When I first began attending mass as a non-Catholic eighteen months ago, I sat on the opposite side of the nave, halfway back on the Epistle side. In our church we call this St. Joseph’s aisle because a statue of the saint watches from the head of it. Back then we had a newly ordained assistant priest who was a native of The Congo. He had a thick accent that my aging ears had trouble translating. In a short series of daily jumps during my first week as a Catholic-in-training, I migrated from Epistle side to Gospel side, from St. Joseph’s aisle to St. Mary’s, and close enough to the front of the nave to be near the pulpit without being under it. Here, in the sixth pew from the front I could read Father Charles’s lips.
A year ago, after the required instruction, I was received into the Catholic Church. A month later Father Charles moved on to another parish. Fortunately, Father Barnes, our gifted pastor, remains behind. Although his homilies can be heard clearly in the rearmost pews, I stay here in my spot, in what I think of as Orchestra Left, Row 6, Seat 101. Like a lifelong opera buff determined to die during the climactic aria of Rigoletto, they will have to carry me out someday.
A friend recently asked me why I became a Catholic. A number of possible answers came to mind, but one answer jumped right out: The Catholics in the five pews in front of me.
Properly speaking, this was not one of my reasons for becoming a Catholic, but it helps explain why I remain one, and why I return to the same seat each morning. When you sit in the same spot every day, facing the altar, facing God, the people in front of you—whom you embrace with a single gaze as you look over them toward the celebrant—become dear to you. Together with them, sitting, standing, kneeling in praise of the Creator, I am a member of the Holy Catholic Church. Together, we are branches on one vine. Being alone in Church can be serene and comforting, but ultimately being alone in church is an incomplete experience of my humanity. The Catholics in front of me complete me as a Catholic.
Let me begin with Frank. At daily mass, I often arrive by 6:30, half an hour early, and Frank is the only person in front of me at this hour. Frank was baptized, confirmed, and married at St. Mary’s; Frank is 82; and unless the Apocalypse comes first, Frank’s funeral mass will be said here someday, and I will be here, God willing. When I arrive at 6:30 Frank is on his knees, and until three or four minutes before the mass, he stays on his knees. I seldom see him move, although I know from kneeling beside him on occasion that his lips move silently as he prays. Frank has an Italian surname, like many in our parish, which also features descendants of Irish immigrants. Frank pronounces his surname with gusto and relishes pronouncing the Italian words for virtues that his father once stressed, like pazienza, patience. I understand that Frank was a door-to-door salesman, who began with Electrolux; that he sold shoes and home improvement products later, neighborhood to neighborhood for some decades; that he studied all the sales masters, from Dale Carnegie to Og Mandino; that his wife does not come to daily mass with him because she is home caring for a disabled grandchild; that Frank helps out at home when he is not at mass.
Frank is our unofficial cantor for the communion song at daily mass, which he sings by referring to lyrics he has written out by hand and keeps tucked in his wallet, perhaps out of habit but more likely because, in his humility, Frank knows that he will forget someday. Each day he chooses one of two songs, just two. One begins: “I love you, Lord.” The other: “Oh, Lord, I am not worthy.” Some of us join in with him. At the end of mass, Frank often passes me on his way up the aisle, grinning his cockeyed, toothy grin and twinkling at me with more than a hint of shyness from behind thick glasses. He always has a positive word or phrase for me as he passes. Sometimes, he cocks his right fist, gives it an energetic pump, and says, “Go easy.” Frank is precious to me.
By the time mass begins, one or two other men are usually seated beside or just behind Frank. I understand that they sit there for the role Frank has played in their lives. Jonathan is a convert like me, and I imagine he shares my devotion to Frank. Bill is a cradle Catholic who fell away from the church and returned within the past decade. He has told me that Frank encouraged his return.
Jonathan has always intrigued me. About forty, single, living in an apartment just down the street from me, Jonathan is a slight, fit, angular man and very cerebral. Intelligence twitches behind wire-rimmed glasses. His lips are set in firm resolve beneath a neatly trimmed mustache. When I first saw Jonathan jogging on our street several years before I began attending mass, I noted that he was out in all weather, usually in a T-shirt and shorts despite snow or rain.
I understand that Jonathan works as a technician somewhere up on Route 495, Tech Alley, but that he prefers his extracurricular role as an independent scholar specializing in English writers of the Renaissance. About literature, religious or secular, I have seldom heard more informed commentaries, which Jonathan shares at our Saturday morning mens’ group.Jonathan usually slips into the pew behind Frank a minute or two before the mass begins. Although he has probably just completed a run in his underwear, he is never out of breath. All summer long Jonathan cares meticulously and pro bono for the rectory garden, along with Rose, who doesn’t sit in front of me but who is as precious to me as if she did. Rose and her sister, Anna, sit in the back pew.
