As a parallel to the story I wrote for National Catholic Reporter in July about St. Gertrude Church and the death of our longtime religious education director, I did a similar piece that was published this month in Reality, a Catholic magazine in Ireland. Here it is:
Patrick T. Reardon
If the above copies of the magazine pages are too tough to read, here’s the story in a more readable format:
The woven lives of a parish
by Patrick T. Reardon
Ann, who was dying, was unsteady on her feet when she got to church midway through the Mass to honor her.
As the service neared its end, she took a seat on a high chair next to the baptismal font in the carpeted area in the back of church. She was in the glow of a ceiling spotlight that also illuminated a colorful mobile, created weeks earlier by school children with her support.
After Communion but before the final song, our pastor and the parish staff came down the aisle to encircle Ann’s chair. Around them, too, clustered the rest of the congregation.
And crawling on the carpet a few steps away was a baby, dressed in white and red horizontal stripes, giggling at her new-found ability to get from here to there.
Ann had been our longtime religious education director. For the past six months, she had been trying to keep at bay a ferocious cancer that ate and ate and ate at her. This Sunday 10 a.m. mass was to thank her for all that she had done for our parish, St. Gertrude on Chicago’s Far North Side, and all that she meant to us.
It was Ann who was instrumental in the establishment years ago of Kid’s Word, a weekly age-appropriate lesson in faith that the children receive on their own while their parents and older siblings take in the Sunday homily.
Each week, as the Mass celebrant waits at the pulpit, dozens of kids from pews throughout the church walk, run and skip up to the altar and through a side door to the rectory.
Ann was also the one who envisioned, created and routinely re-created the mobile over the baptismal font — made of decorated cards or paper figures, such as butterflies, by the children of, say, the Holy Communion class or the Confirmation class.
The open area in the back of church is where parents with young children tend to hang out. If the kids get antsy, they can wander around a bit without disturbing those praying in the pews.
Often, the mobile and its parts swing and rotate under the spotlight. And, just as often, the children gravitate to that spot of merry shadows on the carpet to add their own dances of joy.
It’s a spot, our pastor had said during his homily, that had become a sort of sacred portal between the people of St. Gertrude and those who have gone before us.
But Ann wasn’t there to hear our pastor praise her or to see the children scuttling up and around the altar, and, later, to flood back into the church in a river of innocence and delight.
Now, though, she sat in that high chair. And our pastor, and the staff, and the rest of us in the congregation stood around her.
And, a few feet away, the crawling baby pulled herself along the carpet.
A special Mass
The Mass that day was special. But, really, each Mass is.
Every Sunday at the 10 a.m. Mass at St. Gertrude, kids will be dancing under the mobile or fidgeting in the pews or crawling on the carpet.
Every Sunday, whether anyone else knows it or not, someone in the church is likely to be battling a grave disease or all-too-aware of approaching death.
Also in church will be people battered by desolation or wrestling with anger or just plain at sea. Perhaps they’ll hear a gentle word or, at the kiss of peace, be graced with a smile.
Or notice the white-haired woman whom my daughter calls, with deep awe and respect, “the angel.” That’s because of the care she bestows with such whole-hearted delight and tenderness on her developmentally disabled adult son and her ailing husband.
Or find solace simply by being among us.
On the evening of September 11, 2001, St. Gertrude church was packed with parishioners who had come together to share their shock, sadness and hope. Later, it wasn’t the particular prayers said or songs sung in the service that they recalled. It was the being together.
“I barely remember the characteristics of the Mass,” said one parishioner. “The presence of all those people seemed like the Mass itself to me. The presence of all those people feeling vulnerable and connected to each other at the same time.
“Being at church felt like the absolute best place to be.”
The fabric of the community
St. Gertrude is the same as any parish. There are people who are incredibly active in church activities — singers in the choir, fund-raisers, sacristans, committee joiners, lectors, parish council members, gardeners and on and on. And there are quiet members of the faith family who don’t get very involved, if at all.
All of them are essential to the fabric of the community.
As one longtime member of the parish said, “We weave our lives into and out of so many other lives and families, and we are all connected by the one common thing, the yarn that is St. Gertrude’s.”
At each Mass, the people in the pews reflect a rich diversity. There are many shades of color — from the deepest dark brown to the whiter-than-white paleness of my daughter, showing her Irish heritage.
There are rich and poor. White collar and blue collar. Cops and unemployed accountants. Office managers and psychologists. Waitresses, judges and real estate agents. Those just beginning to look for work and those long retired.
Each Sunday, in the pews, you’ll see single people ¬— some young and just starting out, some elderly. And couples of all sorts. And families — those headed by single parents, by gay partners, by the traditional husband and wife.
Except for the extent of our diversity, St. Gertrude isn’t unique. Any parish is a mix of people at various stages of their lives and in wide variety of emotional states. Like any family.
At Sunday Mass, the people of the parish to pray together and share together their faith. That makes it special.
Special, too, is each person in the pews (or, for that matter, at home), striving to infuse life with meaning through loving others. Each is a thread in the woven lives of the faith family — a tile in the mosaic of the community.
And, yes, an angel.
Ann was an angel. So was that baby crawling along the carpet.
As she sat in the high chair, Ann was handed a microphone. Speaking in a thin, constrained voice, she told us how important the St. Gertrude faith family had been in her life and the life of her family.
Then, our pastor raised his arms, and her colleagues on the staff raised their arms, and her family and friends, and the rest of the people in the church.
And we blessed Ann.
The email came ten days later. Ann had gone through that portal to God.
Yet, she remained with us as well, woven deeply into the fabric of St. Gertrude. Sharing our faith together creates a bond that is stronger than differences in incomes, political philosophy, sexual orientation and ethnic background.
Stronger than death.
We are woven into the same cloth with all of the people who have ever worshipped and prayed at St. Gertrude. And with everyone who has attempted to live the message of Jesus over the past 2,000 years. And, really, with all people from the beginning of time who have opted for love instead of fear.
As that baby crawled on the carpet, she had no conception of the mournful scene taking place a few feet away. But, in some deep way, she knew she was in a sacred space. And she knew she was in a community that was tender and nurturing.
She never met Ann. But, weaving her life into the St. Gertrude faith family, she will.
Patrick T. Reardon is a former reporter with the Chicago Tribune.