Panic! At the Baccalaureate

By Josh Noem
May 20, 2023

In the end, we were saved by an everyday, ho-hum procedural decision made on March 9, 2004 by Barb Krznieweicz, a procurement specialist in the purchasing department of a famous Midwestern university. On that Tuesday, Barb came into her office on the seventh floor of a former residence hall-turned administrative hive and completed an order for a new stage for university functions in the campus convocation center. It was impossible for Barb to know the significance of the decision she made that day–she probably forgot about it the next week, in fact. She was simply a short and sturdy Polish cog in the giant flywheel keeping this university humming. 

During a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert in January of that year, fault lines began to show in the gaps between the risers of the old stage and the facilities manager made the request for a new stage assembly. Barb approved the request and soon a new structure and surface appeared that would support Presidents and mothers superior, rock bands and church choirs, Heisman winners and robotics competition winners. For all the luminaries it held in 19 years of public functions–including a feverish 2011 Funkdoobiefest appearance by Limp Bizkit touring their “Gold Cobra” album after the brief but short-lived return of lead vocalist Fred Durst–this new stage possessed one singular and fateful attribute: it was held together by a blue-nap flame-resistant carpet. 

This is the moment-by-moment story of how that one procedural decision saved more than 10,000 lives on Saturday, May 20, 2023, at the Baccalaureate Mass of the 178th Commencement Exercises at the University of Notre Dame. 

4:39 p.m.

Call it providence, call it luck, call it coincidence, or call it fate–whatever force was directing the events of May 20 in this mid-sized Indiana town, we can all be grateful Mike Ryan was at the center of it. 

Before he joined the seminary, Ryan was a construction supervisor, stitching together the I-beam skeletons of skyscrapers reaching through the blue Chicago smog. You can still see that former life in his square jaw and deadpan sense of humor. He’ll be the kind of priest who leaves a trail of renovated rectories throughout his ordained career. 

Ryan has seen situations go sideways before. One time a welder in his crew walked up to him to ask if he could grab some fresh air. The man was looking a little pekid, Ryan recalls, so he encouraged the welder to take 15 minutes to collect himself. When the man turned to walk away, he had a three-foot section of 10-guage rebar protruding from his shoulder blade. 

But on this day, Ryan’s mind is miles away from the Chicago skyline. Vested with a black cassock covered by a laced-white surplice, he’s the image of a Catholic acolyte. As final preparations for Mass begin–with 3,200 robed students processing in under the proud gaze of friends and family–Ryan ignites a dozen charcoal briquettes in a shiny, gold censer and closes the lid. 

It takes a lot of incense to make a liturgical impression in a basketball arena, and it takes a large thurible to sling that much smoke. Imagine a gold mixing bowl looped with semi-trailer safety chains–that’s how big this thurible is. Seriously. A kid could take a bath in it. It looks like Ryan needed to commandeer a construction crane to get it into the building. 

By the time the preludes conclude and the opening hymn begins, the dozen briquettes are quietly smoldering in the container, impatient for oxygen and dry incense. 

5:12 p.m.

As the second reading is proclaimed, Ryan quietly moves to the side of the stage to prepare the censor for the veneration of the book of the Gospels. When he opens the lid to the thurible, the crowd of coals radiate orange–they are perfectly primed to chew through incense and expel an aromatic, billowing cloud.

Between him and the altar stand six rows of slow-footed priests, each garbed with 12 pounds of layered vestments. It will become a source of wonderment later, but no one is now considering how recently the vestments have been returned from St. Michael’s laundry, where each garment was dry cleaned with perchloroethylene, a highly flammable petroleum solvent. 

Ryan is a dutiful acolyte, prompt and precise. Despite its heft, his broad shoulders have no trouble winging this thurible terribilis in its smoky-tailed orbit through the dry tinder of the presbyterate (not to mention a few students who would melt a blood-alcohol detector if they blew into it). 

After the Gospel, Ryan returns to the side of the stage to prepare the thurible for its second turn around the sanctuary during the preparation of the gifts, when it will become burning comet destined for continental impact. The incense has been spent and each of the round briquettes is halfway turned to ash. He places another dozen pieces of charcoal in the censor and covers the lid. When the gifts are on the table, he’ll sling again. 

5:37 p.m.

