A number of years ago, I became the pastor of a parish which had an enormous and worrisome debt. Shortly after arriving, I was called to anoint a woman who was dying. After talking and praying with her and giving her the last sacraments, I went on my way. I visited her once more and then saw her again at her funeral. A month later, the parish received a letter from her attorney. He stated that he was handling her will and that the parish was to be the beneficiary of her entire estate. Everything — house, car and savings. In an instant, over half of the parish debt was gone!
Who was this woman? I asked around and nobody in the parish knew anything about her. Finally after digging a bit, I discovered a few people who knew something. They said, “Oh, she was the woman who stood at the entrance of the church near the front doors and who never came in for Mass.”
But she was not alone. Over my years as a priest I have witnessed another curious occurrence. During the Mass, as I am looking out upon the people, I notice a car drive up. A man usually gets out and enters through the front doors, picks up a bulletin, and then turns around and promptly leaves. Why does he not come into the church and pray? What is going on here? Mysterious.
But he is not alone. There are many such people who stand in the peripheries of our parish churches. These could be tired mothers or fathers with their young children who have just had a meltdown. Or people who might have felt faint or ill during Mass. Perhaps those who struggle with social anxiety and need a break. Or people who would just rather stand? The reasons, I suppose, are endless. Thanks be to God they are with us to worship God at Mass! That’s the most important thing. But I wonder if others notice them? Priests do — we can’t help but see them. They’re there every Sunday.
And there are still others on the peripheries. Those who visit us twice a year at the big celebrations, those who come for blessed ashes once a year, those who come only for funerals. When they come, are they greeted with authentic Christian charity, warm hospitality and the truth of the Gospel? Or do we leave them outside with empty platitudes and vapid preaching? This is the challenge of our own time, and there are many faithful ways to approach the matter. But it starts by noticing. Notice those who are inside but near the doors! Then we can focus on those outside our doors. All of us must do this. Now.
There is genre of religious art which depicts Jesus sitting in the back pew of a church. Sometimes he is sleeping in the pew, other times kneeling, occasionally leaning up against a wall, but always in the back. You and I look far and wide to see our Lord. I wonder if we are looking too far away. Perhaps (when we return to public celebrations) we might briefly turn around at Mass during the Sign of Peace and glimpse who might be standing way, way in the back — back near the outside doors. We might be very surprised who we find there. And that we are not alone.
Fr. Girotti is vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay.