My wife thinks it’s supposed to look like a ship. I suspect the church is meant to look like a clam (one of the local trademarks). I hope I’m wrong, but you never know with church architects. We were several hundred miles away from home taking care of a very sick friend and on Sunday morning went to St. Anne’s, the parish just around the corner from his house. I was tempted to go elsewhere, to some of the beautiful old churches downtown, but we didn’t want to be away very long.
The church doesn’t look at all like our home parish, St. Joseph’s, built one-hundred-some years ago by Italian immigrants and their children. St. Joseph’s looks to me the way a church should look. I like the long nave pointing everyone up to the altar, with all the saints in the stained glass windows along the sides and the realistic Stations of the Cross on the pillars. I like the classical Crucifix I can see behind the altar and I like the old-fashioned Tabernacle below it. I like all the statues and the shrines and the candles. I like the Pieta in the alcove at the front to the right. I like the confessionals at the back.
That all says to me “Here’s the Church.” The ship/clam church, not so much.
At Home With Jesus
But when we walk into the ship/clam church before Mass, we both feel at home. It is very plain and simple inside, a lot plainer and a lot simpler than I like. You will see no statues, no paintings, no candles, and the confessional is almost hidden behind an anonymous-looking door in the back, though one with the winsome (but small) sign “Mercy Room.”
I would like more of everything. A statue or two would comfort me, as would a candle to light for my friend. But there is Jesus waiting for us in the Tabernacle behind the altar. The big plain white wall behind it highlights the Tabernacle, almost as if someone was shining a spotlight on it. That’s something in its favor. What it lacks in total immersion it partly gains back in focus.
It’s not St. Joseph’s, but for us away from home, here’s the place we find Jesus. There, just as at St. Joseph’s, He comes to us in the Scripture readings and in His priest’s homily (and this Sunday’s was quite good). Most of all He comes to us in the Eucharist. There He is, just a short walk up the aisle.
Jesus isn’t the only one who’s there for us at St. Anne’s. Here’s the place His people in this town gather to worship Him. As we walk into the church, even when we’re very early because I misread the clock, we find people praying or sitting quietly. We don’t know a single one of them, but they’re brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow Catholics, people who are here for the same reason we are.
It feels like a gathering of second cousins you’ve never met. You don’t know them and they don’t know you, but you know they’re family. They may be nice, they may not be nice. They may want to speak to you, or they may wish they’d never met you. You may want to brag about your second cousin the hero or pretend you don’t know your second cousin the serial killer. You may, as we do, slip in for the festivities and then slip out. But they’re still family.
Those two things together mean a lot when you’re away from home taking care of a dying friend. Jesus is always here, in our case literally around the corner. And his people are here too.
Their Own Sorrows and Losses
They’re here at Mass just as we are, most of them with their own sorrows and losses. On Sunday, a young family was sitting a few rows in front of us. The parents looked to be in their thirties. They had a daughter, about eight or ten, in a pretty purple dress.
She stood out, but not because of the pretty purple dress. Her hair was just stubble, even shorter than a summer buzz cut. I recognized the look from the times I’d taken my friend to see his oncologist. On the walk down the long hall of the cancer center, we passed the pediatric oncologists’ waiting room, walking past small children who had lost their hair to chemotherapy. Some sat on the edge of their chairs, their feet several inches off the floor, in children’s clothes but with very un-childlike bald heads.
My friend is dying early, according to the insurance companies’ actuarial tables. He will fall well short of the three score and ten the psalmist speaks of. But he’s still had a longish life, with plenty of time to enjoy the pleasures and joys the world gave him, and to be enjoyed by his friends and family.
But this child may die while still a child. Her parents will feel that pain the rest of their lives, for forty years, if they live the biblical three score and ten. If she lives, they’ll still spend years watching someone they love suffer when they can’t do anything about it.
For them, for us, and for anyone who wants to walk in, Jesus is waiting, and His people with Him, in the church round the corner — even if they’re found in a church that looks too much like a clam. Or a ship. I’d like it to be a ship.
Editor’s note: For reflections on his friend’s illness, see On Easter Monday, We’re Back on Holy Saturday https://ethikapolitika.org/2016/03/28/easter-monday-back-holy-saturday/ and Sometimes God Wants You to Shut Up http://aleteia.org/2016/04/13/sometimes-god-wants-you-to-shut-up/