Remembering What We Represent.
Excerpts from the Chaplain's intervention at the in-service meetings of the employees of the World Apostolate of Fatima USA, at the National Blue Army Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, Washington, New Jersey.
Return to ByzantineCatholicPriest.com.
1:49 PM 11/20/2014 — When I was first ordained, almost thirty years ago, there was someone in the parish—I don't know who he or she was—who would regularly send me anonymous letters about my homilies, all of them critical. And I would read them scratching my head saying to myself, “When did I ever say any of this?” As far as I could tell, this person was criticizing homilies that I never gave. Well, as you can guess, I had given the homilies; it's just that what I said was not what he heard, and what he heard was determined not so much by what I had said, but what insecurities and issues he had bubbling around in his head.
The moral of the story is pretty obvious, and is a basic maxim of communication which is taught in management school: the message is the message received. As carefully as we try to say and do things, what people hear us say and what they see us do is going to be interpreted by them mostly by what's going on inside them. What we intended to say or what we thought we were doing matters very little. And being sensitive to that is a big challenge.
With that in mind, we have to recognize that we're at something of a disadvantage here at the Shrine. We are not a parish, although sometimes we forget that and try to treat it as a parish. Sometimes we even refer to the people who come here regularly as our “parishioners.” The truth is, we have no parishioners; everyone that comes here to pray and worship with us has a parish already. The fact that they may or may not have any relationship to their proper parish is none of our business. We can't do their weddings for them, we can't baptize their babies, we can't bury their dead, we shouldn't even be taking the sacraments to them when they're sick; these are all things that belong by right to their parish priest, whoever he may be. That being said, we do try our best to care for their spiritual needs, recognizing that, for many of them, we are their only contact with the Catholic Church, for good or for ill.
Now, all of this you know, I'm sure; but, there is a further disadvantage which you probably know as well, but it bears repeating, and that's the fact that, as a Shine dedicated to a particular devotion within the Catholic community, we tend to attract a fringe element within the Church, which explains to some degree why many of the people who come here don't have a regular relationship with their proper parish, as many of them may not feel at home or accepted there. That may or may not be a justified feeling on their part; my feeling is that nine times out of ten is is not, but sometimes it is. Not to mention the people who land here from time to time—and you've met some of them, I'm sure—who have been estranged from the Church for many years, and stumble across this place because they were dragged here by a friend or relative or just happened to see a sign on the side of the road, and that can be a moment of great grace for them; but, it can also be a moment of grace lost if what they see or hear when they are here isn't received in the proper way.
A lot of the people who come here are in some form of emotional distress, and you've met them, too, I'm sure. Some of them haven't set foot inside a Catholic Church since they were confirmed, and some even since they were baptized; but, all of a sudden they find out they have cancer, or their child has cancer, or their marriage is falling apart, or they've lost their job, or something that has thrown their world upside down. Many people, when they are desperate, get religion; but if they haven't been to church in twenty years, they don't know where to go, but they all know where this place is, so here is where they come. What we say to them when we interact with them, how they see us act, what they see us do, can literally decide the state of their souls at a crucial moment in their lives.
And we must make mention, because they are a part of our life here, of the disaffected traditionalist Catholic, although they are starting to become fewer in number than they were in the past. These are the people who were so traumatized by the Second Vatican Council, they thought the Church had betrayed the faith. Now, a lot of these people left the Church and landed in some fringe group, like the Society of St. Pius X, but most of them simply slid out into the outskirts of the Church, finding little out of the way shrines and chapels that had somehow stayed below the radar and remained within the official Church without being—in their minds, anyway—corrupted by it. And some of them find their way here. Think what we may of them, for many of them we are their only contact with the Catholic Church, and we must care for them.
There are two ways to look at all of this: we can chuckle and view it as a kind of carnival side show, and I'm sure there are private moments when we all do that; or, we can recognize it for what it has become: a spiritual life preserver thrown out to people who, for a variety of reasons, would otherwise fall over the edge of the Church never to seen again. That's the awful paradox of what it means to work at the Shrine: for some people, we are their first contact with the Catholic Church; for many others, we are their last contact with the Catholic Church before they fall over the cliff for good. In either case, how we appear to them as a staff speaks libraries of volumes to their desperate and sensitive minds. How we act, how we dress, how we speak and what we say, may seem adequate and innocent to us;—and may be, objectively speaking—but, remember, the message is the message received. Keeping our voice down in the chapel, genuflecting when passing in front of the Tabernacle, showing proper reverence for holy images—which can be quite a chore in a place plastered wall to wall with holy images—can all become so tiresome that it's very easy to become careless.
Working at the Shrine is a job, and, like any job, we are conscious of acting professionally and performing out duties industriously; but, like it or not, for many of the people who come here—many of whom, as I said, are suffering moments of great emotional turmoil—each of one us is the Catholic Church. We don't want to be that; we would all rather not have that responsibility on our shoulders; but, like it or not, that's what we are. So, when I or Father Paul or David says something to you because of something we've seen or heard—in fact, David's going to say something to us right now in this regard—this is what is on our minds. So, I'm hoping that you'll accept that advice and counsel in the loving spirit in which it is intended.