Rev. Brian Ching, CSC, always loved serving at the altar and has handled every kind of thurible: from the early-century rusty teapots smelted in Sardinia by the famed Livernian Friars Minor to the latest Censorium X25 with its dual chassis fans. As rector of the main campus church, he has overseen liturgies with bishops, archbishops, and cardinals and is utterly unflappable. If Mike Ryan’s role in this drama is the common-sensed improviser whose hands know how to use anything as a tool in an emergency, Fr. Ching is the calm-voiced dispatcher on the other end of your 9-1-1 call explaining how to use a belt as a tourniquet. 

Fr. Ching is the one who ordered the Redolent Revelator 4 Series with FT4 Emissions Technology and a proprietary powershift transmission, which is known among undergraduate altar servers as Dr. Frankincense’s Monster–or less affectionately, Apocalypse Now. It takes a Mike Ryan to wield this bucket of fire without the help of a hydraulic arm, but it turns out that out here in northern Indiana, smoke-slinging seminarians grow with the abundance of corn or mangy raccoons–and not by accident. The year before the Revelator arrived, Fr. Ching had chest-fly and shoulder press machines installed next to the ice cream freezer in the seminary refectory. The deal was this: as much ice cream as you want, but only after three sets of eight. 

With an army of steel-shouldered seminarians behind him, Fr. Ching did not hesitate to bring in the Revelator–and for years, the franchise worked. Before Ryan was Gabe “Big Rig” Griggs; before Griggs was Ryan “Dark Matter” Pietrocarlo; before Pietrocarlo was Matt “Hype-Man” Hovde. But the man of the hour is Ryan, and he is swinging the censor around the altar, around the bishop, and around the congregation, tracing Venn diagrams in the air. 

The May 20 incident was not a product of faulty technique or shoddy grip. Nor did the events unfold because of the size of the thurible. The Revelator had served well in capable hands through dozens of previous baccalaureates. What happened next was the simple consequence of an age-old fact: nothing lasts forever. Least of all, the penultimate chain link upon which is currently swinging a Redolent Revelator 4 Series thurible in a sea of polyester robes. 

From here, things start to happen fast.

5:39:14 – 5:40:57

As he elevates the thurible to incense the congregation, Ryan feels a sudden emptiness below his palm, as if the censor has disappeared. His surprise turns to shock and momentary horror as he looks down to see the incense and burning briquettes hit the stage floor, a smoldering ink blot. 

In that moment, Ryan does two things on instinct that might very well have saved a generation of graduates. First, he huddles over the hot coals to scoop as many embers back into the Revelator as he can, risking his very life by working amid those fumes for literally three to five seconds. Second, although he has a baroque chorus of grandiloquent swear words singing with full heart and voice inside his head–this is a former construction worker, remember–he refrains from uttering a single one of them out loud. 

Fr. Ching, unfazed, searches for a way to suppress the embers before they turn to flame. On the credence table sits some leftover altar wine. For a moment, he considers it before wondering if the alcohol in the wine would be flammable. What if it reacts as if he’s throwing gas on the fire? Then he wonders if there is maybe enough grape juice to cancel out the alcohol. Maybe, he thinks, but it’s a risk. Then he realizes he doesn’t have time for this kind of lab work. 

A bottle of hand sanitizer comes into view, but that seems to Fr. Ching like a good way to make napalm. So he grabs the only resource he has available: a small cruet holding 1.5 ounces of water. It’s hardly enough ammunition for the beach landing he’s arriving at, but there’s nothing else to do.

Fr. Ching charges into the warm pile of embers and sprinkles the water as widely as he can. They dampen some areas, but the briquettes have scattered wide and are starting to smoke. Fr. Ching then takes the only remaining measure left to him–the only option that can turn total annihilation into a storied accident–and puts his body on the line. He scuffles the coals around with his shoe.

This heroic action–combined with the fateful decision made by Ms. Barb Krznieweicz 19 years ago–proved the decisive move that broke the chain of events that would otherwise have claimed the lives of so many. 

After the fire marshals poke around and take a few selfies after Mass, and the altar is broken down, Fr. Ching walks back to the campus residence for priests, composed as ever. He receives praise from his fellow priests with good-natured reticence, seemingly uneasy over the accolades. He is a man of faith, after all–not one given to disastrous thinking. Yet, when he sits down to ease his nerves with a gin and tonic, that’s when it hits him. He looks at his shoe and his hands begin to shake.

There, on the inseam of his right foot, is a clear smudge–evidence that the embers were so ashy they literally marked his shoes with black ash. He shutters to think of what might have been.

As do we all.

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