We priests have a unique vantage point at Mass. Looking out upon the congregation gathered at prayer every Sunday, we see your faces. And these faces each tell a story — the story of those who we love and serve.
When a priest is fortunate enough to have served a particular parish community for many years, he can look upon his congregation on Sunday morning and know the personal story of almost everyone he sees. He knows whose marriage is struggling and who has just become engaged. He knows who just received the happy news of a pregnancy and who has just lost a child. And the priest knows who was just arrested for drunk driving and who was just accepted to the college of her choice. All of these pieces of information fill his priestly heart as he serves the people of his parish.
Of course, sometimes when we as priests look out upon our congregation each Sunday, we see rather amusing things. For example, we observe sleepy parishioners, parents trying to ply their children with treats and teenagers of the opposite sex keenly observing each other across the church. All of this, and more, we see and it causes us to smile!
But, in recent years, what has become the most moving for me, as I look out upon the people gathered for Mass, are the profound differences between the people I see seated together in church. People, who would never have interacted with each other in the world, find themselves seated together in the same church worshipping the same God. Those who had fought like cats and dogs at the city council meeting are now gathered together, singing the same hymn. And those whose politics are as opposite as night and day are gathered together in common prayer. This, my friends, is something quite remarkable.
So much of modern life is made up of personal choices and preferences. We have become used to life “a la carte.” But we don’t really choose those people sitting next to us at Mass. They are just … there. And we have to deal with the fact that they are there. And we are there. And we are together as a family of faith. Perhaps, just maybe, we are more alike than we would like to admit?
I am not naïve to polarization in our world today, sadly, even in the church. People often choose a particular parish to correspond with how they see the world. But even there, after going through all the machinations, one inevitably finds people sitting next to them at Mass who are… different. Almost as if it were meant to be that way. The pastoral challenge of our time is to allow enough room in the pews for those who see things very differently, while, at the same time, holding to what is true and never compromising on what is essential to our Catholic faith in Jesus Christ.
In our polarized age, when everyone has seemingly chosen sides and gone to his or her respective corner in the boxing ring of life, it is something quite wonderful which happens at the average parish Mass. Rich are seated next to poor, saint next to sinner, friend next to foe. And both priests and people see it! Despite our many differences, we are made one in Christ Jesus. And this is everything.
Fr. Girotti is vicar general and moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay.