Sometimes, I think of Catholics as a billion introverts. We Catholics are not known for proselytizing on street corners.We don’t tend to feature stereo speakers or percussion sections at our Masses. In general, our church bulletins are modest affairs featuring outdated fonts. Many practicing Catholics have rich interior lives but are tight-lipped about their beliefs. We tend to follow advice widely attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” So I was stunned to drive past an LED sign advertising Eucharistic Adoration at Saint Thomas the Apostle Church in Old Bridge, New Jersey. My first thought? Whoa. That’s in really poor taste.
Every Wednesday morning for months now I’ve been driving past this sign on my commute to my college teaching job, wondering what in heavens the parish leaders were thinking when they dreamed up this monstrosity. But through the long winter, my thoughts started to change about the sign. Truth, after all, should triumph over taste.
In the first place, this programmable, flashing sign doesn’t exactly sit in a garden spot in the Garden State. It’s on the southbound side of Route 18, a state highway that begins near Exit 9 of the New Jersey Turnpike and widens to as many as eight lanes. As it runs through East Brunswick and Old Bridge townships, the highway is a tax collector’s dream. It is packed with what New Jerseyans call “ratables,” retail properties that add lots of bucks to municipalities’ tax coffers. Starbucks. Kmart. Macy’s. Wendy’s. Sports Authority. AC Moore. It was here on Route 18, in fact, the other day, where I found Christ in the shoe department at Kohl’s. This sign lives amid the necessary detritus of consumerism: fluorescent flags fluttering along the edges of a used car lot; a man dressed in a minty green foam Statue of Liberty costume outside an insurance agency; and massive, brightly colored inner tubes in front of a pool supplies store.
Secondly, I mused, the sign is advertising worship. Which matters more, a new Weber grill or worshiping God? We accept that retailers hawk their wares with colorful signs. Why can’t a church let people know it’s offering an opportunity for Eucharistic Adoration, a chance to pray in the presence of our very Lord?
I gave a call to Michael Luczkow, the business manager at St. Thomas the Apostle. The parish has 4,000 registered families, making it the biggest church in the Diocese of Metuchen. After talking to him, I felt more kindly about the sign.
Mr. Luczkow, baptized at St. Thomas a half-century ago, said parents with St. Thomas School’s Home-School Association had lobbied for the sign. The H.S.A. is primarily a fundraising organization. The parents felt thousands of cars were streaming past the parish and its elementary school daily without even knowing they were there. In the end, the parish and the Home-School Association split the cost for the sign, which, in addition to Wednesday’s Eucharistic Adoration, also advertises Mass times, school fundraisers, registration deadlines and so forth. On Monday and Tuesday this week, the sign proclaimed: “He is Risen.” Installed three months ago, the sign was instrumental in the school hosting its most successful crafts fair fundraiser ever, Mr. Luczkow said. Next Wednesday on my way to work, I will pray for this vibrant parish and the more than 400 students at St. Thomas School as I drive past their sign.