The Eucharist is Behind Bars

My husband and I have been attempting an impossibility: taking our infant daughter to Mass every week.  This has involved sitting on cramped folding chairs, standing in drafty narthexes, and running (carefully!) with a 14-pImage result for infant in church pewound infant in a 20-pound carrier in order to make it in time (we’re shooting for the Gloria, not just the Gospel, if you’re wondering).

For the most part, we have success, even when Mommy has had to play organ at Mass.  Our little girl particularly enjoys looking at the lights in our parish narthex, and usually falls asleep by the Creed.

We had one disaster, however, when we attempted a daily Mass at a parish unknown to us a few weeks ago.  We were looking for a noon Mass and, while my New Englander husband insisted that such things were extremely common in Massachusetts, noon Mass is apparently a scarce and rare beast in central Indiana.

We found one, however, and proudly packed our baby in her car seat, stuffed her diaper bag with the necessities, bundled up (as the weather was still in the single digits and windy), and drove to our target destination—a long-established downtown parish.  We checked our time—we were good, even though we had to fumble around for cash to pay the parking meter on the city street.

Immensely pleased with our new-parent planning skills, we marched up the stairs to a lovely set of doors, threw them open, and stepped in out of the cold…to a surprisingly quiet narthex.  Good, we thought, Mass haImage result for empty churchsn’t started yet.  We peered through the glass windows into the sanctuary.  It wasn’t just quiet.  It was too quiet.  No Mass was taking—or about to take—place inside this sanctuary.

“What did we do wrong?”  we immediately wondered.  This not being our first rodeo, we hustled ourselves out the door again, looking for a parish center, a chapel, a crypt, anything.  We rang doorbells.  We peered through windows.  No Mass.  Sadly, we went back into the sanctuary, my (New Englander) husband grumbling that “this would never happen on the East coast!”

Suddenly, we heard, off in the distance, echoing voices.  “Stop!”  I cried, “I hear people!”  We ran towards the altar, where we heard the noises (mind you, we’re still carting the infant and sweating, by now, in our heavy winter coats).  Finally, we saw the Mass-goers!  In a small chapel, behind the sanctuary, behind closed doors, behind barred windows, sat a sparse crowd of Mass-goers, listening to the Gospel reading.  Relieved, we tried the door.  It was locked.  We tried waving.  Nada.  We tried plaintively staring and attempting eye contact with the people inside.  Nothing.

After a few minutes of this…and the Image result for locked church doorMass had trudged on, through the homily and beyond…we realized that it was over.  We had no hope of going to noon Mass that day.  We picked up our daughter (who thankfully slept through all of this) and walked through the dark sanctuary, out the doors, and back into the cold city street.

I tell this story, because it was a hard experience for us personally, but it raised a lot of questions for me:

Was the Parish in the wrong?

  • Why did the parish website not instruct where the Mass was? (We did check.)
  • Why was the Mass located behind locked doors? (And we cased the joint as we left—we saw no other entrances, and the parking lot closest to where Mass was taking place was roped off.)
  • Why did no Mass-goer take pity on us and open the door when we obviously were trying to get in?

On the other side, however, were my husband and I in the wrong?

  • Was it right for us to go “church-hopping” in seeking a time which was convenient, not a community?
  • If we were part of that parish community, we would have known where to go—therefore were we simply trespassing?
  • Should we not trust masstimes.org?

It was deeply troubling, but perhaps understandable, that no one saw us (or admitted to seeing us) and let us in.  And yet, I think the deeper issue at play is that our city parishes choose to—and need to—keep their doors locked and the Eucharist hidden.

Now, I know from my own parish experience, that city and even suburban parishes are routinely vandalized, precious artifacts stolen or damaged, and confront significant safety issues if they leave their doors open. But how can you welcome the stranger, give comfort to the brokenhearted, and food to the hungry, if simply finding daily Mass is like an adventure out of the pages of Harry Potter?

Is it possible to have a Church with open doors, or do we need to keep our city churches barred?  Is an “oImage result for open doors pope francispen door” simply a theological key, or an eschatological image, with no ground in reality in our modern world?

We’ll continue to ponder these questions with our daughter, as we begin to teach her the delicate balance between offering a generous heart and open arms to the world—and maintaining safe distances from strangers, and keeping the self out of danger.  And, in case you’re curious, the next time we attempted daily Mass at an unfamiliar parish, we called the parish office.  Twice.

