By Holly Mohr
I spend a good bit of time noticing and writing about the things that are not quite right, both around and within me, especially with regards to the Church and society. (This column is called The Brood, after all). And while there is plenty of very real injustice to challenge, very real pain to acknowledge, today is a day for singing.
It doesn’t quite feel like a day for singing: in the midst of the intense joys I have experienced in the past week, my heart is also so very, very heavy, and I have to acknowledge that that’s in the room, as well. I learned over the weekend that a deeply beloved old student of mine and member of our church community passed unexpectedly. Another young black man, gone. I don’t know the circumstances. I only know he and his family are treasured, both by me and by our community. I have felt sick with the pain—it is unthinkable (or it should be) for this beautiful boy, this strong and kind man, to be gone. It is monstrous that his mama will bury him Mother’s Day weekend.
So the joy of this past week is tempered by horror and grief. But in the midst of that, a grief I cannot look away from, I feel anchored. I know that boy, that family, in the context of a community that is real, that is beautiful, that is brought together by joyful, sometimes heart-wrenching hope in the Resurrection. And here, hope in the Resurrection is not just a dogmatic conviction of our minds, but a visceral, mind-body-spirit, full-throated hope that ultimately, love really is stronger than death, goodness really is stronger than evil, that in the midst of all the pain and horror and sin and disappointment, This Is. Love is the reality that is most real, on either side of the grave.
This past weekend, one of our community’s most beloved priests came back (after having moved to Florida for retirement in 2016) to celebrate his 50th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood (yeah, just let that one sink in—doing anything for 50 years, but being a priest?! At this time in history?! Holy hell)!
This man is so beloved that we knew to plan for Christmas and Easter numbers at Mass. No, he’s not Christ himself, but he’s someone who kind of reminds you of what Christ might actually be like. He is beloved for his honesty, his authenticity, his unassailable compassion. And he was in the community long enough (decades) for all those things to be tested and found true.
It’s hard to find words that get anywhere close to describing what it was like to be at that Mass, but I’ll try to give you a taste. To me, part of it felt like the Transfiguration, where Jesus goes up on the mountain with his bffs and takes on a glorified, spiritual body right in front of them. In that scene, Peter is basically like, “Man, this is awesome, let’s stay here forever,” and Jesus is like, “Mmm, you’re missing the point, Peter. We need to go back down and tend to all the people.”
I’m not usually a giant fan of looking up at an altar entirely populated by men, but this was a definite exception. Fr. Walt was joined by his best friends, three of them priests, two of them deacons. Several of them are either currently part of our church or were in the past. Seeing their obvious love for one another, and for all of us, was nothing short of breathtaking. Seeing it even work out at all was an unbelievable sign of hope. After so many, many years of disappointment, to see something (especially something pertaining to the Church) work out?! I couldn’t stop crying tears of joy or smiling as widely as my jaw would allow. He was back. His friends were back. Our community was a little bit more whole. It was real, and so many of us got to participate in it.
The beginning of the homily was classic Fr. Walt: “This is on TV, right? I’m not gonna say anything that’s gonna make me lose my diocesan pension. But I’m gonna come pretty close.” (Yes, I thought inwardly, this community is where I belong).
He talked about how, while COVID exacerbated it, people have been leaving the Church in droves for quite a while now. He said he thinks it comes down to one root cause. (At this point in the homily, most priests I’ve heard start blaming the people who have left, pointing to some “moral evil” in our society that’s pulling people away). That’s not what Fr. Walt said.
“People are leaving,” he began, “because they look at the Church and say, ‘You don’t love me.’
‘My son is gay, and he’s the best person I know. You say there’s something wrong with him. You don’t love me.’ ‘I’m divorced and remarried, been married for two decades to a committed partner, and you tell me it’s nothing more than sin. You don’t love me.’ ‘I come here every week and you don’t know me. You don’t love me.’”
Much of the church was tearing up, both, I believe, because it pierced to the heart of so many of our own experiences, but also, beautifully, because in our community, so many of us have known love.
We are not a perfect community, by any stretch. And somehow, even given the possible pitfalls of a homily like that, the message was not at all self-aggrandizing. But it was grateful, and it was celebratory. So many of us have remained, in spite of the pain, in spite of all the shakeups, because we have learned to know ourselves and one another as the Body of Christ. We have found a space where we are learning to be formed in love and meaningful relationship.
Looking around that church space, I saw so many people I love. After Mass, people found one another, some who have left and came back because they felt pulled by Fr. Walt’s presence, others who are there every week. It was as though having Fr. Walt among us reminded us not only of what we have, but of who we want to continue to grow to be.
No, it is not perfect. Yes, we hurt each other, and I’m sure something will piss me off as soon as I finish writing this. But I have seen real love, commitment, authenticity. I am willing to hope against hope that yes, it can be trusted! I believe in a good and loving Creator God, and he has gifted us to one another.
Once again, a Light has shone in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.