Editor’s note: During Lent The Compass is offering a series, “Ways to Jump Start Your Faith.” Local columnists draw on their experiences to offer ways for everyday Catholics to more fully experience the penitential season of Lent. This week’s column is by Tony Pichler.
“The Reign of God is at hand!” These words, spoken by both John the Baptist and Jesus over 2,000 years ago, came alive to me some years ago as I taught a youth ministry course in Detroit.
On Sunday morning, the class was scheduled to take a break and attend Mass. However, since Sacred Heart Major Seminary, where the course was being held, was closed for a break, another location was necessary. The closest church was the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. But it was Pentecost! With the diocesan-wide celebration of confirmation the Mass was sure to take a minimum of two hours and class awaited. The search for an alternative worship site ensued and the participants landed at Holy Spirit Parish near a freeway ramp not far from downtown.
When I walked through the front doors the smell of Lysol overwhelmed my nostrils. I settled into a seat and looked around at the gathered congregation. What I saw was the Reign of God in clear site. The woman sitting next to me had a stuffed animal on her shoulder. The man who entered behind me used a blind cane. To my left was a man sleeping off a hangover. To my right was a schizophrenic man who continually talked to himself throughout the service.
These were the people who Jesus referred to when he said “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mk 2:17). There I sat, gazing on the woundedness of humanity. But I was also viewing up close the beauty of the Reign of God. And I was called, more than ever before, to serve those who, like these folks in a Detroit church on a Sunday morning, live on the margins and are seemingly excluded by the rest of us.
Year later, Pope Francis would call us back to the words of Jesus and his reference to physicians. In an interview in 2013, he stated: “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.”
Everyone of us is called to participate in the activity of the field hospital. Each Christian — in fact, each person of goodwill — is called to heal the wounds of the person who is hurting — who lives on the margins.
What might this look like? Consider the neighbor whose spouse recently died. Might you provide a listening ear and a caring presence in this time of loneliness and grieving? Or the homeless person in a local shelter. Could you consider serving a meal or helping in other ways to “feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty.” Or the laid-off worker — might a meal or even a phone call lift his or her spirits? What about our hurting planet? How can you adjust your life to care for the earth and ensure that it will thrive for generations to come?
Is the church on the forefront of service in the field hospital? In a recent article by Pascal-Emmanual Gobry, titled “The Church Used to be Like Silicon Valley. Can It Be Again?” (NCR, Dec. 13, 2017), Gobry echoes Pope Francis’ words about the field hospital when he states:
“Only when there is a genuine bond and trust with a homeless person — something which might take days, weeks, months or even years to establish — do they propose specific interventions, which can range from free housing in a community apartment to training and rehabilitation programs. These interventions have a much higher rate of success in helping people off the street. Homeless people, who suffer greatly from social isolation and sometimes suffer from mental illness, need this recovery of social trust before they can begin to take charge of their lives.”
While the church has a long history of building hospitals, founding schools, and providing social services, how are we as the people of God doing lately in our service to neighbor? In the words of Gobry, are we as innovative as Silicon Valley? How can we bring that innovation to our relationships with those on the margins? Following Jesus as disciples means a way of life — not merely the recitation of a set of beliefs. Do our lives show that we are followers of Christ?
During this Lenten season, we are called to take seriously Jesus’ belief that the Reign of God is upon us. Do we believe it? Do we live our lives as if that in-breaking of the Reign of God is a reality here and now — not merely an exit plan for the future? Serving our neighbor, especially those on the margins, will truly show that we are disciples of the Christ. And then, only then, can we live in the power of the Resurrection at Easter.
Pichler is director of the Norbertine Center for Spirituality at St. Norbert Abbey and chairperson of Whatsoever You Do, Inc.