It might be that the Church has existed, with all her flaws, for two thousand years so that on that afternoon one lost sheep could find solace.
Recently I drove from L.A. to Monterey, on the Central Coast of California, to give a talk. My host was Fr. Patrick Dooling, associate pastor at San Carlos Cathedral.
My first afternoon there, I took a walk around town, arrived back at the rectory where I was staying, and came upon a ratty-looking couple near where the priests park their cars. One was a young man, hunched on a bench in the fetal position, face hidden, sobbing. The other was a young woman – a girl, really – with a ring through her nose and blue hair.
Our eyes met and in hers I saw the poverty from which we, or at least I, tend to flee. Poverty that is generational. Poverty that is emotional, spiritual, financial, educational. Poverty that is bottomless and cannot be fixed by bromides; that in fact cannot be “fixed” at all.
I expected the girl to ask for money. Instead, she leaned her hand upon my arm and in a voice that cracked with desperation asked, “Are you CATHOLIC?"
“Is there a priest here who might talk to us? My friend’s in trouble. He’s very upset. He’s been traumatized and we just thought….”
“Hold on,” I told her. “Hold on, I’ll be right back.”
I went in and got Fr. Patrick. We’d planned to leave for dinner in five minutes. Without a second’s hesitation, Fr. Pat said, “Of course,” and went out, and was gone for a good twenty minutes. He learned the young man had been abused as a child and that that day someone had made a sexual suggestion to him that had triggered overwhelming memories. He invited the couple to call on him again. He invited them to my talk.
For all her faults, the Church remains forever a sanctuary. You might get a “no” or a cold shoulder but when you get a “yes,” it’s the deepest “yes” in the world.
I speak for myself when I say that if you are very lonely, very maladapted to life, at its most essential, Church is a place simply to be with people. I sometimes go to Mass feeling so anxious unto death, so friendless, so alone, that I need to be in a place where I can simply sit quietly and be with other people. People who can’t reject me; who can’t kick me out: Christ, of course, being the prime example. That is the best way to participate in the Mass: from a place of utter poverty.
So folks perhaps don’t understand that when they rail against the Church they aren’t just saying “Annihilate the Pharisees.” They are also saying, “Turn away the poor, the misfits, the losers, the lonely.” The central deal, as Christ told us, is that “The rain falls on the just and unjust.” The good news is that God loves us, whatever “us” may mean to you. The bad news is that He also loves everyone else.
I was still reflecting on my time in Monterey the next week, Holy Week, when I attended a communal Reconciliation service in Los Angeles. Waiting in line for the confessional, standing with my back to the altar, I could observe the folks as they emerged and took their place in the pews to pray penance – some with heads bowed, some with eyes raised heavenward, some weeping.
As a parishioner, my view is generally of the backs of people’s heads. The view I had that night was of their faces, the view the priest would have from the altar, and I thought how maybe our faces are part of what keep priests – however lonely, misunderstood, straying, human – at their posts. I thought of how the vast majority are faithful to their watch. Administering the Sacraments, day in, day out. Ministering when it’s inconvenient. Trying to console the unfixable and the inconsolable.
Christ was never much concerned with the successful: the successful don’t need him. He was concerned with the poor in spirit, the clueless, the broken, the ones who can’t fit in no matter how hard we try. No one knew better than Christ that deep in the human heart is the tremulous, desperate hope that we have not been forgotten. When we have been stripped down to nothing, deep in our souls is the urge to head toward the innocent man who was nailed to the Cross because maybe he, at least, can understand.