By Arthur McCaffrey
It has been a long, hard slog for Boston-area Catholics fighting for a cause thse past seven years. Long before there was Occupy Wall St. and Occupy Boston, hundreds of us occupied local parish churches in 2004 to stop the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston from closing and selling them to pay their huge bill for abuse settlement costs. Seven years later, that occupation movement continues in several hold-out parishes with appeals pending at the Vatican.
But recently at my own protesting parish-in-vigil, St James the Great in Wellesley, I experienced a small miracle that made all our struggles seem worthwhile. A stranger walked into our lives like he was reappearing out of the mists of Brigadoon after a long absence. Arriving for our regular Sunday morning service, I parked beside the PortaPotty gracing our church lot ever since Archdioceses shut off our heat and water. An elderly gent approached me, his somewhat shopworn appearance contrasting curiously with the shiny new pickup he just stepped out of. He was looking for a church to attend Mass: driving by our perpetual "2300+ days in vigil" sign on Route 9, he wondered if he could he find it there with us.
I invited Jim to join us. He was a little hesitant and apologetic, and whispered that he had not been to church for 50 years, and that he couldn't take communion because he was divorced. I assured him that we would certainly not deny him communion, that we welcomed everyone, and warmly urged him to come in. He choked up a little revealing that his wife had died recently. That challenged me, and, as I ushered him into our heatless church, I had the unexpected feeling that it was me being put to the test not him, that I was playing an unplanned role in something pre-determined. My Sunday mornings were usually more predictable than this.
All the other parishioners gave Jim a warm welcome as I shepherded him into our small heated sacristy (subbing for our big, beautiful, but cold nave). We stood together for the opening hymn, which I sang extra loud to help Jim join in. Susan, our presider, wrote his deceased wife's name into the program so that, when we came to the Prayers of Remembrance, the man who had not been to church for 50 years could hear his wife's name remembered in our prayers.
When we got to the Liturgy of the Word, the words just leaped off the missalette at me, as the Book of Proverbs extolled the virtues of a good wife: "When one finds a worthy wife, her value is beyond pearls. Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize." The widower beside me seemed to be sniffling a little, while my feeling of strange coincidences grew stronger.
When we gathered around the altar for the Communion service we all joined hands for the "Our Father,'' Jim's warm ones in my cold ones. Everyone shared the kiss of peace with him. When Carol the Eucharistic minister distributed the communion hosts, Jim followed my example and held the wafer in his hand until the prayers were completed, then received the Body of Christ for the first time in many a year. I shared the hymnal with him again for our Recessional "Be not Afraid", then invited him downstairs for coffee. But Jim looked like he did not want to linger and shyly made his excuses. I walked him out, we shook hands, I thanked him for coming, and hoped he would come back.
As Jim drove off, he may have been thinking that we had just done him a favor; but I was struck by the lesson the stranger had just taught us. After seven years of soul searching, it all comes down to the present. It's about being there for someone, anyone. Just being there. Whether you are huddling in a leaky tent in Dewey Square, or kneeling in a frigid church in Wellesley it's about being a visible witness to truth and principle, to faith and belief.
Just being there for Jim for 45 meaningful minutes made our long vigil worthwhile. I don't think Jim was disappointed. I hope we made his day. I know he made mine.
Arthur McCaffrey is a member of the parish community of St James, Wellesley,