“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:37-39
“Because (the lawyer) wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?’ ” Luke 10:29
“Lord,” I thought to myself, “please save us from the good people.”
It was the Monday after Easter, and I was in one of my “Tweener” moods – in between two distinct feelings. Part of me was still feeling inspired with the exhilaration of my Four Favorite Days. I worshiped in Holy Thursday and Good Friday services at my home parish, Easter Vigil at the parish where my wife works as youth minister, then back at my home parish on Easter morning. Yes, I know I wasn’t obligated to attend Mass both Saturday night and Sunday morning. The liturgies are so different, however, that I wanted to fill my spirit with both. At the core of my soul, I am a man of Joy.
Another part of me that day, as too many days the last 14 years, was trying to fight through the dark cloud of depression that had been obscuring my vision and limiting my energy for several weeks. I had trouble getting out of bed that Monday morning. I felt overwhelmed by all the work at my job. My concentration decreased as the day wore on. Many others of my usual symptoms showed their unwelcome faces, including one of my least favorites: irritability.
So when I was scrolling through some posts on Facebook that afternoon, I was somewhat on edge.
That’s when I came across a certain post from a Catholic gentleman whom I never have met in person but whose writings I have read frequently. He related a brief story about his Easter Sunday Mass experience. When he arrived at the church, he found people already were standing near the back of church, certainly not unusual or unexpected on one of Church calendar’s holiest days. He said he told a friend that he hoped he could find a seat and, small consolation for him, he wound up near where he usually sits.
The gentleman noted that he didn’t recognize a lot of faces who filled the church that morning. He lamented that because of the noise of conversations, he couldn’t pray silently before Mass. And he speculated that many of those unfamiliar faces in attendance didn’t actually belong to new parishioners or vacationing visitors; he wondered if they wouldn’t appear again until Christmas.
Perhaps, this older Catholic gentleman pondered, things would return to “normal” the next week.
Normal at most Catholic Masses in the United States on non-Easter and non-Christmas Sundays entails no one standing in the back or the side aisles of a church. Normal entails all the same faces in all the same places with many, many empty spaces throughout the pews. Most of those faces are older, as 55 percent of regular weekly Mass-goers are over 40 years old, according to a 2010 Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) study.
Attendance increases dramatically on Christmas and Easter – when the so-called “C and E” Catholics make their biannual appearances. So if a normal Sunday at church means worshiping without all of those folks – if it means watching the Catholic Church die a slow death in some previously vibrant areas – and if you crave that normal, then you should rejoice those 50 other Sundays.
You will be free to fill your usual pew, spread out if you want, and probably won’t miss any of those “C and E” Catholics.
“As a way of life, an act of love, an expression of faith, our hospitality reflects and anticipates God’s welcome. Simultaneously costly and wonderfully rewarding, hospitality often involves small deaths and little resurrections. By God’s grace we can grow more willing, more eager, to open the door to a needy neighbor, a weary sister or brother, a stranger in distress. Perhaps as we open that door more regularly, we will grow increasingly sensitive to the quiet knock of angels. In the midst of a life-giving practice, we too might catch glimpses of Jesus who asks for our welcome and welcomes us home.”
Christine Pohl, professor, Asbury Theological Seminary
Alas, that older Catholic gentleman isn’t the only weekly church-goer who gets aggravated by the unfamiliar folks appearing out of the blue on those two widely celebrated holidays. I have heard plenty of grumbling in the past from people who didn’t get to the church early enough to find seats not only in their usual spot but perhaps any spot to sit at all. As if the fact that they are in that same pew every other Sunday gives them a God-given right to have it at all times.
I wonder if that man sees himself in the older, “good son” in the Parable of the Prodigal Son?
