Newly minted NYPD partners knelt beside a heart attack victim on a Manhattan street. Gripped by the pain, the elderly man begged for the Last Rites. The rookie of the pair sprinted two blocks, rapped on the rectory door, told the tale. The priest was curt.
“Not my parish.”
“He is dying…”
The door slammed shut. Bent on doing the right thing, a Catholic himself, the young cop ran blocks more to the next parish where the curate responded immediately.
It was an instance where the clergy failed, and it is also an example of one of the many times where the reality of Catholicism, the strength of the practice and the faith, did not rest in consecrated hands. Instead, the courage, compassion, and strength was found in the hearts and hands of the laity, in living the faith they believed. It was in the sense of respect for one another’s faith and in the determination to provide comfort and caring.
Catholicism has its rich tradition of centralized structure and layers of clerical status, characteristics of many institutional structures. But it is not all about that. Catholicism in its truest form belongs to the people who live it as best they can on a daily basis. It belongs to the old ladies who go to Mass every morning, to the mothers who pray with their children before bedtime, to the middle aged parents struggling over educational costs and planning career moves, to the elderly who volunteer at food pantries, to young parents peering into a nursery, and to everyone who is struggling to do the right thing. Because in so many ways, Catholicism is really about community: creating and re-creating it with one another in a myriad of different ways in a multitude of unique contexts.
There is a small parish, upstate, threatened with full closure by the Archdiocese of NY, that has visibly renewed its life through the commitment and strength of ordinary people. They revived organizations, addressed community needs, shared a terrible time and stood up firmly for what they believed in. They have weekend Masses now and are a mission church, part of a larger parish, but still intact. Like the determined rookie cop, ordinary people made it happen. So while the visible face of Catholicism is often the clergy, the reality is that Catholicism is alive in the hearts and hands of ordinary people who find a home and in some way fashion that home for one another.