On Sunday morning, I forced my family to church. To the early service. At the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
A 1/2 mile brisk walk ensued, with a bit of running–up hill–and across a highway–in order to arrive in time.
We’re not Catholic. We’re not even Christian. We don’t subscribe to any faith. But I was born on what is recognized as the Immaculate Conception–of Mary–and I have a fondness for a tradition that keeps Her alive–even if she is hiding behind the role of Virgin and Mother (until it is time for her to express Herself fully again.)
We arrived with two minutes to spare, but lost a minute to the challenge of three sets of cathedral doors. Despite our disagreement, I entered at the one with the ribbon around it and came to find that this was–Porta Sanca–holy door–meant to symbolize a threshold of transformation. I quickened. I even used the Holy Water. (Don’t worry. My Irish grandmother baptized me in the carriage.)
The space was stunning. A vaulted ceiling. A rose embrace. A womb like comfort. The language maddening. Father. Son. God. He. His. He. His. He. His.
I was surprised to see an altar boy. I hadn’t seen one in years, not at any of the weddings or funeral masses I’d attended. He was accompanied (protected) by a middle-aged altar woman? (This only served to madden me further.)
Before the Cantor sang the Entrance Antiphon, she welcomed us: “Good Morning.”
The room remained silent.
Next the priest spoke, and he welcomed the congregation too: “Good Morning.”
“Good Morning,” the congregation awakened in response.
(All the men looking down on us, in each of the stained glass windows, nodded their approval.)
As the service got underway, I sketched a family who arrived in a pew ahead of us. The young boys were neatly dressed with clean shaven heads and perfect stillness. The mother was in a dress. I watched as she settled. Removed her coat. Pulled her youngest closer. Kissed him on the head, again and again.
I noticed how her oldest moved closer too, imbued with his mother’s warmth, smiling.
The father sat apart, deeply immersed in attention.
The priest asked us to pray for vocations, particularly “to help others hear God’s call to serve.” At first I nodded my consent, but then I changed my mind, decidedly against men hearing the call to become priests; so that the church might be forced to solve its challenge–with awakening.
“By letting priests marry,” my husband whispered.
“By letting women become priests!” I said. (The vocation would be flooded!)
I looked around the church, and took in the diversity that a city lends. Black. Asian. White. Families. Elders. Young people.
The Cantor continued the prayer requests. This time for the campaign season.
My ears perked. We had come to Albany for this very reason. To rally and march on behalf of Bernie.
“For true servants,” she said. “Those who carry out their leadership with integrity and honesty. Lord hear our prayer.”
(My husband and I smiled and nodded. “Bernie,” we whispered.)
Even better than the prayer request was the Homily. I did my best to scribble down as much as I could, filling each side of the service program…
“I grew up in neighborhood with diversity,” the priest said,”You were either Irish, Italian or American.”
He looked to the congregation in front of him–We are also diverse, he said, made of up of native born and immigrants… white, black, brown and every shade in between…with roots as far away as the Philippines, Myanmar, Central and South America…”
Some of us have more than enough, he said. Others work 2 or 3 jobs just to put food on the table.
Some of us are young, he said. They forward to what will be. Others of us are old. They look back to what was.
We must seek communion even in these differences, the priest told his congregation. God calls us to serve all our neighbors. And when we can’t compromise without destroying our core beliefs, we must still look for ways to live with one another, and respect each other, even when joining together isn’t possible.
He offered a personal example. A surprising one. A shocking one.
Take abortion, he said. Obviously, I am against this, as is the teaching of the Church; but in my time as a priest, I have sat beside many a woman (and some men) who have had to face the agony of this choice, so I can appreciate their struggle, even while not agreeing with it.
We are called to listen to others, he said. Not as if we’re looking at them through a window, but knowing them as they see themselves.
If I can empathize, the priest said, even when I feel so strongly, think how much God can feel. For this reason, we can leave judgement to him because he can mix it with mercy in a way that is impossible for us.
I smiled, and carefully wrote down the words:
I hear the Pope.
I hear Jesus.
I feel the grace I felt at church as a child.
“Listen to him,” he said. “And by extension, listen to one another.”