Prepare the Way
Some of you I’m sure will have paid a visit to San Giovanni Rotunda. Its the monastery where Padre lived for most of his life. I was there once, not long after being ordained, and there’s an organ loft that you can visit where Pio would spend several hours in prayer each morning after Mass. His life was associated with great piety and also great suffering. One of his greatest crosses was the excitement that ensued whenever he would appear. When people saw him on the organ loft they would begin pointing towards him and shouting their requests. He seemingly had a temper and would become quite agitated. In annoyance he would point to the tabernacle and them withdraw from their sight. He hated attention being drawn to himself and saw his role to bring Jesus to people and to point people to Jesus. In a real way he was like John the Baptist who said of Christ ‘He must increase while I must decrease’. From the time John had baptized Jesus at the River Jordan and seen the Spirit descend on him, he consistently pointed people away from himself saying, he was not the light but Jesus was, and to follow him. John’s role was to prepare the way for Christ and in doing so he had a very special role in the history of salvation and so can each of us.
For a short time before entering seminary I spent some time living in Dublin. Like every eighteen year old I was searching and wondering what life was all about and for that reason alone, and not because I had to, I went to Church. There I mistakenly thought that I would find some answers or at least something that would point me in the right direction. For months I went to a huge church on the upper Drumcondra Road. For me coming from the little backwater of Cleariestown it just seemed huge and so it was. It probably could hold around 2000. I was very impressionable at that stage and anything that had witness value would have made a big difference. My experience both of there, and of Marino Church that I also went to occasionally, was of negative witness. Rather than being turned on I was put off, almost to the point losing my faith altogether. This was to such an extent that if I had not already made arrangements to enter Maynooth my church experience in Dublin would definitely have put me on a different path.
Looking back some of the things that really turned me off were the practice of having three collections during Mass. All I could think of was Jesus in anger coming into the Temple and upending the money changers tables and saying you have turned my Fathers House that should be a place of worship house into a den of thieves. While listening to homilies I was looking for some gem of wisdom that could make a difference in my life; but I have to say I never heard a one word that had any meaning. All I heard was pure liturgical noise and I used to wonder what is it that kept people coming back. If I went to a restaurant and the food was of the quality that I was getting, I sure as hell wouldn’t be returning.
Not once during that time was I anything but completely anonymous. Never did anyone either nod or smile or bid me the time of day. There was certainly no sense of welcome and it was perfectly obvious that everyone there was somehow inculturated into doing their own thing and saving their own soul. There was absolutely no sense of community or belonging. People were coming in as isolated individuals and going out even more isolated. Going into the Church there used to be a big holy water font and I used to think that this was where people washed the smile off their faces before going in because inside there was certainly no smiles or laughter and this religious stuff was very serious business.
So many years later I have no hesitation in saying that those churches and so many like them were not fulfilling their purpose. In terms of witness value they were an abysmal failure both from the point of view of clergy and people. There was absolutely nothing there that would encourage a young person to go back or to even consider a spiritual pathway for their life.
Now fast forward nearly fifty years to us here in Our Lady’s Island and lets reflect on our witness to the thousands who come here, each searching in their own way. If a stranger comes in that door and someone doesn’t greet them or smile or acknowledged them in some way or another I suggest we have failed in our role to be a Christian witness. If that person goes out that door and has only seen people in here intent on saying their own prayers and saving their own souls them we have entirely missed the point of what it means to be a Christian community.
When we come in here and without thinking sit as far apart from each other as we possibly can, that too is a witness statement that we are here to do our own thing and everyone else is to keep their distance. To a complete outsider it would appear, not that we love one another, as was the witness of the early Christian church, but that we are in fact allergic to each other.
When I first introduced the sign of peace in Kilmore Quay there was quite a bit of resistance. Some would make comments about passing on germs that were just excuses or you might hear a comment slip like, ‘what if I found myself beside someone I wasn’t talking to’? Then gradually we moved from there to the point where people held hands at the Our Father and that met with a lot more resistance. So many were not just comfortable with reaching out and when it was suggested you could feel the nervousness with people looking sideways at each other. So many of us are just not comfortable with touch so in effect we are not in touch with an essential part of our human nature so we can either get over ourselves or choose to die in our old set ways. It may well be that for the stranger sitting beside you, the only human contact or experience of human touch he or she will have experienced for months is your hand. Such is the level of isolation that is so common. So if you feel that your comfort zone is being challenged then why not listen to the challenge and rise to it.
One lady in Kilmore Quay liked to rise people by saying that holding hands is all very well but just wait until he gets us around to kissing. Well we never got that far but I’m told that when I left a priest used to say mass where there was a reversal back to the way things used to be without even the sign of peace. The people had got used to it and just automatically held hands at the Lords Prayer and he was left wondering what was going on. In the end of the day it’s the simple things that make up our witness value but for someone who is searching and on a journey as I was so many years ago the bit of human contact, the friendly smile and the warm handshake can make all the difference.