The Most Beautiful Thing on Earth
If the name Randy Shed sounds familiar, it might be if you remember the Solemn High Mass that took place at Holy Trinity, the parish on the West Point campus, back in January of this year. It was Major Shed, a captain at the time, who was the mover and shaker behind that event, and he told us more about it, how he came to the Church and to the Latin Mass, and what being a faithful Catholic has to do with being a faithful soldier.
Major Shed hails from Rolla, Missouri, the son of two civilian employees of the Army. In addition to being raised in a military environment and enjoying war films growing up, he was motivated to serve by the events of 9/11 and by a history teacher who would inspire his students with stories from the Civil War and took them to visit the battlegrounds of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Major Shed subsequently graduated from the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point in 2008, and as an infantry officer served two tours of deployment, one each in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A convert to Catholicism, Major Shed’s journey to the Faith began while attending graduate school at Columbia University in New York City. He remembers a teacher speaking on the idea of truth and how truth is subjective. He knew that this was absolutely erroneous.
“It kind of jostled me,” he said. “There’s got to be one truth out there.”
So he began to look at different aspects of his life that this idea of truth could apply to, including his faith. After the birth of their third child, his wife, Major Michelle Shed of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, who was raised Catholic, returned to the Faith of her upbringing. She told her husband that they needed to start practicing the faith that they professed, and she began taking the kids to Mass on Sunday while the other Maj. Shed stayed home. Maj. Shed himself was raised Christian, but had fallen away from regular church attendance.
One Sunday soon after, while Maj. M. Shed and the kids were at Mass, Maj. R. Shed remembers standing in his living room, looking at his dog Molly, who looked back at him as if to say, “You know that you should be there.” Maj. Shed indeed knew that, regardless of his own faith background, he needed to be there with his family. So he told his wife later that as the husband, as the father, as the leader of the household, he considered it imperative that he be there with his family at church, and if Catholic Mass was what they were attending for now, so be it.
He subsequently found himself attending Mass at Holy Trinity Parish at West Point, listening to a sermon by the chaplain, Fr. Pawlikowski, and as Providence would have it, the sermon was on apostolic succession. Fr. Pawlikowski explained that Christ had established a visible Church on earth, which He had entrusted to His Apostles and who had handed it on to their successors. Those successors had, in turn, handed the teachings and traditions of the Church on to their successors and so on, even to the present day. Each Bishop is a successor of one of the Apostles that sat at the feet of Our Lord.
“That absolutely blew my mind,” said Maj. Shed.
He proceeded to return home and devour everything he could find on the Catholic Faith. It wasn’t long before everything began to line up for him, and he entered the Church on Easter 2016.
Maj. Shed first encountered the Latin Mass when Fr. Ken Bolan celebrated a Low Mass at West Point. Even though Maj. Shed couldn’t hear most of what the priest was saying, he was struck by the ostensible sacredness of what was happening. You could tell, he said, that something was going on up there on the altar. In his research he discovered that there was something called a Solemn High Mass in this same “family” of Masses, and he heard his first one at St. Mary’s Church in Norwalk, Connecticut.
“It was the most beautiful thing on earth,” he said. “It was literally Heaven on earth.”
Maj. Shed met the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter at Our Lady of Fatima Chapel in Pequannock, NJ, where he attended a morning Low Mass and listened to the priests chanting the Divine Office before conversing with them afterwards. Recalling another Low Mass he attended at the National Shrine of St. Alphonsus Liguori, our apostolate in Baltimore, MD, he spoke of the effect the Mass had upon him.
“I remember being able to pray, being able to unite myself, my whole being with what was going on at the altar in an intimate way,” he said.
And certainly this 175-year-old Shrine, with its soaring Gothic Revival arches and celestial sanctuary, draws the soul to the contemplation of the divine. It is also a piece of American history, a Baltimore landmark whose former pastors include St. John Neumann, the fourth bishop of Philadelphia and the first male American citizen to be canonized. It was under the roof of this American treasure that Maj. Shed met a kindred spirit: St. Alphonsus pastor Fr. Joel Kiefer is himself a West Point grad and former Army officer.
There was no question that this beautiful liturgy had taken a profound hold on Maj. Shed. He sought to bring what he had experienced to West Point, and St. Mary’s in Norwalk, with the permission of the priests at West Point, was able to provide it. It was the first Solemn High to be celebrated at the United States Military Academy in decades.
We asked Maj. Shed about his views on being a Catholic soldier. He said he looks to his patron saint, St. Maurice of the Theban Legion, for an example of what it means to be a soldier and an officer. He mentioned that patriotism and love of country are ideals supported by the Church, that principles such as just war theory have their roots in Catholicism and that the ideas of sacrifice and service in Catholicism translate over into the military.
“I also think one of the big things is care of soldiers,” he added. “Catholicism teaches you how to genuinely love the people you are around. What is love? Willing the good of the other as other. As a leader, if you want to lead people, you gotta love them.”
And what he says echoes the words of Servant of God Chaplain Emil Kapaun. He is a beloved figure at West Point, Maj. Shed says, “because of the way he lived his life. Giving the full measure of one’s life for your soldiers in the capacity of chaplain.” Chaplain Kapaun said: “Men find it easy to follow one who has endeared himself to them.”
The Latin Mass has a particular appeal for those in the military, says Maj. Shed, and a desire for it exists within military communities. Referring to the order and discipline with which the Latin Mass is celebrated, he says, “just on the surface, the precision of the movements, the direction, the submission to the rubrics, that is very much woven in the fabric and the understanding of military people. We understand things like drill and ceremony and deeper meanings behind things.”
Maj. Shed strongly supports bringing the Latin Mass into military communities, since he believes it will find a welcome home there. It certainly seems that way from our perspective. The Fraternity not only counts former military men among its priests, but some of our parishes are situated close to military bases and hence see a lot of servicemembers in the pews. And, for the first time, the Fraternity has begun a military chaplaincy with the assignment of Fr. Kenneth Webb to the Canadian Forces Support Unit in Ottawa, Ontario on August 1st.
Now stationed at the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the Sheds continue to attend the Latin Mass near their new assignment, often at St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, our apostolate in Kansas City. Through the efforts of those like the Sheds, who found themselves so inspired by the Latin Mass, perhaps “the most beautiful thing on earth” will find its way into many more military communities. It only makes sense that those who live out ideals of sacrifice would be drawn to a liturgy where the idea of sacrifice is so tangible, and those with hearts for tradition would be such fertile ground for the growth of the most ancient and glorious Tradition of them all. +
This story is part of a continuing series highlighting Catholic life in the military and the FSSP’s work with our servicemembers. If you have a story you’d like to share, please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
August 30, 2019