Coming out of Mass one Sunday, I overheard a woman near me complain to her friend about the attire of some college-aged girls who had been in church with us. I cringed for those girls who had no idea that someone was talking negatively about them. Gossip and detraction are not from God. How sad that this woman had just emerged from the place where heaven meets earth—the Holy Eucharist—and rather than praising God, she was judging the people in the pews.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time I have witnessed such a display: not only about the clothes people wear, but also about the way they pray, the way they sing, the way they parent their children, and more. The Enemy wants to distract us from the true purpose of Mass, and here is one way he succeeds.
Sometimes it is tempting to believe that each of us comes to church for a personal, one-on-one encounter with God, and that everyone around us is peripheral. It is tempting to think that the job of others is merely to safeguard the ambience of peace and solitude we think we deserve. But this is not true. There is a reason we come to Mass together, instead of praying by ourselves. And if we are seeking the “perfect” atmosphere for prayer, we set ourselves up for disappointment—that kind of perfection is heaven’s reward. If we receive a hint of it on earth, it is a gift from God, not a right. If we look closely, we find that the interruptions and distractions that upset us are actually opportunities to grow in charity.
We are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27) –one body that is made up of many parts (1 Corinthians 12:20). Those parts are people who surround us and worship with us. They are not perfect, and neither am I (so it is good news for us that Saint Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:22 that “the parts which seem to be weaker are indispensable”!), and I am so grateful to belong to their number.
The people in the pews with us are our brothers and sisters in Christ. If we are not being charitable towards them, we are missing the point. If something about others distracts us, we have a choice: We can complain about them, or we can recognize the face of Jesus in them.
Jesus is on the altar; and He is also inside of each person who makes up the body of Christ. One way we can love Him according to His commandment to love others as He loved us (cf. John 13:34) is to find and honor Him within those people for whom He gave His life—the people with whom we attend Mass.
In the elderly parishioners, whose life stories are full to the brim, overflowing with joy and also with suffering, we can find Christ. The example of their faith gives hope and wisdom to the generations who follow them. Some are able to walk through the church doors unassisted; others cannot make it up the aisle to receive Communion without help. All of them, no matter how frail, give witness to a quiet strength that only comes with age.
In the sick among us, who with courage battle aches and pains to come to Mass when their bodies want to stay in bed and rest; in those who come in wheelchairs, or in hats because their hair is falling out, or who visibly show no signs of illness but bear deep invisible wounds; we can find Christ. They are the modern-day paralytic, the man with the withered hand, the leper, the deaf man, the blind man, the hemorrhaging woman, and all who came, and still come, to Jesus to be healed.
In the parents who bring their children to Mass lovingly, and in their beautiful children, we can find Christ. Though the parents may be tired and yearning for peace and quiet, still they welcome the little ones You have sent to them, bringing them to Mass so that the grace bestowed on all present will bless the dear children and help them to grow in holiness.
In the parents who bring their special-needs children—and in these precious children who often cannot control their behavior, their noise levels, or their physical actions—we can find Christ. How close they are to Jesus’ heart as they proclaim the gospel of life to the Church and to the world!
In those who are missing family members: those who have lost parents, spouses, siblings, or children; those who are far from home; those suffering from divorce or brokenness in the family; and those who have never experienced the comfort of a loving family; we can find Christ. Their love does not go unanswered, and their heavenly family awaits them in the fullness of time.
In pregnant mothers, and in the babies they carry in their wombs, we can find Christ. In mothers who are grieving babies lost through miscarriage, stillbirth, and abortion, we can find Christ. In mothers of the heart, who are longing and waiting for babies they have not been able to conceive, we can find Christ. He who welcomes the little children carries these mothers in His arms as well.
In the ex-convicts, addicts, homeless, and rough-around-the-edges people who come to Mass because they have experienced God’s great mercy, we can find Christ. May they receive respect and admiration for the difficulties they have overcome and for the humility and great courage they have shown by trying to change their lives. They are our companions on this lifelong journey toward sainthood!
In the young people who are trying hard to fit in because they feel lonely and awkward; in the teenagers who grew up in faithless homes and who came to Mass because someone invited them; we can find Christ. Even though they feel out of place and insecure, they come anyway. They are especially precious to Jesus, Who dearly loves the outcasts.
In the people who come alone, we can find Christ. For some of them, it is hard to see so many people sitting together with loved ones. Yet they are not alone— in Mass, they are surrounded by myriad saints, angels, and holy souls who pray with them.
He is not just in the pews, of course. In His servants on the altar—the bishops, priests, deacons, and seminarians who lead us in his name and shine His truth and light to the world—we can find Christ.
In the faithful who attend Mass every day, and also in the people who have just returned after 5, 15, or 50 years away, we can find Christ. He grants the same graces to those who began His work in the morning and those who stumbled upon Him at the end of the day, and He especially rejoices over His lost sheep, His prodigal children, who return to His fold.
There are sinners in these pews. I am one of them, and I know I am in good company. We do not wish to sin, but the humility of being sinners brings us to our knees, and that is a fitting place to be: On our knees, before our God, we know that we are nothing, and He is everything, and we place all our hope in Him.
We are not separated in Mass, each looking at the altar from our own world. We are the body of Christ. We are blessed and broken and shared. Side by side, we pray with those in the pews, and their triumphs and struggles are ours, too. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12: 26).
It is no accident that God has placed us together with the dear people who surround us at Mass. Let us encourage each other, for “every house divided against itself will not stand” (Matthew 12:25). Echoing the words of Jesus, let us say of one another, in this Year of Mercy and always, “Father, they are your gift to me” (John 17:24).