Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Si yo no tengo amor...

The first lector, Doña N., made her entrance as the healing ministers were being seated. I was annoyed, having had to take time from my other tasks to prepare to substitute for her. I was set to say: “No, Doña N., not this time. You have forfeited your right to read today.” But Doña N. looks at me with her sorrowful eyes and says “I’m sorry, mi amor” and all resolve flies out the window. I quickly brief her on what the presider wants; she proceeds to do exactly the opposite.

In many parishes, Doña N. would no longer be reading, but I am patient. She is an elderly woman and she and her husband have both had major health problems. Because of the medical expenses, they had to sell their house near the church and now live in a small apartment much farther away. Despite being in her 70s, Doña N. has had to go back to work and she was working that day. She barely had time to go home, fix herself up, and get to Mass, but she came in looking like the reina that she is. Underneath the poverty, the aging body that betrays her, is a woman confidently claiming her essential dignity as a daughter of God, and she will not be denied.

When I got involved in Hispanic ministry in that parish, I vowed that we would be a community that always put love and compassion first. We took in people who had been turned away by other parishes and even allowed them to minister to the extent permitted by church law. This vision was not shared by other would be leaders and the hardness of their hearts finally drove me out along with many others. Maybe the liturgy wasn’t always pretty, it was almost never on time, but we would be a community where people felt welcomed, accepted, and at home – juntos en la casa de nuestro Padre común.

Whenever I have left a church, it has always been when form is prioritized over substance. I remember leaving Sacred Heart after a priest, who must have thought he was God’s gift to the Church, told a developmentally disabled man that he could no longer sing in our folk choir because he didn’t always start on cue with the rest of us. We had worked around M.’s disability, welcoming his presence and the obvious joy he felt at belonging and being able to serve God through his music. If M. could be accepted, we were all accepted. When M. was cast out in the name of liturgical perfection, the soul of the choir left with him and our music became a chore rather than a gift.

Later, at St. Joseph’s, I had a similar experience when our old priest left and was replaced by a new fellow who turned out to be very rigid. The children’s choir was singing that particular day. They are our pride and joy, those kids, and the couple who direct them have worked hard to get them to sing together, even in Latin, and to generally behave themselves.

This was not enough for Father H. Interrupting the Eucharistic prayer not once but twice, he reprimanded the children for not facing the altar. You could feel a glacial pall settle over the congregation. The choir director and her husband looked embarrassed, the kids ashamed and confused.

After Mass I could not contain my anger. I told Father H. that his actions were far more disruptive than anything the kids were doing and asked why he could not have waited and spoken to the director privately. He replied that the children were being “disrespectful” by facing their director rather than the altar. But these are “babies” – all of them in primary school. They haven’t read the bishops’ liturgical guidelines. For them, respect means not chewing gum, making faces or wriggling around too much. They had achieved that with their director’s coaching. Again, form had taken precedence over love and I had to move on.

People were shocked when the latest American Religious Identification Survey came out showing that the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christian had declined from 86.2% in 1990 to 76% in 2008 while those who claimed “no religion” nearly doubled from 8.2% to 15%. Catholics fared somewhat better only due to the extensive immigration of Hispanics from south of the border.

It’s not that people don’t believe in God. Almost 70% still profess a belief in a personal deity and most have been baptized and married in the church. But sometimes the way we are treated makes us feel unwelcome by the institution and so we stay home, read our Bibles and pray directly to God in the silence of our rooms, where we will not be judged and perhaps rejected by fellow believers and those we are supposed to call “Father”.

Home is where the heart is and when love is driven out by obsession with perfection rather than compassion and forgiveness, the Church is no longer home to us. We do not find God there.

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