The older kids and I went to a different parish for Mass last night. The events of the day had run longer than expected, and by the time we realized it we were too late for the 5pm Mass. A quick Google search led us to the ugly parish that we had studiously avoided when we moved here two and a half years ago. We were so turned off by its modern architecture that we never even gave it a chance. In doing so, we missed something truly special.
When we walked into the narthex last night, we were immediately greeted by an energetically friendly man who pumped our hands and loudly welcomed us. He hugged me and loudly exclaimed "I'm so happy to see all of you!" He then turned to the people coming in after us and greeted them in the same overly affectionate manner. While it was obvious that he had some degree of mental retardation, it was equally apparent that he was a regular fixture at the door and that no one minded his being there....quite the opposite, in fact, everyone who walked through the door seemed as delighted to seem him as he was to see them.
I watched for a few moments to see how long it would take for someone to slide along the wall and duck past him to avoid his embrace. It never happened. Young children and old women, teenage boys and moms balancing new babies, everyone smiled at his greetings. I didn't see annoyance from anyone as he showed off the Special Olympics medals which hung around his neck. He showed them off proudly, as he had obviously done many times before. The ribbons were dingy with wear, but his joy for them was undimmed and his audience didn't seem to mind.
We walked into the sanctuary and sat in the vacant second pew. We were still kneeling when the door greeter sat triumphantly in the pew in front of us. He turned to look at me and smiled. When I smiled back he gave me a thumbs up and turned back to the front. He prayed then, a little loudly. I glanced at the sour-puckered-lips woman on the other side of the aisle, certain that she would be frowning. She wasn't. She was smiling at him with the affectionate look of a beloved family member. When he glanced her way, she put a finger to her lips. "Sorry!" he answered in a slightly raised voice.
When Mass began, he was sitting alone. The hymn sounded and he said to no one in particular "I love this song," and then proved it by singing every word. Twice he waved a hand to the teenagers in the choir, and both times someone discreetly waved back at him.
When the first lector finished his reading, he slipped into the pew next to the man in front of us. He was hugged and his arm was patted in greeting. I heard him whisper the words of the responsorial psalm to the door greeter who nodded his head and sang along. All through Mass, I couldn't help but watch the greeter and the lector. The greeter talked quietly to his neighbor the entire time. He listened to the homily and said "He has a good point" or "that's funny" and the lector would nod his head and squeeze the greeter's hand. Once or twice, his responses were a bit closer to yelling than being spoken and the lector whispered quietly to him and he settled back down.
"Ah," I thought to myself, "this must be his brother. What a good brother he is to be so patient and loving."
During the Consecration, he whispered several times "This is the Grace part! This is the Grace part! I love the Grace part!" He murmured every prayer along with the priest and enthusiastically added the replies. When at last the priest raised the Host overhead and the bells chimed, he said "That's my Jesus. It really is." with all the love and awe he could muster. Father heard him up at the altar, and smiled at the devotion in the front pew. When it came time for Communion, nearly everyone who walked past the first pew reached out and touched his hand. it was subtle and easily overlooked unless you were looking for it, which I was by this point. The door greeter was the recipient of many warmhearted pats and smiles as the entire congregation filed past him.
As Mass ended the teenage choir began to sing and play a song that was a little more rock than hymn, and the man in front of us put on his sunglasses and started to dance along. Father touched his shoulder as he walked past and said "No sunglasses. It's not a concert." to which the joyful dancer smilingly replied "Yes, Father" and put the glasses back up on his head.
I spoke with the lector after Mass and complimented him on taking care of his energetic brother. "He's not my brother," he told me. He went on to explain that it has become tradition for the first lector at this Mass always sits with him and helps him when he needs it. "He loves the Mass," he told me, "and he loves God. Sometimes that makes it hard for him to sit still or be quiet, so we sit with him." It was an honor, he said, to sit with someone who was obviously beloved of God and that the entire parish treats it that way.
All of this has kept me in prayer and deep thought for most of today. First, I've sat in wonder at a parish that has rallied around a man who most of society would see as worthless, and has made him the best loved person in the room. They've looked at his limitations and seen, not a burden, but a call to love, and have beautifully stepped forward to answer that call. Then it made me reflect on my own life and how I treat the people who the rest of the world sees as "less than". Their example of great love has me wondering how the lives of the people I know would be different if I saw them as the "beloved children of God" that they are, and how things would change if I treated my contact with them as the honor that it really is.
"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.' " - Matthew 25:40