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Good Letters


Black and white film image of the interior of a large white-wooden walled church, with high vaulted ceilings and large windows at the top of the walls. There are three enormous white balloons floating near the ceiling. To the left of the room is a table set up with things on top of it (maybe food). Several people stand in the center, holding a large balloon, and helping set up. The left and right side of the image is a blank strip of light from the film being exposed to light.The parish party was a bust. As a member of the Parish Council, I had promised—yet not followed through—on calling the database of lapsed Catholics the Council had acquired by asking parishioners to fill out notecards during Sunday Mass, listing friends and family members who had fallen away.

Of the targeted invitees, the lapsed Catholics, only one showed up. And the Council attendees ambushed her, four of us at once, smiling so hard our faces hurt.

I needed the party to be a success—mainly because it was only when I arrived on scene that I saw how hard one councilmember had worked to make it happen.

Sure, a few of us brought cookies, but otherwise, she alone had called the database; she alone had brewed the coffee; she alone had bedecked the folding tables with festive runners and golden coins filled with chocolate; she alone had been there since three decorating and putting out coloring pages and crayons for the children.

The initiative was her brainchild, since she herself, once lapsed, has only been back in church a few years. She is on fire, so excited to be Catholic again, which is a beautiful thing to behold, the energy she conjures for things about which the rest of us have lost hope.

When she asked if I could make some phone calls, the most vital thing happening in my brain was excuses. My house is too loud for phone calls. My availability is only during the daytime when most people are at work. Yada yada, busy, busy, plus I hadn’t planned to attend the party until I did a little survey of people I knew who’d loosely committed, and discovered none of them were planning to go.

Then I went into disaster prevention mode, and gathered up the most enthusiastic partiers I know, my offspring, and we presented ourselves at church, not lapsed, but hungry for cookies and ready to suffer Sunday evening in the parish basement for the good of one soul, who at this point was the one who planned the party. Maybe we could yet prevent her from becoming jaded like the rest of us.

I’ve seen the scenario so many times, the unrelenting effort for a community that has communicated again and again that…well…Jesus is all right, but church parties are just not very fun. Take the poorly attended coffee and donuts effort, the awkward standing around with powdered sugar on your chin, the kids stealing away to cut back in line and embarrass you with their greed. There’s bad breath, spilled juice, and the regrettably shallow nature of most conversation.

And we are supposed to call and invite people with reasonable disaffections to this party? Even the ones who are still showing up see little reason to celebrate outside of Mass.

Our priest arrived once his meeting concluded, and I don’t want to paint him as the white knight who saved the day, but he’s a very prudent man. He quickly assessed the state of things, and called for everyone’s attention.

“I hope not to pick on our visitor too much, but I do want to welcome you, and thank you for your willingness to enter into what may be an uncomfortable situation for you.… Perhaps we could sit down together, and all of us tell…what you love about being Catholic.”

Maybe it was the first subject that came to his mind. It’s such a basic question. An eye-rolling question even, if we were to approach it with a triumphalist mentality, attempting to sell our faith to a skeptical visitor. Maybe it was an opportunity to redirect our attention away from our failure towards something that surely some of us still believe has transcendent effect. Why are any of you people here?

All of the adults sat down at a table, and we began to go around the circle. Here began a series of self-exposures. We highlighted pivotal points in our lives and gave them meaning. Several people spoke of coming to a fuller understanding of the Eucharist, that as the Church teaches, is the body and blood of Jesus, not just a symbol.

One woman said that even though she doesn’t receive the Eucharist, because she’s been divorced and remarried, it’s enough for her just to be in the presence of it, and I thought she showed tremendous faith—like the hemorrhaging woman reaching out to touch the hem of Jesus’s cloak.

I told the story I always tell, about the boyfriend I had before I met my husband who asked if I could just be “Catholic-lite”— an insulting request, like being told to go on a diet—and compromise the cosmic blueprint of my soul.

None of our stories were quite alike, and yet all had similarities.

All of us there had to unfold the unique patterns around our childhood faith that had kept us safe and helped us understand the world. And when the dynamics protecting our worldview were crucified, we relearned our faith anew, making it our own.

It is rare that we have the opportunity to relay the particular ways grace has penetrated our lives, to look again at the moment we stopped talking about our faith in quotation marks, the moment when the seamless garment began to fit.

And herein was the redemption of the party, the opportunity to contemplate the perennial question: What do you believe and why do you believe it?

Which is also to say: How did you arrive at your crucifixion?

The Church sees fit to commemorate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus every day of the year, including Good Friday when we don’t celebrate the liturgy of the Eucharist, but still walk the Way of the Cross.

It seems appropriate then, to every now and then, reflect on our own commissioning. It’s just so easy, when you show up again to an empty basement, to forget why you’ve come.

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