During the past couple of weeks, a small group of us from the BU Catholic Center went to Italy for a vacation, but also for a pilgrimage for the Jubilee of Mercy. Our trip involved a mixture of encounters with various persons, some who made our life easier and some who made life more difficult. I'd like to mention just two encounters that seem to me to be a little parable about evangelization.
The first happened at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. As I said, one of the reasons for our trip was so that we could visit the Holy Doors of the Basilicas in Rome and obtain the Jubilee Indulgence. When the day arrived for us to go through the Holy Door at St. Peter's, our small group made its way along the Via della Conciliazione--the road leading to the basilica. There was a check-in booth where we presented our paperwork that stated we were pilgrims on the way to the Holy Door. We checked in, were handed prayer books which provided various prayers to be said along the approximate half mile route, and made our way to the basilica, praying all along the way.
After passing through the Holy Door, the book instructed us to go to the bones of St. Peter in order to say the final prayers. When we got there, we discovered that the whole area near the altar was blocked off, but there was an opening where pilgrim groups could pass. When we arrived at the opening, the man in charge informed us that pilgrim groups have to have a wooden cross to get in. We showed him our paperwork but he refused. He said that the people at the beginning should have provided us with a wooden cross. We said, "They didn't." He refused. We proposed that we could join in with another of the groups passing through. That idea was completely unacceptable to him. What should have been the highlight of our pilgrimage turned into one of the worst moments of our two weeks. That guy was obstinate. Instead of trying to help us complete our pilgrimage, he became an obstacle . . . and seemingly took great delight in being an obstacle. Preventing us from completing our pilgrimage seemed to be a source of great satisfaction for this fellow. There was just no way that this subversive group of pilgrims was going to get past him without us walking back another half mile, getting in line again, and coming back with a wooden cross.
The second encounter is not religious at all. At the end of our two weeks in Italy, we needed to spend one night in Naples. When we got off the train at the stop closest to our hotel, we found ourselves in a very distressed looking area. The streets filled with garbage, graffiti everywhere, and clearly not a good neighborhood. When we arrived at our hotel, it was obviously in a bad part of town and the hotel was clearly not nearly the quality of the other places where we stayed. I think we were all thinking, "This is not where we want to be."
Working the desk of the hotel was a young man--perhaps in his early twenties. He asked for our passports. Once we presented them, his face lit up, and he said, "Americans?" We said, "Yes." He smiled ear to ear and said, "I love America!" We asked if he'd ever been there. He said, "No, but I will someday. I've never left Naples. But I love America and I love speaking English." We had a great chat with this guy.
What struck me was that the accommodations were not great , the rooms were not ready, and the neighborhood was lousy, but this kid's smile changed everything. His warmth, sincerity, and kindness changed everything. It wasn't an act. He was genuinely happy to see us and to talk with us.
The two experiences have stayed with me. One man had pilgrims who were seeking to pray, find mercy, and to give thanks to God. Instead of helping those pilgrims, he turned them away. The other man had strangers in front of him who were just customers. He treated them with warmth and with joy. So, our group had a better experience at a run down hotel in Naples than we did at Basilica of St. Peter's, all because of how we were treated by a single person. We found mercy and tenderness at a hotel counter and found obstruction and arrogance at the Holy Door. Something tells me that Pope Francis probably would want to put that hotel clerk in charge of his Holy Door!
I mention all of this because it is a good reminder to me what a difference one person can make. For many, I may be the face of the Church. There are undoubtedly times when I am tired, annoyed, or disinterested. But, these could be the moments when I help someone draw closer to the Church or slam the door in their face. There are undoubtedly times when I have acted like the gatekeeper at St. Peter's who seemed determined to keep out as many people as possible.
Strangely enough, I'm happy that I had these two experiences. They are a good reminder to me (and I hope, to others) of how important it is to treat those who cross the threshold of our churches with joy, warmth, and a spirit of generosity. Not everyone who comes into our churches knows how to do everything right and say everything right. Maybe they just didn't know they needed a wooden cross and maybe someone who should have known didn't tell them.
Sometimes, Catholics can be hard on strangers. We are ready to pounce on them and correct them. But, maybe they are just in search of a little mercy and a little tenderness. As Catholics we ought to strive to open the doors of mercy and holiness to imperfect pilgrims rather than to be obstructionist bureaucrats who make it as difficult as possible for people to draw closer to the Lord. St. John Paul II began his pontificate saying, "Open wide the doors for Christ!" Let us also open wide the doors to those who seek entrance, even if imperfectly.