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27 comments

  1. This is a church of insiders, by insiders, for insiders. You are not an insider there, so you are not welcome. It’s as simple as that. This is a particularly striking example, but many (most? all?) of our parishes are this way to some degree. Signs of inhospitality should be rooted out like an invasive weed, but it’s far easier to keep doing things the same way and occasionally complain about how no one goes to church anymore.

  2. Appalling. Simply appalling.

    Interesting that you were able to enter the church building where presumably there are precious objects that could be stolen and hocked (no locks there) but not the place where Mass was being offered. What’s that about?? And the fact that they wouldn’t let you in. I’m floored.

    It reminds me of Pope Francis’s words about Jesus standing at the door and knocking. Most people think he wants to get in; Francis said, maybe he wants us to let him out!

    That said, the faith and devotion that you and your husband showed in the attempt is, if I may say so, just shining. Thank you for sharing the story. It shouldn’t have to be so hard.

  3. “Lunchtime” weekday Masses may formerly have been more common in New England than they are now. The same is true for very early weekday morning Masses (like 6AM). Instead, weekday Mass times appear to much more geared towards the preferred schedules of retirees and, if on the ground, parochial school students; that is, in the mid-morning.

    As for insider culture: what is described in the post is just one of myriad manifestations of it.

  4. Perhaps these good Indiana Catholics have swallowed the fake news that American Catholics are now living under persecution, and are gathering for Mass behind locked doors like the recusant Catholics of sixteenth-century England.

    A church turned in on itself is a dying church.

      1. Jonathan, the comment is a bit sarcastic but I think a point is being made by it. (Moderating comments is not an exact science, I grant.)
        awr

  5. It reminds me of the story of Rhoda, in Acts 12.
    Peter was imprisoned, with doubled chains. An angel appeared and
    The chains fell off his wrists.
    They passed the first guard,
    then the second,
    the iron gate leading out to the city opened for them by itself.
    The angel disappeared and Peter went to a house where Christians had gathered.
    “13 When he knocked on the gateway door, a maid named Rhoda came to answer it. 14 She was so overjoyed when she recognized Peter’s voice that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 They told her, “You are out of your mind,” but she insisted that it was so. But they kept saying, “It is his angel.” 16 Peter kept knocking, until they opened it, they saw him and were astounded.”
    Acts 12: 13-16
    The chains fell, the gate swung open, but try to get in where the Christians are gathered? Even Peter couldn’t do that!

  6. When I was an undergrad, I went to daily mass at two nearby inner-city churches, and sometimes we’d be joined by homeless persons off the street. This was normally fine, but on occasion someone would panhandle in the middle of mass, interrupt the priest, or otherwise disrupt the mass. The ushers and priests though normally dealt with these situations in a charitable and prudent manner, and I don’t think anyone was ever escorted out of the church. At some point priests and congregants accept that this part of worshipping in an urban environment. I wonder if the church you describe Katherine faces similar situations, though I offer this up as a possible explanation, not an excuse.

    The closed door celebration of a scheduled mass sounds rather unbecoming of a Catholic parish, and I can’t think of many situations where this would be at all reasonable. IMHO it might be a good idea to send a polite but honest letter to the pastor. If it truly is a security concern, their argument is pretty weak considering it sounds like they basically abandon the main church during the mass. Any well organized parish can come up with a better solution to keep their churches safe.

  7. If the issue is security , do what many synagogues do and have a electronic passcode – although that is really for things like adoration when no one else may be around. Don’t understand it for Mass at all. But I live in NYC where I can’t see this happening for a Mass. Again, keeping church open “all day” for prayer maybe there should be a passcode or something. I actually prefer not to have it then. It is a house of prayer for all people.

  8. Once a year, a friend and I drive around the Northwest of the US and visit local sites and local parishes. I can tell you that more often than note it’s the rural parishes that are locked, not the small town and suburban parishes (most often open).

    Most of this is a chicken/egg conversation of a what constitutes a vital parish–if the churches are full, no need to lock them, or have people enter some side chapel via a side door, even on weekdays. Our downtown urban parish is unlocked from 6 am until 9 pm–which is rare for an urban parish. We’re a small parish (100 families), but we have events non-stop, so people are coming and going all day long, so the facility is never not observed–and the worship space is across the narthex from the parish office. We have some volunteer people who live in a homeless shelter who unlock and lock the church 7 days a week, so it’s not a job of any one staff member. But we’re also ok with homeless people being in church throughout the day–it’s part just part of being Catholic.

