Sunday, July 9, 2017

Mass In Horseheads: A Sunday Rumination

     Whenever I manage to attend Mass in a parish other than my own, I am reminded of the inner meaning of a phrase familiar to all Catholics: “The Universal Church.”

     It’s not happenstance that ours is called the Catholic Church. It has many rites; the last time I counted them, I came up with twenty-two, and I wasn’t certain I’d accounted for them all. Yet we share a single theology centered on the Gospels, and a central set of doctrines that descend from the Two Great Commandments and the Ten Commandments of the Book of Exodus. A Catholic from Minsk could walk into a parish church in Alaska and worship there without discomfort, just as I, a Long Islander, walked into Saint Mary Our Mother in Horseheads, NY this morning for the 8:30 AM Mass.

     Once back in my hotel room, I was moved to reflect on the immense comfort that flows from that universal brotherhood. It’s impossible to describe the assurance it provides of immediate and unquestioning welcome. Indeed, you needn’t be a Catholic, or a Catholic “in good standing;” you’ll face no interrogation at the door and will be welcome to the Eucharist according to the silent dictates of your individual conscience. Christ’s message of remission of sin and peace to all men of good will makes no exceptions.

     The design of the church and the songs sung during the liturgy might be unfamiliar. Surely the faces of the congregants will be unfamiliar. Perhaps the Eucharistic procession will look a trifle odd. The message of the Gospels remains the same: “Come unto me, all ye that labor, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and lowly of heart.”

     And it is so.

     Mass in Horseheads this morning featured a guest homilist: Father Gerald Aman, a missionary who has spent 32 years as a pastor and evangelist in Benin City, Nigeria. He spoke at length, and had the unfailing attention of the congregation throughout.

     Father Aman told of the enormous material challenges the Benini people face...and of the enormous wealth of spirit they bring to church. Like the poor woman who gave her last two coppers at the temple, they give unstintingly, expecting in return only the love of God and the fellowship of His people. Father Aman spoke of their unceasing jubilation, a spiritual joy that apparently never fails them...and who would need it more than the politically crushed, perpetually persecuted people of Christ in Nigeria?

     Did you know that in the early Seventies, the government of Nigeria seized all the Catholic schools in that country and proceeded to destroy them? I didn’t. Nor did I know that the only substantial education being offered to young Nigerians, then and now, was by Jesuit-operated schools. Apparently few Nigerian girls dare to attend the government’s schools; if they can’t get into a Jesuit school, most go without any education beyond what they might receive at their mothers’ knees. While the Church is struggling to rebuild Catholic education there, the threat of another government seizure is perpetual.

     Of course Father Aman pleaded with the Horseheads congregants for financial contributions. I was as generous as I dared to be, this far from home; I imagine that my fellow Catholics, as mindful of the Universal Church as I, did likewise.

     There are persons who call themselves “brights” and imagine themselves to be of superior intellect entirely because they disdain faith. I pity them. Not only is such arrogance unjustified; it also distances them from many who wish them well and deprives them of the brotherhood the people of Christ know wherever we may roam. I know full well that no one can impose faith on another person, yet I frequently wish there were some method by which the inner experiences of a sincere Christian – the “private knowledge” on which faith must rest – could be made manifest for the illumination of those who haven’t had them. It would heal so many of the world’s hurts. (It might even put paid to the atrocity that calls itself Islam.)

     Penn Jillette, an outspoken atheist, will say that he knows that there’s no God. How he can “know” that, I shan’t trouble to analyze. Yet listen to the following for a sense of how such “knowledge” might be ever-so-gently shaken:

     We the people of Christ have a job to do. It isn’t to preach on street corners. It isn’t (necessarily) to distribute Bibles. It certainly isn’t to drag non-Christians into our churches and compel them to endure our liturgy. It’s to be Christians in deed as well as in word: to present others with the very best we can be at all times, such that the unbeliever might wonder, privately, about the source of our joy and good fellowship...and whether he might just want it for himself.

     Like the Catholics of Saint Mary Our Mother parish in Horseheads, NY. Your Long Island brother thanks you for your welcome this fine Sunday morning.

     May God bless and keep you all.

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