When I was a little girl, I had the habit of staring at people during Mass. I still remember sitting in the pews at Sacred Heart Church in my hometown. It was an old stone building with heavy oak doors. In the chapel was a large mural of St. Bernadette in the grotto at Lourdes. Every Sunday, the church was packed. Like a traffic officer, an usher dressed in a business suit signaled that he could squeeze us in near the back. Here I settled in with my family to do my usual human studies. I pondered the man in front of me. He stared straight ahead, never smiled, and often adjusted his eyeglasses. Most impressive to my inquiring mind was his neck. It shone bright red next to his white shirt collar. His skin looked just like rare roast beef. I moved on to another subject. It was a young woman, devout beyond my wildest imagination. I watched her after communion. With face buried in her hands, she prayed with intensity. To my wondering eyes, she appeared transported to another world. Her name was Mary Catherine. Years later, I learned that she died young, a victim of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Mary Catherine never knew that she inspired me and in some small way tilled the soil for my return to the Catholic faith after decades of tepid churchgoing. Over the years, I have read many conversion stories and have seen church experiences similar to mine when humble, everyday worshippers have inspired earth-shattering conversions.
Thomas Merton, author of The Seven Storey Mountain, was on the verge of abandoning atheism and entered a chapel in New York City for daily Mass. Away from noisy streets, he sensed peace in the bright, simple church with its white columns and large windows. Soon he was in for a shock. He expected to see a few old people hobble into their pews. Merton was stunned to see the church fill up with old and young, rich and poor, even families with little children. One woman caught his attention.
I was very much impressed to see that someone so young and beautiful could with such simplicity make prayer the real and principal reason to go to church.
Merton noticed that she was absorbed in prayer, unaware of the people around her. Just like Mary Catherine.
Famed Catholic convert Scott Hahn had a similar experience. In his journey from evangelical Calvinist to Catholic apologist, he made the “fatal blunder” of attending daily Mass. Scott sat in the back and watched as ordinary people entered, genuflected, and prayed with sincere devotion.
Now here is one more example. Picture Sally Read, poet and atheist, sitting at the back row of a church in Italy. Like Hahn and Merton, she felt self-conscious, certain that Catholics knew she was only an observer. At the Consecration some people acted distracted like they did not believe, others whispered. A cell phone went off. Still, she saw people like Mary Catherine, lost in deep prayer. I would like to have seen Sally Read during the Elevation. Here is what she wrote about her conversion.
The reality of Christ’s presence would jolt me — sometimes to tears, always to a pitch of longing.
When Sally Read walked into church that day, she would have been considered a “none.” She was not affiliated with any religious group or tradition. A recent Pew study found that most of these people believe in God and are open to joining a church but have not found a home. Just think, they may even be sitting in the seat behind you, watching and waiting.
It is helpful to think of stories like these when we worship. After all, we gather at Mass as a community, all on that narrow road to heaven. Like pebbles dropped in a pond, what we do or say, and how we pray, influence our neighbors in the pew. You never know who might be watching, perhaps a famous writer or maybe just a little girl with an inquiring mind.
Copyright 2019 Kathryn Swegart