrow, was like, and that's where, after serving New Jersey parishes (and teaching in Catholic schools in those areas), living in the Holy Land, and even working in Haiti to try to steal Catholics (he was still mad at the church), Fr. Athanasy stayed for about 15 years as pastor, which is how we met.
My church home was shot out from under me too and I tried to buy into Orthodoxy but my heart wasn't in it. Too proud to give the church another try and besides, locally they'd become Modernist. Fr. Athanasy understood. And by then he'd long mellowed, re-adopting much from his early years. He had Latin Catholic sacramentals in his home (a home he shared with many cats and a dog). I started praying the rosary again as he did. He was almost a Doppelgänger of this fellow. A formation and a fount of knowledge almost like Msgr. Murray, from about the same period. I reconnected with the church, in spirit, at St. Clement's (then Anglo-Papalists: would-be Catholics), with his blessing. So for about 15 years I was in suspended animation, living in a crypto-Catholic bubble with him. He tried to take care of me spiritually, and in a way protected me from the real Orthodox, but down side of course was that my connection with him delayed my return to the church; human respect, a sin. And he was still mad at the church so he'd go back and forth on my suggestion to go back. It wasn't fair to the Orthodox of course; they have the right to enforce their teachings. I was a hypocrite. But God is patient.
Like the English ritualist slum priests of yore, one of Fr. Athanasy's characteristics was charity in the form of generosity, giving money and other support to local bums, for example. They knew they would get a handout from "Fr. Andrew." Eventually that well-meant liberality soured his Russian parishioners on him so one day in late 2011 he suddenly quit and left town. Meanwhile, Joseph Ratzinger had become Pope Benedict XVI, freed the Tridentine Mass, and, huge, reformed the Novus Ordo in English as of the first Sunday in Advent 2011. Three weeks later I went to Christmas Mass and have been back in the Catholic Church ever since. Life is funny: Fr. A made that possible for me and held it back at the same time. He knew Orthodoxy isn't true.
I last saw Fr. A when he happened to be in my neighborhood. A car pulled up to a business and out he went, in civilian clothes. He didn't recognize me at first, then hugged me. "You look like a million bucks!" Told him where I go to church and all he said was, sincerely, "Are you happy?"
St. Tikhon's Seminary and Monastery is part of the Orthodox Church in America, despite its name actually not the Orthodox' biggest jurisdiction here as most American Orthodox are Greek. But it is their canonical church, which doesn't mean anything to us for now but anyway, because they were the first Orthodox here. About 100,000 people, Ruthenians descended from ex-Catholics 100 years ago who think they're Russian; it is the Russian church's official American spinoff. The only reason Fr. A was there was he thought he had nowhere else to go; he told me so. All his schismatic churchmanship over the years ("Russian shenanigans" as he put it) left him with nothing. He didn't even have Social Security. And he wasn't well; I'm surprised he made it to 69. Diabetes, gout, and prostate cancer. The last thing he said to me was he wanted out. "I want to come home" to Philadelphia to die, and maybe he meant coming home to the church too, but that feeling was always strong but ambivalent. The thing was, it being a monastery where he didn't have a phone, and he was one of the old school who didn't use the Internet, it was impossible for me to stay in contact with him. As recently as last week, coincidentally when he died, I was thinking of a way to bring him here to fulfill his wish and God's will.
You don't want to wait too long to try to set things right. "It's later than you think."
The miracle icon of St. Anne? ¿Quién sabe?
My 1953 copy of the Little Office, my office, is from him.
The tragedy in all this is that this good soul from before the council (a living link) died outside the church. I dare say the people in the church who pushed him out, the Modernists, the iconoclasts, have much more to answer to God for. Literally, God knows what is happening to him; all we can do is commend him to God's infinite mercy.