I went to the St. Louis Clarksville Fair recently. Despite wearing a white hat, sunglasses, shorts and ‘sneakers’, I was still recognized by Mary Helfrich! How come Lois Lane never recognized Superman as Clark Kent? A pair of glasses made that much difference?
But I digress. While there I spoke briefly with the pastor, Monsignor Joe Luca. On a hot day, in a crowd of hundreds of people, there the good shepherd was in the midst of his flock. (He also gave me a couple of complementary tickets to the chicken dinner! If you feed me, I will come! Good shepherds feed their flock!)
Several months before, one of the parents in the parish told me about a youth retreat his daughter attended. It was sponsored by the parish and held at St. Mary in Emmitsburg. Upon returning from the retreat, the teenager said to her father: “Dad, I feel so close to God!”
Isn’t that the sentence that defines the ideals of every parish? We want people to feel close to God.
Only a few days earlier, I had been at St. John in Westminster. I had the honor of speaking to the Wisdom Club. Between celebrating Mass and giving the talk, I had lots of time to mingle with the parishioners. They were all extolling the virtues of their pastor, Monsignor Art Valenzano. To a person, they were inspired by his ministry and by his witness in coping with cancer. He helped people feel close to the compassionate Christ and to the suffering Christ.
Only a week or so before that I had met Monsignor Lloyd Aiken at a Sodality Breakfast talk at St. Charles in Pikesville. Monsignor Aiken moved easily and comfortably among the people. As the pastor of both Sacred Heart in Glyndon, and St. Charles Borromeo in Pikesville, Monsignor Aiken brings the twin gifts of administrator and shepherd.
I mention these three individuals because I think they represent the quiet excellence that runs throughout the church. The public image of the church may be somewhat dented, but the soul of the church is fine. The Eucharist is being celebrated. The sacraments are being administered. The young are being educated. Adults are being inspired. Every conceivable form of charity is being supported, from disaster relief services to Catholic Relief Services.
Years ago I remember seeing a simple slogan: “The Parish – God’s Real Home.” We would agree with St. Paul that “Christ fills the universe in all its parts”. There is nowhere that Christ is not.
But we need somewhere to point to that everywhere! We need sacred spaces to remind each other that all space is sacred. We need to feed on the body and blood of Christ to remember that we are the body and blood of Christ. We need places to encounter the Holy so that we won’t forget all the world is holy.
To say all of this is not to pretend that the church is perfect. I say all of this to remind us that we always have a choice in terms of what we focus on. We can focus on the weaknesses and failings of humans. Or we can focus on the goodness, the generosity, the greatness that exists in every parish and in every church. Always remember. What we focus on is what we get more of. It’s not always what we look at. It’s what we see.
Allow me to close with a story. A man, who has had a lot of problems with the institutional church, told me that he was listening to a few other folks talking critically about the church. After listening very patiently, he very quietly said: “The Catholic Church educates, feeds and clothes more people than any other institution on earth! Why don’t you talk about that?
Why not indeed?