Although Frank and Jonathan and Bill and Rose did not cause my conversion to Catholicism, I believe that they validate it. As do Barbara and Warren. Barbara has dramatic curvature of the spine and Warren has Down syndrome, and when they sit one behind the other at the right edge of my field of vision at early Sunday mass, Jesus smiles and so do I.
Barbara walks to church in all weathers, usually bearing a staff. Barbara’s staff is about five feet long, which makes it taller then Barbara. The staff is festooned with an American flag, many ribbons, and one of those whirly plastic fans on top that kids make spin by running around the backyard at cookouts on the Fourth of July. Barbara sets herself down with a bit of rustling, unbuttoning nonmatching head gear that seems different every day. Like a punk girl, she seems to use more silver hairclips than her quantity of hair requires. Then, like Frank, like Jonathan, like me, Barbara pulls down her kneeler, folds her bony hands, and says a few words to God.
Warren usually arrives Sunday mornings even before Frank, though only on Sundays. Warren is Asian, perhaps Korean, and about 30, maybe 40. I know nothing about Warren’s family, if he has any, although he lights one or more votive candles before the Blessed Mother each Sunday morning. Perhaps he is an orphan. Warren carries a comic-book version of the Bible, which I have only seen from a distance when he flashes it proudly at me from four pews ahead. He wraps his hands in his rosary beads when he prays. I doubt he knows how to say the rosary, as his verbal skills are limited, though his smile is not.
Like Frank and Barbara, Warren smiles a lot. But then that’s true of many of the Catholics in front of me. Henry and Phyllis smile a lot, as do Carrie and her husband, another Frank. (I personally refer to the two Franks as the Italian sausage and the Polish one.) Carol-Lynn smiles broadly when she turns to offer me the sign of peace from under her Paddington Bear hat. Elizabeth has a beautiful smile, as does her husband, Michael, who is studying for the permanent diaconate.
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Yesterday, a Saturday, I looked up after finishing my rosary at about ten minutes before the hour and was startled to see that the five pews in front of me were empty. Not even the Italian Frank was there; he was waiting in the sacristy as the lector for the day, while others usually populating my field of vision were either late or absent.
The church felt empty. The spark of life was missing. The altar candles were lit, the ribboned missal was open and in place: Yes, there would be a mass today. But for the next two or three minutes—or until Phyllis and Henry, Elizabeth and Michael, Barbara and others, and finally Jonathan dropped into place in front of me—I thought about silent meditation, about facing an object of worship alone.
When I was in college and turning away, pro forma, from everything about my upbringing, including Episcopal churchgoing, I became interested in meditation and eastern spiritual teachings. I read about zen and practiced some on my own. I studied yoga, using its asanas to stretch my body and calm my mind. I was introduced to the teachings of George Gurdjieff, which I continue to hold in high esteem. In many of these practices, silent, solo meditation has a central place.
For a number of years, without a church in my life, I practiced silent meditation at home, alone, squatted in my living room. Moving inward toward something realer whose full identity I seldom questioned adequately, I grew calmer, more collected, as the detritus of daily living fell temporarily away from me. Of course, no sooner did I rise from my squat than life began to stick to me again, like lint. Still, while I did not question it much, I think I believed that meditation alone, moving silently toward God—or at least toward a quality of myself that I recognized as more authentic—was enough.
Today, as a Catholic, I’m not sure that that is true.
In all my life, I have never belonged to a community outside my parents’ nuclear family or the one I have with my wife Katie where I have felt more welcome, more loved, more at home than I do in the Catholic Church, in my Catholic church, in my pew at morning mass. No class in school, no camp or club, no work environment has ever come close. Everywhere else there has always been another agenda; everywhere else motives can be secret and slippery; everywhere else there is fear, ambition, greed, backbiting, with of course some love and fellowship too.
But facing the altar with my morning group of friends, each as odd and broken as I am, I experience a wholeness and a broadened sense of myself that no lonely, silent meditation has ever provided. Both Franks and Jonathan and Barbara and Warren are all part of that. Without them, I could not be a Catholic.
In church, the Catholic church, we are all here for God, not to be seen by others as in upscale churches of my youth, but to be seen by Him. If we do not always see Him in return, then at least we speak to Him. We have this in common, my friends and I, and that makes them infinitely precious to me.
I will greet them warmly at my funeral.