I was accompanying my sister through her last illness. Her friends come from diverse places, but many live in the very conservative parish where we grew up. Many of mine come from a nearby parish where social justice trumps liturgical grandeur pretty much every time.
Her funeral was last month, at the very conservative parish. Exhausted, I had decided not to fight any more losing battles. I raised only a few polite, weary questions about parish rules, like the pre-communion announcement (I hear even our Cardinal doesn't do that), the top-down decisions about music for the liturgy, the few and tightly defined roles permitted to family, etc.
At the service, the big church was full. Lots of her friends and lots of mine. I didn't ask for more than the reality that was present.
I watched everyone going up for communion. Her friends mingled with mine, and with our family.
What I saw in them was nothing but beauty. What I heard in the pastor's homily was a caring effort to appreciate my amazing sister.
Does loss clarify vision?
We often look at one another across the divide of how we understand church in theoretical terms. What I have experienced is, in both of these parishes, community is fundamental. Its boundaries may be wider or narrower, its emphases somewhat different. But at core, both parish communities have a common foundation in God's presence to us in Jesus Christ.
Jesus was the one who told us that God's kingdom, like a mustard bush, is a place where all sorts of birds dwell together. (Matthew 13: 18-19). Together the birds create a community as complex and connected as a Celtic knot. Through the months and especially near her death, rubbing shoulders with these other birds gave me strength - and, more important, gave my sister strength.
They visited her at home and in the hospital. They sent cards and messages and prayer, as did my friends. My sister was quietly puzzled and deeply grateful to be the focus of so much loving attention.
Communion takes many forms. The pastor had the grace to let me greet people in the vestibule despite the words painted above my head: "Let all mortal flesh keep silent." I had the grace to appreciate the elegance of the very formal liturgy and music, and the continuity with my family's long life in this parish.
And so we could together celebrate a remarkable woman.