While in church during Mass this morning, I was struck by the sweet, endearing, telling things I saw there. I was so moved that I began to consider how to put into words the things I witnessed today and what can be seen any given Sunday in Catholic churches around the world.
Our home parish is very small in a shrinking town in the Bible belt of eastern Arkansas. We typically have 35 to 40 members there for Mass on Sunday morning. The average age is around 65 years. We have two families with young children who bring life to our church and give us hope for the future. Several nationalities attend our church which is unusual in eastern Arkansas but not unusual for a Catholic church. There’s the WWII war-bride from Germany who has a beautiful soprano voice; the quiet, humble, and gentle lady from the Philippines whose potluck dishes I love; the Mexican ladies who are always so friendly when and wherever I see them; the lovely lady from Scotland who came to America with her Air Force husband; several transplants from the North who came to Brinkley in the 1950’s due to their jobs and have stayed; and, also those who where born in this area and attend. Some of these are converts to the Catholic faith often because of marriage.
We have three priests who serve our parish whom we love very much. One is from the Congo, one is from South Vietnam, and one is from Tanzania. Did I mention that I live in eastern Arkansas? Did you notice that I said my priests are from the Congo, Tanzania, and South Vietnam? Two black men and an Asian who are teaching us such wonderful lessons on how we are to live for Christ and serve others. Some have said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in the South, but that is not true in my church. Some would say that having an African as a minister would be bad for church attendance, but that did not happen in my church. Remember I’m from eastern Arkansas, a southern formerly-Confederate state. Some would say that arrangement just wouldn’t work down here in the South, but it works in my church. We love these teachers who are shepherding our flock in a most loving way. I am grateful to God that we have them and that we get to learn vital spiritual lessons from them every week.
Any given Sunday I attend my beautiful, little church or one that I’m visiting while away from home. Wherever I am I experience the same thing because our church is universal. Whether I’m on the Gulf Coast, in Chicago or St. Louis or Nashville or New Orleans or wherever, I enter the church doors and see a beautiful altar and sanctuary that has been called the anteroom to heaven. I look around and see people gathering to encounter Christ. I see parents holding little ones in their laps whispering lessons in their young, inquisitive ears. I see people entering the church and genuflecting before the altar before kneeling in prayer. I see elderly men and women slowly making their way to their seats. I hear quiet and reverence for where we find ourselves…in the place where we will worship God.
When Mass begins, there is music of praise to our God to whom we are thankful. The robed priest proceeds down the aisle toward the altar where the sacrifice of the Mass will take place. Preceding him the altar servers carry the crucifix which reminds us of the sacrifice our Lord made for us on the cross. The service progresses and the Word of God is proclaimed with much reverence and respect by the laity and the Gospel is proclaimed by the priest. We then hear lessons based on these scriptures and how to apply these teachings to our lives. The climactic event of the Mass is when the priest, through the power of the Holy Spirit, makes present the original sacrifice of our Lord and we do what he commanded us to do in chapter 6 of the Gospel of John: we consume Him in the Eucharist. By observing this sacrifice and offering our own sacrifices to God we worship him in the way he wants to be worshiped. Christ is offered to God and we offer ourselves totally to God. That is true worship and we do it every day on our knees with great reverence in the Catholic church.
This morning we worshiped in North Little Rock at a much larger parish than our own. All the things I previously described to you took place. We also enjoyed the humor of a funny priest and we lifted our voices to the beautiful music of a Christian couple traveling through the area. At the end of the Mass we all went forward to meet Christ in communion. This was a big church. It took several minutes for everyone to come to communion. Men and women came. Mothers and fathers came. Children and teenagers came. The fancy and the casual came. The young and old came. The strong and the weak, the rich and impoverished, the red and yellow, black and white came. And then they kept coming. They were all coming forward to meet Christ in communion. Coming to the altar of God to offer themselves as Christ offered himself to them. It was beautiful and I am thankful I witnessed all of those going forward to Christ.
The wonderful thing about all of these endearing things that I witness every Sunday is that they happen not just on Sunday but every day of every year in Catholic churches all around the world. God is worshiped every hour of every day in every time zone. Imagine the continuous offering of prayers of worship and praise sent up to God in heaven through all of Christian history. How could this not be inspired and designed by the providence of God? It has to be divine.