One aspect of the ministry of welcoming people into the Church is encountering the brokenness people often bring with them – brokenness which can often challenge us. We also meet people who are tentative in their approach: based on what they perceive Church teaching to be – the Gospel according to the media – they question “Can someone like me belong?” Others – and this probably happens rarely – come, like the leper in the Gospel of the Sixth Sunday of Year B, and metaphorically throw themselves on their knees and plead for help in finding healing and meaning for their lives.
I am reminded of the story of a woman who gradually started attending Mass with one of our committed parishioners who, over time revealed a past of heartbreak – isolation – violence – whose sense of unworthiness was almost crippling but gradually eased as she was welcomed by people who guessed part of her story but made no judgement upon her – who shared her delight when the long awaited annulment came through a few days before the Easter at which she was to be baptised and which now freed her to become engaged at the same time – whose wedding was a source of resounding joy for the community – and the baptism of her baby at an Easter Vigil a couple of years later seemed to seal a healing.
When, three years later, she was diagnosed with inoperable and aggressive cancer the extent of that healing was manifest in her faith that God was saying to her that the burden of the past was too great and that it was now time to rest … that her child would be loved and that her love from heaven would be matched by that of the people she had come to know… And an almost awestruck moment as she gave and received what were to be the first – and last – hugs to members of the RCIA team who had accompanied her… “You see – if you’d tried to do that years ago I couldn’t have let you … I’d have thought I disgusted you really – that you were pretending. I know now you meant it – when you said that you wanted me to know God loved me and wanted me whole… And I’m not afraid… I know God wants me whole and if that means dying then I know he knows this is the best way for me – because I know this (a hand held – and another hug) is real… “
How we respond to those who turn up on our doorsteps can make a huge difference. At the back of our minds might be the realities of Church teaching ringing alarm bells… “irregular marriage…” “living in a homosexual partnership…” which can be real obstacles along the journey to reception and full communion with the Church. There may also be past sins that challenge our own understanding of forgiveness – “I drank/ took drugs and killed someone ….” “I downloaded images of child sexual abuse…” followed by an expression of deep remorse that seems genuine and a desire to make amends for the thing they have done. They seem to see in the Church a community that can help to rebuild their lives – They come searching for the person who can “cure me” – or “help me” – “strengthen me” – “protect me” – “show me the way” – “transform me” – “carry on the saving work you started”… the person of Jesus.
We are in a privileged position as people begin to open up – and our task is not to quench that wavering flame of faith in danger of drowning in a lifetime of care and wrong decisions – nor to crush that reed crushed under so much pain and guilt. Like Jesus, we feel sorry for them – our hearts filled with compassion as we strive to help individuals find healing in a deepening relationship with Jesus. There will come times when, like Jesus, we need to send our people to “show themselves to the priest” – perhaps to make the offering prescribed for healing… entering the process of annulment, for example, or making a full confession to a priest. But these requirements will be better understood – even welcomed – as ways of making real the love and forgiveness they have encountered through reading and pondering on the Word and in the Word made flesh in Jesus … and in us.