A cold and wet rain has fallen on Kansas City for two days. I sit outside my usual go-to church for confession and read that the pastor has just had a kidney transplant, please pray for him.
I consider going home. After all, I tried, it’s cold and rainy and I’m tired. Moreover, I had just read another article highlighting the scandal in the church, and I’ve been bogged down with it all day.
I get stuck in traffic on the way to another church, backtracking in the direction I just came from. Google has led me to make two left turns with no lights at busy intersections. I swear profusely at the software.
I finally, make it to the church. Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The cold rain keeps falling as I enter.
It’s a beautiful, well-lit, well-maintained, and mostly empty cavernous Gothic church. I scan the confessionals. No lights or lines. I kneel again and look at the crucifix near the altar.
I’ve prayed here during some very desperate moments in my life, for myself or ones I love. But tonight I feel all prayed out. Tired. What more do I have to say to God? I’ve been sighing into the void all day. My prayer feels like mud.
There’s no priest present. It is 10 minutes after confessions were supposed to begin. I sigh deeply and think again, “I’ve tried.”
A young man in an alb approaches the altar from the sacristy. Then quickly disappears again.
I look up to heaven and say, “Mary, if you want me to go to confession, get a priest in here.”
I decide it’s time to leave. As I rise, the young man returns, and enters a side confessional. A small red light clicks on, and a line of three people forms. I’m at the end.
I enter the little confessional box for the umpteenth time. Same box, same sins. A wave of futility washes over me as I close the curtain. I kneel and confess.
A tender voice gives me advice, encouragement, and absolution. I leave with a clearer head and a more grateful heart.
Fast forward to Friday afternoon. In a chapel an elderly woman prays the rosary, staring with love at the exposed host. Behind her, a man holds his head in his hands. A deacon enters and incense slowly rises. The four of us pray the benediction together. After the smoke clears, we go our separate ways.
A couple weeks later, three sacristans coach me through a last minute communion service I’ve only led in prison ministry. A Cathedral chapel feels a bit like the big time compared to minimum security prison. I flub a few lines but otherwise it goes well. I’m so nervous my hands are sweating, and I see small bright drops as I take the host into my hands.
“Behold the Lamb of God. Behold Him who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to the Supper of the Lamb.”
“Lord I am really not worthy. Please don’t ask anything else of me.” I think to myself.
A day later a woman shakes my hand. “Thank you for leading that communion service.”
Every day in a thousand different ways, far from headlines or virtual spaces, miles beneath the movements of power and prestige, the poor in spirit gather in churches and chapels.
They gather in the ruins of a church beset by scandal, yet beyond the virtual spaces where battle lines are drawn and ideological insults are hurled, they gather, they pray, they exchange signs of peace and warm smiles. They don’t talk about the scandal, but they wear it on their faces.
Most of all, they come with a deep hunger. A hunger to be seen and heard by God and by each other, to look deeply at Christ and let Christ look deeply at them.
I don’t expect the scandal to be solved any time soon. I don’t expect us to fix some of our institutional deficiencies overnight, and I certainly don’t expect people to return to church in the record numbers that they are leaving.
But I do expect small gatherings like these to continue, for love to remain in the ruins. Whether we are the remnants of a dying sect or the seeds of renewal, I don’t know. That isn’t up to me.
I just show up, and so do they.
And so does God.