According to the liturgical calendar for Christians, we have just entered the Easter season, and will soon move into what is known in Church teachings as “Ordinary Time.” Between Advent and Easter the days are grouped within cycles which determine feast days, celebrations of saints and which portions of scripture are to be read. Our days are filled with decorating the churches to signify the emphasis of the season and what themes are used for preaching, traditions and holidays, all of which can be found in a book called a Lectionary.
I was mad at the institutional Catholic Church for quite a while, the reasons for which are not important now. My anger never lessened my belief in God, but it did cause me to look at organized religion with a more cynical eye. I began to look around at other religions, and wondered if they ever felt the same thing I was feeling.
Having been on the other side of the altar, that of both servant and leader gave me an insider’s look of what the cleric and religious deal with. I learned quickly that they are just like us lay folk; they get frustrated and angry with God, they question his motives and cry at his injustices. But for the most part, faith is never shaken or weakened, and each day is celebrated for its uniqueness.
In my old position as a pastoral business manager, I managed four Catholic Churches. All but one has been physically closed, the congregation moving to assemble in one church located within the heart of the city. With each closure, our tears flowed as our hearts broke deeper and deeper. For years I attended another denomination, determined to find another way to remove myself from the pain of dissolution and disillusion.
I immediately felt accepted by my new church family, but still struggled with the idea of belonging. A reverent and gracious group, their invitations were sincere and their acknowledgment of inclusion was heartfelt. I felt their love and hope they felt mine. But it didn’t matter – my head understood, but my heart still had to catch up.
It never really did. With each passing year of celebrations of Christmas, Easter and everything in between, I still felt the sadness of the loss of my home church, until finally realizing what had been gnawing at my gut every time I closed my eyes to pray.
An invitation to attend the reopening of my home church was received with both delight and sadness. The old brick building, lined with stained glass windows and marble altars, had been renovated to allow for handicap accessibility, newer bright lighting and wider pews. The new church encompassed the other churches, enveloping it and its congregations in a warm embrace. It was a reminder of the change, for of the church and of myself. I was reminded again that I was older, both emotionally and physically.
As I entered the home church earlier than the rest, I sat in the pew where I used to sit with my family. I felt a calmness long forgotten, as the memories of old hymns and celebrations washed over me. My history played in my mind, like an old movie from other time. I was at peace.
Parishioners began milling in, one by one and taking their own designated favorite seats. Choir members gathered in the area preparing to sing as the piano began to softly play the introduction to their first song of praise.
I glanced around and was surprised to see how some of them had grown! How others had aged and some had no doubt quietly passed away. My eyes began to tear up as my head, the reason why it was so hard for me to let go and let God, finally recognized the truth in my heart.
It was the people. I missed the people. Those whom I had served and those who had ministered to me were there. It was as if they were waiting for me to return, as if I had never left.
Buildings and traditions, calendars and holidays do not make a church.
The people do.