The Mass for the Beatification of Pope John Paul was held in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, in the square. Not only the square, but also the streets leading up to it were closed and filled with people. So, for this reason, many of those involved in the Mass approached the altar from the opposite direction. We came in the back door, as it were, and made our way through the Basilica, exiting the front door, onto the altar. Got it?
Anyway, since everyone was out front, the Basilica was largely empty. I realized immediately that this was not an experience I had ever had before, often as I’ve been in St. Peter’s. It is always filled with people. But on Sunday, before the Mass, it was empty. The immense splendors of the place are overwhelming under any conditions, but in vast silence that sensation is magnified. The breath of history, the weight of glory, its dizzying. This unique moment was made rarer still by the muffled roar of the crowd, just outside, over a million strong. All those people out there. All this splendor in here.
Pope John Paul will be remembered for many things, not least of which his unprecedented travels to every part of the world, including Baltimore. He understood, and modeled for all of us that the work of the Church isn’t just in the Church. It’s also, and indeed first of all (and urgently) waiting for us outside the Church. The work of the Church is to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to all those people out there.
So many churches operate like country clubs for the converted. This takes different shape and emphasis in different parishes or congregations, but the instinct and the emphasis are all the same, its all about insiders, what we do, what we like, what we know, what we have.
I will go further and say that I think this is a special problem, an acute problem in the Catholic Church. There is a triumphalism, a kind of pride among us that is sin, blinding us to our real problems, and keeping us from serving our mission. Because of our history and apostolic roots, because of the vast body of our theological wisdom and most of all because of the Eucharist for which we are stewards, we should rightly esteem our Catholic faith and Church. But we should not try and horde it or hide it, or just make sure the “Samaritans” stay out. It is not ours to keep, it is ours to share.
Standing in empty St. Peter’s, I couldn’t help but think of all those people out there.