Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)
An Advent mission
For some reason, the first thing I noticed on my early-morning visit to the beautiful St. John Cantius Church is a statue tucked away in a corner, between two confessionals. It depicts Jesus comforting the Prodigal Son, from the gospel parable. It seemed to speak so much about so much. Obviously, it’s about forgiveness and mercy. Clearly, it’s about the nature of God in the New Testament. As the Windy (boy, was it!) City was already decked out in holiday lights, I couldn’t help but see a message about welcome, about hospitality.
I confess I found some very personal welcome in Jesus’ tenderness with the sinner, as a sinner myself! And in my travels lately I have been more and more conscious of the need to be softer in our culture of harsh — to smile at strangers — to be welcoming as a member of the Body of Christ in one of His temples, as one of His temples.
And I also confess that’s in no small part about an unexpected little run-in at a chapel recently. It’s not important where it was. But suffice it to say, I was overflowing with gratitude at first. Daily Mass is a wonderful blessing, and I’m often amazed how schedules often do somehow work to make it possible, even as I am bouncing around time zones, as I have been lately. So, it might be worth noting: I was tired, I was exuberant — I have no doubt — in some thanksgiving for the ultimate thanksgiving, the Eucharist, where the veil between Heaven and Earth is extremely thin and, as Catholics believe, Jesus gives Himself. If you believe this, it is something worth making time for in your schedule as often as possible, to say the very least! Again, I was grateful. I was in in awe of the packed chapel of young people truly praying. I loved how they sung to Mary after Mass — the “Salve Regina” — and that they even knew it!
As it happens, apparently I was praying noticeably too. But not in any kind of inspiring way, it turns out. Not one but two adults came up to me afterward to advise me that I was praying too quickly. At first, I was crestfallen that I would have interrupted other people at prayer. I was appreciative that the priest was trying to get his flock to slow down in this culture seemingly on speed. We need everything now, or two minutes ago. So, absolutely, slow down! And be present with God in silence and love.
But, jeepers, I’m human, and it hurt. Here I had been so grateful, too! And the more I prayed and thought about it, I thought of the Holy Spirit giving us the words in prayer. I thought of people I’ve been inspired by who, so moved with love, weren’t going with the pack. I’d like to think I was moved by love in my prayer, too — maybe dogged by a little desperate fatigue, too, on that particular night, after lots of logistical mishaps involving airports, with still a program yet to come on the schedule, requiring coherency on my part!
I then got to thinking about hospitality and welcome and how unwelcome I felt in that chapel, something that is jarring to me. I tend to feel at home in front of any tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament in it. There’s a peace there. There is a knowledge of God’s presence. There is, essentially, what that statue at St. John Cantius depicts: a weak human sinner resting in the arms of Jesus. No one should mess with that.
I’m sure I do all the time. I’m sorry for that.
And the two people who approached me after Mass had no ill intent. They obviously have given a lot of their hearts to that particular community I was just dropping in on to pray with. And, even while nursing such silly wounds, I found myself grateful. Because it forced a reflection: I know there are ways that we are — that I am — unwelcoming to people without even realizing it. Sometimes it happens when lost in thought, looking at a screen, or hitting refresh. Sometimes it involves not meeting obvious needs or being indifferent to someone’s presence — not being present and attentive to them. But it also happens in the course of communications about things we have convictions about. As happened with me that day, it can happen in the most holy places. And how often do people see Christians as people of prohibitions, rather than love? Christians are called to be people of “yes” to the boundless love that is seen with Jesus on the cross.
Every church should be open arms. In every pew and corner, people should be able to encounter God. Same, too, with anyone who calls himself or herself a child of God. Our work is to be beacons of His love, to be His presence in the world. Show the merciful Father, however out of place those in your presence might look or feel. This is their spiritual shelter. Not just a church building, but lives of loving service, fueled by God’s grace and the Beatitudinal way He made clear in the Sermon on the Mount.