In the Confessional I have encountered the most awesome experiences of God. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation there is conversion happening some people’s lives, sometimes more than others. Once in a while someone comes to Confession who has not been to Church or Confession in years. That doesn’t happen without God being very active in their hearts. Something powerful is happening in them. That is when I know I am in the presence of God, when God is very present to them at those moments of their conversion from sin, returning to God. We are on holy ground when a person shares that moment. It is then that I understand Jesus’ teaching that there is great rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents, like the women who finds her last coin, or the shepherd who found the lost sheep, or the joy of the father upon the return of the lost son.
A former pastor of St. Mary’s Cathedral shared with me a story of some homeless people who came to his Church from time to time. St. Mary’s is a beautifully restored historical Church and one of the architectural landmarks of downtown Austin. There are a lot of homeless people in the area. Some women of the parish came to him to complain about the homeless people who would come in and sit in the back of the Church. The parish women complained to Father that the homeless were dirty and smelly. They were poorly dressed and smelled of alcohol and urine. They asked the Pastor to “do something about it.” They didn’t want those dirty people in their church.
Jesus’ parable about the “Prodigal Son” was his response to the frequent complaint of the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus’ parables about the lost sheep, the lost coin and the “prodigal son” who was lost, were told for the benefit of the Jews. The Jews believed and taught about being exclusive, not unlike the women at St. Mary’s Cathedral. The Jews taught that you did not mingle with “unclean” people. Not only did you have to avoid the unclean, but you also had to avoid those who became “unclean” by mingling with unclean sinners, tax collectors and lepers like Jesus did.
The older brother in Jesus’ parable represents the Jews, the scribes and Pharisees. It occurs to me how much those parish ladies were like the older brother. He had been loyal and lived according to the rules. He was one of those trustworthy workers who did his job faithfully every day to keep his father’s farm in good shape. He never thought of living as irresponsibly as his brother had done. Now his younger brother had returned; and the older brother was angry with him and his father. He resented his brother for prematurely asking for his inheritance and then squandering it in a life of immorality and excess. He resented his father’s generosity to the prodigal brother. He was indignant that his father would completely reinstate the younger brother to full dignity as his son, kill the fattened calf, throw a party and put a ring of family authority on his finger after all his abuses. The older brother obviously felt that the father should have been sterner with the younger brother, and, perhaps, should have put down some rules for the profligate brother and demanded some form of restitution or penance for his past sins.
In the Church, it is not unusual sometimes to encounter some of the older brother’s attitude and treatment of others. It is not unusual to experience some social stereotyping and discrimination toward the wayward and disadvantaged, for instance toward illegal immigrants or people of different race. It is not unusual to encounter the attitude that only registered members of the parish can have weddings or funerals in the parish. Our bishops have come down firmly on such attempts to exclude some people, or to reward others. The bishops remind us in their teachings to welcome all, poor or rich, black, brown or white, legal or illegal.
The ways we sometimes exclude others and discriminate are so many and so subtle that sometimes we just take them for granted. As a deacon I used to do funerals for the poor and homeless people in Austin. The funeral directors would call me because they said they would call Churches (Protestant and Catholic Churches) and ask someone to do a Christian funeral and burial for a poor or homeless person, even some illegal immigrants. The directors would explain to me that the pastor or secretary who answered the church phone would tell the funeral director, “Ah, let me look up that person in our directory… Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t have any record of that person. They are not registered here.” “Click” And they would hang up on the funeral director. The funeral directors explained to me that they learned that Catholic deacons don’t tend to react in the same “parochial” manner, and that is why they were calling me. Many of the poor are simply buried in pauper’s graves run by the county, in cardboard boxes with no prayer or services at all. The only minister is the gravedigger with his backhoe.
I learned that other deacons were also getting these calls and doing these funerals. Our Church teaches that we pray for our dead no matter who they are. I would go, and the calls kept coming. Nobody is so poor that we can’t pray for him or her and give them a proper Christian burial.
Still, some Churches find ways to charge for their Sacraments. Fr. Victor and I want the word to go out that we do not charge for sacraments or funerals!
Now, if someone wishes to give a donation, that is a different story. We are all expected to tithe and support our parish family. We do have bills to pay. After years of use and multiple repairs, we now need to replace the expensive air conditioning unit that just failed in Luna Hall. We need to pay our utilities and the salaries and benefits of our employees. But we will not pay those bills by charging for sacraments! We will pay our bills because we are a parish family. Meanwhile, a rich person and a poor person will receive the same funeral, or wedding, or baptism. Father Victor and I both believe as St. Paul said, “I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me trustworthy in appointing me to the ministry.” And, Jesus tells us, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me.”