To Be Catholic
Books are fine. I make my living off of books and words, so of course I sing in praise of books.
But they have their limits. Take this business of being Catholic. To know what is like, to understand what it means, you can certainly read a book. You’ll learn a bit.
Or you can do this.
In a town you know well enough, but not intimately, in the hour you have between the Renaissance Fair and dinner, you drive, looking for the Catholic Church you’re pretty sure is here, a few blocks from the football stadium.
Your son, now in a public school, must go to confession, for Easter looms. Although you’ve never been in this church, you walk right in, trailing children, confident you’ll find what you need, for it’s a Saturday afternoon, and it’s almost four o’clock and this is a Catholic church.
Indeed, the bulletin assures you, all is well. Reconciliation is at four-fifteen. You are not alone, of course.
The remnant of a wedding party stands, in late-afternoon sun streaming through the windows, watching the bride and groom being photographed in front of the altar. Little girls in white sprawl in the front row, fingering their bouquets and giggling behind their hands.
The line to the confessional grows, waiting for the priest. In front of you, three old women chatter in Spanish, holding tiny worn prayer books, not looking at the words, just turning the pages, just talking to each other...
Behind you stands a woman in a dress with a prolife button on the collar.
She is white, the child with her, dressed in shorts and a football jersey, is black. She holds a child’s book in one hand and the boy’s shoulder, lightly, with the other. “This is what mommy’s going to go do now, ” she explains, then quietly reads the story of the prodigal son.
The world, it seems, is strung out behind you in a meditative line against the wall.
A small gaggle of preteen girls, solitary older men, women holding purses, all waiting. A couple with a baby carrier struggles through the door. He is black, she is white, their baby blends them. The man and the woman wear matching t-shirts that say on the front in large letters “10 Reasons to be a Roman Catholic.”
Your daughter has left your side and wanders the church. You can read her destination clearly in her wide eyes fixed on the bride. She starts at the back, behind the last pew. Every time you look up, she has moved up, until soon she has found a spot close enough, just four rows back from the altar, right in the midst of the wedding party. They glance at her, smile, but say nothing to the little girl in t-shirt and shorts, absorbed in study.
A young woman, about twenty, sits on the other side of the church praying the Stations of the Cross.
A white- bearded man waits to the side for the photos to end, altar cloths in hand. They are red. Tomorrow is Palm Sunday.
In the eucharistic chapel behind you, an older man is on his knees, face in his hands, in front of the tabernacle.
And finally, the priest in his white alb is there, then vanished into the reconciliation room. There is the slightest common movement in the whole line of penitents, a readying, burdens being shifted within, the easier to hand over.
The bride has gone, so your daughter now sits in the front pew, waiting, and you go sit with her. You wait without speaking. She tilts her face upwards to take in the whole of the enormous carved wooden corpus hanging above the altar, purple fabric hanging from the beams of the cross.
A door opens, a door shuts. Your son re appears and kneels in the pew behind you, for longer than you expect. You pray.
On a Saturday afternoon, in the shadow of a football stadium, steps from a mall, you can walk in here, and because it is this time and this place, you will know something of what you will find:sixty people or so moving quietly in and out of the light of a church.
They speak various languages, their skin is every shade, and their accents are like pins stuck in a map. They make vows, they ask forgiveness, they wait to receive Love that will strengthen them for one more week of life on earth. They prepare for life to begin, and they ready themselves for it to end.
Words lie flat on a page, but here bodies speak.
This is what Catholics do.
Under the shadow of a crucifix, this is who Catholics are.
Originally published in Our Sunday Visitor
Art from Hermanoleon ClipArt