This morning I walked by a church about a block away from our house that I’ve passed many times before. It is no longer in use, with a few windows missing and birds flying in and out. But this time there was a new addition to the familiar sight – an orange cone, temporary fencing, and signs saying “DANGER: Do Not Enter.”
The sight struck me as tragically poetic – though churches have begun to reopen, there were months during which all churches really had been closed because of the impending danger of the coronavirus. I still have not gone back to Mass for fear of accidentally spreading the virus to others.
But as I kept walking, I realized there is an even deeper poetic tragedy to it. This empty church is a casualty of the crisis of faith that happened in Boston in the early 2000s after the Boston Globe revealed the coverup of sexual abuse among clergy. People stopped going to Mass and lost their faith because they quite literally did not feel safe walking inside the building, or allowing their children to do so. Not because of a crumbling structure, or a highly contagious virus, but because of the very people who are supposed to be representatives of Christ to us.
And still, this only scratches the surface of the reasons why people may not feel safe entering a Catholic Church. Like the rest of society, the Church needs to do some serious reflection on its racial climate. Even if we no longer require Black people to sit in the back of the church and receive communion last, the Church as a whole has a lot of work to do in figuring out how to honor, welcome, and raise up the voices of our Black brothers and sisters. They should not have to fear prejudice, discrimination, or the need to constantly explain themselves or justify their righteous anger.
There are so many reasons why people might not feel safe entering a Catholic church: we have often focused on imposing shame more than mercy, offered families with noisy children angry stares rather than helping hands, and failed to make our spaces fully accessible and inclusive to those with disabilities. The list goes on.
So why am I still here? Why haven’t I listened to the “danger“ sign and turned away?
Because, despite it all, I still believe that there is truth, beauty and goodness at the core. I have read the Gospels where I see Jesus being radically hospitable to those He encounters, especially those on the margins of society. I have heard the stories of early Christians who radically shared their possessions and took the sick and dying into their care. I have learned about Catholic Social Teaching and seen how true it is when applied to our world. I have experienced the love of God through the faithful people I have met, and through quiet moments of prayer in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is through my faith that I have been empowered to become a more loving, more authentic version of myself, and continue to be challenged to do so.
So, as I think about deteriorating church and “danger” sign, I am reminded of the words that God spoke to St. Francis: rebuild my church. But just as God wasn’t literally asking St. Francis to build a church one stone at a time, I think God is calling us to focus on rebuilding our Church one person at a time, starting with ourselves.
A crumbling church building is a sad thing to see, and I do hope that church gets repaired and someday is full again. But the more tragic thing to see is the crumbling of faith caused by the failings of the Body of Christ – myself included. This time has reminded us all of the importance of community, and as we slowly but surely (someday!) return to worship together in person, I hope we can rebuild into a stronger, more hospitable community of faith than we were before the pandemic.
The classrooms I sit in at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry (or, did sit in pre-COVID) are the same spaces where the Archdiocese of Boston used to have offices that engaged in the coverup of sexual abuse that is detailed in the movie Spotlight. In our orientation liturgy a year ago, my classmates and I stood in a chapel in that same building and sang “All Are Welcome,” and I felt hope that together, we could in fact build a more safe, more welcoming Church, true to the loving God we all believe in.