This started to be a story about attending my 45th high school reunion last Sunday. But it’s really more a story about the ways a good mother loves—which is to say, it’s a story about God.
The first mother in this story is my alma mater, my soul-mother, Immaculate Heart High School. I’ve written before about the debts I owe the Women of Great Heart I encountered there—the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart who taught me and inspired me and called me out on my idolatrous preference for applying Nefertiti eyeliner over studying algebra, and my Panda sisters who are more dear to me now than they ever were back in 9-S-3 or even when we graduated under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl in 1968. But I haven’t attended a reunion since the late 1970s, when I briefly taught (yes!) Liberation Theology and worked in PR there.
Since my reversion to Catholicism in 2010, I’ve had mixed feelings about my time at IH. The sisters were (and are, God bless them, the few who are still with us) the original rebel nuns, and though I believe their witness was and continues to be profoundly faithful, and their actions prophetic in those days, I have been guilty of taking my share of potshots at the Nuns on the Bus and the extremes to which some members of some US congregations have carried that anti-authoritarian tradition. I loved the joyful campus celebrations of Mary’s Day and the liberating liturgies of the 1960s—our class, after all made the transition from First Friday Masses in the baroque Spanish convent chapel, where we sang “Immaculate Mary” while veiled in white lace mantillas, to the folk Masses in the auditorium draped with tie-dye banners, where we sang the Missa Bossa Nova to bongos and guitars while wearing flowers in our hair. But I’ve become something of a liturgical snob in my old age, and I wasn’t sure I could go back to my soul-mother without a patronizing smirk.
And I was tested. The auditorium was draped with tie-dye banners for Sunday morning’s reunion Mass. No guitars or bongos, but we sang “All Are Welcome” and the other Haugen-Haas flavors that make my blog neighbors’ ears bleed. The liturgy was reverent and faithful, but the celebrant’s spontaneity and his invitation to all the hundreds of alums present to search their hearts for reasons to come to Communion rather than reasons to abstain from it would certainly have made Fr Z go all Tasmanian Devil on us.
That celebrant, though, by God’s grace, was Father Gregory Boyle, SJ—known worldwide as “G” or “G-Dog,” founder of the Homeboy Industries ministries to and with L.A.’s gang kids, but last Sunday morning the proud son of an IH alum celebrating her 70th reunion, and the proud brother of 3 Pandas and uncle to more. His homily, full of the powerful humor and truth that marks his life and witness, took off from Jesus’ words in the Gospel reading: “Let not your hearts be troubled.” He emphasized the verb “let,” reminding us that every one of us has the ability to cooperate with grace. We, not events, determine our approach to life. We can see the glass half full or half empty, he said—and by our choice commit ourselves to the fullness of joy or settle for entrapment in emptiness. And our choices affect not only ourselves, but those to whom we are sent. “You are the shape of God’s heart,” he repeated.
Imagine A Mom . . .
Fr Greg illustrated his homily with a few stories of life with the homeboys and homegirls, but one in particular brought us all to tears. He spoke of visiting a youth detention camp (he is chaplain to the LA juvenile justice system) to celebrate a young teen’s First Communion. As is his custom, Fr Greg said, he met with the boy for a few minutes before Mass, to ask him about his life and to hear his confession.
“Do you have much of a relationship with your father?” he asked the boy. Stoically, the boy said his dad wasn’t in his life much; absent from the home most of the time, abusive when he was there. “Did he hit you?” Fr Greg asked. The boy was quiet for a minute, then said, “There was this one time when I was in third grade. I got in trouble at school and they sent me home in the middle of the day. My dad was home, one of the few times I can remember. He saw me and said, ‘What did you do?’ I said, ‘If I tell you, will you promise not to hit me?’ He said OK. So I told him . . .” At that point, the boy burst into racking sobs. When he could finally speak again, he whispered, “He beat me with a pipe.”
After a moment, Fr Greg asked, “What about your mother?” The boy swallowed, and pointed down the hallway to where a woman was standing, waiting for the Mass to begin. “That’s my mom,” the boy said. “She’s unbelievable. She comes to see me every single Sunday. She never forgets. And . . .” he started to tear up again, “do you know how many buses she has to take to get here?” More sobs. “SEVEN! Can you imagine that? My mom takes seven buses to come see my sorry ass!”
“I will tell you what I told him,” Fr Greg said to us on Sunday morning. “That’s the kind of God we have, a God who will take seven buses to bring his love to you wherever you are.”
The Church, Our Mother
One of my alum friends, a woman who suffered badly from lack of pastoral compassion and support when she was a young single mother who left an abusive marriage, said to me after Mass on Sunday, “If the Church were what Fr Greg believes it to be, I would be Catholic again in a minute.” It’s hard to explain, to her and to so many others, that the Church is that Church, a mother who will take seven buses to bring us love and reconciliation, an alma mater where all are welcome. It’s hard because we ourselves, the ones who consider ourselves the faithful Catholics, don’t always believe that, or act like it’s true. I, with my snark and my sneering and my rigidity and my purism, have been sinfully part of that mischaracterization of my Mother.
We act—I act—as though the Church is only for those whose hands are washed, who wear the right vestments, who never question or stand up to or run away or sass back, who sing only in Latin, who would never ever ever experience disordered desires for the wrong person/gender/entertainment/food/lifestyle/political position, who would stand up and walk out rather than hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer, who could not imagine longing so deeply for Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist that they might risk approaching the Table in less than a state of grace.
Fortunately, there are people like Fr Greg and like Pope Francis who are better at being the shape of God’s heart than I am. Francis, a man who knows what it means to take the bus to bring God’s love, talked yesterday about the kind of Mother the Church is and should be:
I remember when as a child one would hear in Catholic families, in my family, ‘No, we cannot go to their house, because they are not married in the Church, eh!’. It was as an exclusion. No, you could not go! Neither could we go to [the houses of] socialists or atheists. Now, thank God, people do not says such things, right? [Such an attitude] was a defense of the faith, but it was one of walls: the LORD made bridges. Christians who are afraid to build bridges and prefer to build walls are Christians who are not sure of their faith, not sure of Jesus Christ. . . . When the Church loses this apostolic courage, she becomes a stalled Church, a tidy Church a nice, a Church that is nice to look at, but that is without fertility, because she has lost the courage to go to the outskirts, where there are many people who are victims of idolatry, worldliness of weak thought, [of] so many things. Let us today ask St Paul to give us this apostolic courage, this spiritual fervor, so that we might be confident. ‘But Father,’ [you might say], ‘we might make mistakes . . .’ ‘[Well, what of it,’ I might respond], ‘Get on with you: if you make a mistake, you get up and go forward: that is the way. Those who do not walk in order not to err, make a the more serious mistake. (Homily at the morning Mass at the Casa Santa Marta, May 8, 2013; unofficial transcript from Vatican Radio)
This Mother’s Day week, I am praying for my alma mater, for my Mother the Church, for the boy whose mother rides seven buses. I am asking the God who loves like that mother to wipe the sneer from my face and the snark from my voice, and help me build bridges, not walls.
If we have the courage, as Church, to build the bridges and meet the world more than halfway across them, we can be sure of one thing: we will be surprised. As surprised as I was Sunday morning, when Fr Greg led our tie-dyed congregation in a rousing chorus (and a couple of encores) of our closing hymn . . . “Immaculate Mary.”
Recommended: Fr Gregory Boyle’s book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion is great spiritual reading.