That’s what irritated me that day. I’m actually someone who misses all those Christmas-and-Easter Catholics on the 50 other Sundays. Their spots in the pews are lonely when vacant. No matter what the ages are of those people who could fill those places, we miss them in our worship. We miss their voices and prayers, their spirit and their needs. Some of those men and women might be destined for glorious sainthood or at least valuable ministry. Some of those men and women might have children who would consider the priesthood or the consecrated life, so we all miss the possibilities that likely never will be realized.
We miss them because they are our sisters and brothers in Christ, and they are absent.
I love the larger crowds who flock to churches on Easter Sunday. I get a greater sense of completeness. I see younger families with younger children who perhaps don’t attend Mass because it takes work trying to stifle the sounds of little ones. I see adults who never would attend Mass on their own – or perhaps they attend Protestant church services on those 50 other days – but are visiting to be with their parents on this one day. I see college kids, who might not attend Mass while away at school, sitting with their pleased parents.
I see people who might actually be considering a return to the Church or whose spirits are in the midst of discerning what they believe. On these two days every year, we have a divine opportunity to be welcoming and hospitable, filled with joy and delight, acting like, well, Christians who love being Christians. That means displaying love for all our neighbors.
Or … we can frown with disdain at those unfamiliar faces, shush the parents with young children, refrain from greeting the people sitting where we usually sit. We can pray diligently – that things will get back to normal asap.
A Christian missionary once asked Mahatma Gandhi why he liked to quote the words of Jesus Christ but openly rejected becoming a Christian. Gandhi responded, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It is just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
The person in my favorite pew at Mass might be someone in pain, desperately seeking God’s love in the form of human kindness and community. The person appearing at Mass on Christmas and Easter – and perhaps other occasional appearances – might not look just like the rest of us, might instead have the free spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi or the simple spirituality of Brother Lawrence. By sneering at that person on Easter and hoping they don’t clutter up the church – and thus not mess with the made-my-way Catholic worship I find so comfortable – I might be sneering at a saint, an angel or even Jesus Himself.
When you look askance at that “C and E” Catholic, you might be failing to welcome and embrace my children, all adults whose Mass attendance is sporadic as they seek God on their unique journeys.
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”
In my mind, I wrote a reply to the older Catholic gentleman, a reply that was part sarcastic and part mean-spirited, a reply that might have ignited ill feelings and perhaps anger in return. Thank God I didn’t write that reply. I waited a while. I prayed about it. Then, I posted a low-key, kindly thought. There’s a reason I don’t often get angry anymore; I don’t like it, and it ends up tearing up my insides more than causing any kind of positive change or outcome.
So this time, instead, I decided to take some subtle, quiet actions.
I made some suggestions to my pastor that we might employ the next Christmas and Easter. In the Sundays leading to those holiday Masses, ask all of the weekly church-goers to show up on those days and not take a seat. Instead, the regulars could allow the visitors to have the prime seats, with plenty of room for families; when it appears most of them have arrived and found spots, then everyone else can find a seat.
I also had this idea: once-a-month Scrambled Sunday. At those Masses, the regulars would forget the place they usually sit and instead sit in a completely different part of the church. That would allow people to worship near parishioners they might not know at all.
Finally, I seized upon an idea that I put into practice on my morning commute the Monday of the Second Week of Easter: Every time I passed another car or another car passed me on the interstate, I whispered “May God bless you today.” When I was at a stoplight and in the drive-through line at the burger joint, I looked at the cars in front of me and behind me, then whispered “I am praying for you today.” If someone cut me off or was speeding past me, if I saw a younger driver or someone talking on their cell phone, I whispered “May the Lord keep you safe.”
I tried to put on a welcoming attitude. Who knows? The person in one of those cars might be on the cusp of a lifestyle toward sainthood or ministry. Who knows? The person in one of those cars might be in the midst of deciding whether to return to the Church or in danger of leaving. Who knows? The person in one of those cars might need the touch of God in a profound, even life-saving way.
The person in one of those cars might end up sitting in my regular spot at St. Cletus Catholic Church some day. I can only pray with me whole heart for that to happen.