Fact: 1251 words                                   

 

The Church I love: a welcoming place.

 

 

by Dermott J. Mullan, 404 Park Circle, Elkton MD 21921.  SSN 213-54-5179

 

 

I always felt welcome there. In the heat of summer, there would be a refreshing coolness inside. In the cold of winter, I would find warmth there. When I was a teenager, I liked to cycle for miles along the country roads near my home town in Ireland. On these outings, I would from time to time ride into a tiny village called Killyclogher, and enter the grounds of the Catholic Church. The building was surrounded by a high stone wall, and the heavy gravel would crunch under my feet as I wheeled my bicycle towards the front door. Leaving my bike leaning against the outside wall, I would push aside the heavy wooden door and step over the threshold into the dim interior.  Once my eyes became adjusted to the dimness, I could make out the well-worn wooden floor and pews. The Church was always clean and it had a characteristic odor of candle wax and old wood. The task of keeping the Church in good condition fell to certain ladies of the parish who somehow managed to do their work without ever being in the spotlight. They saw to it that the floors were swept, the furniture polished, the altar cloths clean, and the flowers fresh.

I would rarely, if ever, find any other visitor when I would arrive. But the flickering of the sanctuary lamp would let me know that the Master of the house was at home. I sensed that He was ready to make me feel at home for however long I wanted to “watch with Him”. I never got the impression that I was limited in either the duration of the visit or in the choice of topics for discussion. He allowed me to pick and choose whatever I wanted to mention. Some times, I might want to say a prayer about an upcoming examination. At other times, I might talk to Him about a particularly difficult homework problem that had been assigned by the math teacher in high school.  On one unforgettable occasion, the main theme was thanksgiving for finally letting me see a particular bird (the European kingfisher) that I had long been wanting to catch a glimpse of. Sometimes, I would have nothing in particular on my mind, and the visit would consist of nothing more than sitting in the pew and looking at the tabernacle.

Whatever the topic of prayer, or lack of it, I would eventually get up from the pew, genuflect to the Master of the house, and go outside to start the cycle back home. There would be no telling how much time might elapse before I would come back again to “watch with Him” in Killyclogher Church. It might be weeks, or it might be months. But somehow, that did not seem to be a problem. I never doubted but that I would be made to feel welcome whenever I would stop in again.

And the sense of welcome that I felt was not something that belonged only to Killyclogher Church. There were other villages where I would stop to take a breather as I cycled around the countryside. These villages, with names such as Beragh, Sixmilecross, Newtonstewart, are too small to be on most maps. But in each of these villages that most of the world has never heard of, there was always a place where I would feel at home. It was the Catholic Church. The door would always be unlocked, and the interior would be swept clean by the loving service of those unseen parishioners whose names now are known only to God. And if the Irish phrase “a hundred thousand welcomes” is applicable to anything in a literal sense, it applies to the feeling I would get as the door would swing on its creaking hinges, and admit me into the world of the Real Presence.

More than forty years have elapsed since my last visit to Killyclogher Church. But during those years, I have always felt a sense of welcoming no matter where I entered a Catholic Church.  When I was a teenager, I knew little about the scriptures, and nothing at all about the Epistle to the Hebrews. So I had never heard the phrase “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever" (Heb. 13, 8).  But over the years, by visiting Catholic Churches in a variety of places, I have learned the meaning of those words in practical terms. As a result, the welcome I receive when I enter a Church is the same whether I am in USA or Russia or Hong Kong, thousands of miles from Ireland. For me, the Catholic Church has always been a welcoming place.

One particular memory stands out: it occurred in a tiny village in France, not much bigger than Killyclogher. The village is off the beaten track, and is almost impossible to locate on a map. There, in the little Church, as I sat in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, I read about a certain parishioner who, over a hundred years ago, used to spend long hours before the very same tabernacle. The pastor asked that parishioner one day: “What do you do for such a long time?” To which the reply was “I look at the good God, and He looks at me”. The pastor (none other than the saintly Cure of Ars) was especially pleased with that answer: he liked to tell the story for years afterwards in hopes that others would also learn the value of making visits to the Blessed Sacrament. 

Where did my faith in Christ, especially my belief in His altogether unique presence in the tabernacle of a Catholic Church, come from?  The answer is not a mystery: it was passed on to me as a gift by my parents. They valued the Real Presence, and showed their appreciation by making quiet visits to the Church on top of the hill near our home. When my father was leaving for one of his evening visits, he had a characteristic phrase that he always used: “I’m going up the length of the Church to say a mouthful of prayers”. Where did my parents get such a faith? From their parents before them. The chain of faith in Ireland can be followed all the way back to the fifth century, back to that remarkable man St Patrick. He brought the faith to Ireland, and along with the faith, he brought the power to ordain priests. In the course of the past fifteen hundred years, thousands of Irish priests have ascended the steps of the altar, and spoken the words that every time bring Christ Himself down to earth again, just as St Patrick himself used to do. And when the Mass is over, the remaining hosts are placed in the tabernacle so that parishioners can come in at any time for a visit. I owe a debt of incalculable gratitude to Ireland’s patron saint for the gift of faith.

Because of that faith, I know that if I ever return to Killyclogher, and push open that old door once again, the Master of the house will still be there, as welcoming as He was more than forty years ago. Catholic Churches, with their flickering sanctuary lamps, are the most tangible sign I know that Jesus Christ is truly ”the same yesterday, today, and forever.”