I had to look it up. After three separate trips to Rome in the span of a year and a half, I wasn’t sure if I had visited the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome, the mother church of all Christian churches. I had visited a number of basilicas and cathedrals on those trips. I cannot remember many of them by name. But I’d remember if I had seen the Lateran Basilica. It seems I will just have to go back.
The various churches of Rome, Florence, Orvieto, Assisi, and Lanciano that I had visited shared many similarities. They were impressive, formidable structures, having stood the test of time. And they will surely outlast us all. They were also truly inspiring and uplifting. They had power to draw my senses and my thoughts upward, to God and spiritual things. I did go to mass at St. Peter’s in Vatican City a couple of times. On those occasions, the basilica was always packed. But the other churches I visited during the week were mostly empty. No surprise there, as working people were at work. Most of us there were tourists. And we did what tourists do. We gawked at the art and the architecture. We took many pictures. We talked in hushed tones, usually about what we liked and where we wanted to go next. Occasionally we paused to say a quiet prayer. But mostly, we gawked, took pictures, and talked. And at the end of the day, it amazed me that these holy places that had witnessed so much Christian history, these places where holy women and men through the ages professed the faith and strived to live it sincerely in challenging times, where they encountered the living God in ways both ordinary and profound, where they heard God’s Word proclaimed and preached, where they broke the One Bread and shared the One Cup at the Eucharistic meal, where they poured out their burdens to God in prayer, where they were reconciled with God through the sacraments, where they were mourned and remembered when they died, where they went forth to all the world to proclaim good news and serve the poor, these holy places that had power to impress the senses and lift the soul, to refresh the weary and restore the broken, they stand mostly empty and silent now. Were it not for the tourist traffic, they would be sitting in darkness and collecting dust. And yet elsewhere in those cities, life marches on. Parents work for a living and provide for their families. Their children go to school. They engage in business. They celebrate art, they participate in civic life. But the practice of the faith it seems has been consigned to the attic. People hunger for God, but it seems they seek God less and less in those grand buildings.
Now we are aware that the true church of God is not a building made of wood, glass, metal, and stone. A church building, whether magnificent or humble, reflects the people that gather within it. Physical buildings are powerful symbols, like the great cathedrals and basilicas of Europe. They impress the senses and lift the soul, as the people hopefully do as well, who gather within their walls.
St. Paul uses the image in his letters many times. It is not a new idea. “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” He invites us to examine how we treat God’s temple, and how we treat one another. And if we are mindful of the great dignity that belongs to each person, we would care better for each other. But how do we care for each other if we do not take the time and effort to get to know each other and hear about each other’s joys, burdens, gifts, and needs? The process will always be messy, because our lives are messy. Our family structures are often complicated, our politics divisive, our convictions resolute and unshakable, our opinions harsh and unforgiving. And it’s a lot of work that we are seldom willing to expend. And the physical building that is a symbol of the people within it will end up growing even more cold and distant.
A few weeks back, I announced that we were moving forward with our planning process to address the pressing and increasing needs of our parish. To recap, two years ago, we conducted a survey asking parishioners what we should do. I would have been satisfied with a simple majority. However, 70% expressed support for purchasing land and building a new church. And after a 2 year wait, juggling a 4th weekend mass, trying to accommodate our many parish activities within our very limited space, enduring complaints about our lack of parking and the inaccessibility of our “alleged” handicap accessible restroom, I asked your help to put together a team of experienced professionals to study the feasibility of such a massive project. Last week’s bulletin included an insert on the team of parishioners I have tasked to gather the information we need to determine what we can and cannot accomplish. I call them the Vineyard 9. In the coming months they will conduct feasibility studies—of our current facilities, our finances, the challenges we need to address. Eventually we will consult with people outside our parish. We will talk to the people in Richmond. But we are moving forward with caution and restraint. We haven’t even been looking for land yet. So calm down.
I have already been getting irate emails and letters. I know some of you are considering writing the bishop, if you haven’t already. I ask you to please prayerfully consider where to apply your energies. If we are truly a people who strive to embody the values of the gospel, who keep front and center the mission entrusted by Jesus Christ to the church and to us in this time and place, if we are mindful of each other’s dignity as temples of God where the Spirit of God dwells, if we take the time and effort to get to know one another better, our young families, our teenagers, our working parents, our seniors, we cannot ignore the needs of our parish much longer. We cannot keep kicking the can down the road, and leave it to the next generation to address the challenges we now face, challenges we know will only grow and get more complex.
The Director of the Diocesan Office of Real Estate spoke with the Vineyard 9 this past week and shared an insight that has given me much to consider. He said in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, a generation of our people gave us the gift of this church that has served us more than 80 years. We have used their gift well. But now comes our turn to pass that gift forward to a people we might never even get to meet. Some of you have already expressed quite vehemently that you have no desire to respond to the needs of our parish. I am hoping you will give it more careful thought. Yes, the building we have is only a symbol of the people we really are. And we should be more concerned that we become the people we say we are, the holy temple of God, the living, breathing Body of Christ. Our building proclaims more eloquently than anything the truth of who we are. Are we happy with what it’s saying right now?
Rolo B Castillo © 2014