The One Thing that Matters in a Changing Church

ID-100158195A dear friend, who recently converted to Catholicism, told this story about a recent experience at church:

This past Easter I was given a Rosary from a friend in commemoration of my having completed the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process and entered the Catholic Church. Ours is a fairly large church for a rural area: about 1,200 families from several counties in north Texas and southern Oklahoma. We serve a large area partly because we are a place where Hispanic families can worship in their own language, at least at some of the Masses. Most likely, a majority of our members are from Mexico and Central America, and our priest, an Anglo, is totally bilingual.

There are Masses every day (normally eleven during a week), but the most participation comes on Sundays, when we celebrate two Masses in English and a third, at noon, in Spanish. There are usually six hundred or more worshippers at this noon service. I participate in several Masses during the week, and on Sunday I have fallen into the habit of attending the Spanish Mass. My Spanish is generally sufficient to know what’s happening, and each week I am able to participate on a deeper level as I tune in to more of what’s going on around me. What attracts me to this particular Mass is the opportunity to celebrate with such an incredibly holy group of people. Here, religious expression comes from the heart. It’s crowded; there are lots of noisy kids and babies; great music and inspired singing; and an enormous amount of love in the church at this Mass. The others are fine too, but this one is my favorite.

One recent Sunday I was sitting on the third row … my usual place … near the center isle; the rest of the pew was filled with a couple of families. To my immediate left was a mother holding her new baby daughter of about five months, her husband, their older son, who was around four, and another woman who could have been mom’s sister or sister-in-law. We were waiting for the Mass to begin, and the baby was a little fidgety. So I pulled my Rosary out of my pocket and gave it to the baby. She immediately began to play with it and settled down, and that was that. In a few minutes I glanced over; baby still had the Rosary, and mom was rubbing the crucifix between her thumb and forefinger, her eyes were closed, and her lips were moving slightly. I thought, “Well, I guess I’ll be needing a new Rosary. That one looks taken.”

But that was not the end of it. In a few more minutes, the little boy wandered into the situation and decided to assert the Rights of Big Brothers: He wanted the Rosary for himself. Mom accommodated him and gave him the Rosary; he immediately took it to dad. Dad very gently took it from the boy and put it around the child’s neck. Dad held the medallion … of the Blessed Mother Mary, I believe … for the boy while the boy kissed it, very gently, as dad was urging him to do. Then the boy gently kissed the cross, still guided by papa. With the Rosary still hanging around his son’s neck, the father took the crucifix in his fingers, brought it to his lips, and equally gently kissed it himself, under the close observance of the boy.

I believe this is called “religious instruction.” I don’t know the term to apply to the fact that a tear was rolling down my cheek. Then we celebrated Mass, after which the family thanked me for the gift and we were done.

There is a great deal being written about the state of the church, its shifting demographics and the decline of its influence. I understand those concerns. I’ve written about them. There are good reasons for thinking critically about the state of the church and why we are where we are.

But the church and its wellbeing ultimately rests on the way in which we respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit, whatever the demographics of the church might be.

Mourning the loss of the church we knew blinds us to the gifts God gives us in the church that is. Our ability to recognize the Spirit’s work, our willingness to give ourselves to that transforming influence, is ultimately what matters.

Books and articles will continue to figure prominently in our conversations about the church. But ultimately the church’s future will take shape in the pews among family members and friends who recognize God’s presence in their devotion and in their care for one another.

My friend understands this.

At the end of his message, he observed, “Oh, by the way, the replacement Rosary I bought is very colorful. Got to think of the next kid down the line!”

 

Image by Franky 242, used with permission from freedigitalphotos.net

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