    I appreciate the older churches on older “campuses” might not have the luxury that newer constructions have for safety and security. Not to mention ACA accessibility, which may also be at play here.

  9. “Why did no Mass-goer take pity on us and open the door when we obviously were trying to get in?”

    Perhaps you should have knocked?
    Perhaps the fire door only opens out and someone forgot to unlock it?
    I am sure that they would have been delighted to have younger visitors. had the assembled elderly known you were there.

    1. They went inside, tried to find where Mass would be, went back outside, rang door bells, et cet. The problem was they had no reason to imagine there was a further enclosed chapel behind the sanctuary (which is not a place most American Catholics would think to venture behind, as it’s usually not accessible or is sacristy/storage) and there was no signage to indicate where daily Mass might otherwise be.

      1. Karl is right–the locked door was on the INSIDE of the Church–there was an “enclosed Chapel” in the space where you’d expect to find the sacristy. The door was right next to where the presider was reading the Gospel, and then giving the homily. We felt that knocking would be disrespectful to HIM, so we chose our more feeble (and ineffective) route of making sad puppy-dog faces at the congregants.

  10. As Patrick, suggested, I would send that polite letter to the pastor. The response you get (if any), might be very interesting. My guess is that it’s a security concern based on a serious incident which took place in the past.

    Earle

    1. Thanks for this advice–we had considered doing this, but decided against it in the midst of the holidays (the incident took place on a weekday in Advent 3). Perhaps we might write now–it would certainly have been helpful to have had some signage.

  11. Such a disturbing story, I keep thinking about it. One idea that crossed my mind was that the congregation was badly frightened by the church shootings that have been in the news.

    But then I thought about it again, and there are other explanations dumber than that. Like, they locked the door to discourage latecomers. The fact that they could see you, but didn’t open the door, suggests a rules mentality rather than fear for their safety.

    1. Unlike the foolish bridesmaids of the parable, latecomers should always be admitted but should be seated in a way that causes a minimum of disruption.

      1. Robert, please don’t mistake my comment for an endorsement of locking the doors! Good heavens. Remember I said it was a “dumber” explanation?

        Sadly, I have known people like this. They think in terms of the strict Catholic schoolroom, not of hospitality or adult learning. This is what I mean by a “rules mentality.” They are often deeply entrenched in their parishes.

      2. Well, there is a very traditional – almost canonical – punishment for Catholics arriving late to Mass: sitting in the front pew/row(s), aka the Catholic Penalty Box*. (My late father, for whom being on time was a form of lateness, perversely *chose* to sit in the front row with his children; we often would have few other neighbors until after Mass began.)

        * Catholic Thunder is the sound of kneelers hitting the floor. Especially resonant if one is in the lower church/undercroft while Mass is going on upstairs.

  12. I recall attending an installation rite for an Episcopalian rector (= vicar, parish priest, pastor) in California. The bishop, or one of the parish officials, handed the new rector a set of keys, saying something like “Receive these keys, and open the doors of this church to all.”

    A nice idea — though I’ve never seen it done in a Catholic parish — and unfortunate that it didn’t apply here.

  13. I believe the worldwide theme of the Jubilee Year of 2000 was “Open Wide the Doors to Christ.” There were banners in front of many of the Chicago parishes that year, proclaiming that theme. Seems that the spirit of Jubilee has slipped 🙁

  14. I have a happy ending to my story. I did write the parish, and had an exchange with the pastor. There was a way inside the chapel, but from another passageway inside the Church (which was not immediately obvious to us)! The pastor wrote back to update me that the parish now has a note on its website indicating where to find this unlocked door.

    1. Glad to hear! I was getting ready to believe that some parishes really are that unwelcoming to visitors (thankfully that doesn’t appear to be the case here). Sometimes it takes an outsider to notice some [seemingly obvious] egregious lapses in communication.

  15. I think there are even more severe instances of where the Eucharist WILL BE behind bars and that is to the already fast approaching lack of ordained clergy. Hopefully current moves to consider ordaining already proven married men may help but it could be just a stopgap. Deeper thinking on how we as a community of believers who say the Eucharist is the source and summit of our lives will celebrate it needs to take place.

  16. The Cathedral of Phoenix, Arizona is in a rough neighborhood… I believe it to be in the zip code with the highest crime rate in the state. Yet we have made a conscious decision to keep our doors open every weekday from just before 6:15am (when the first Mass of the day is celebrated) until around 8:30pm at night – or later if late night confessions are taking place. All of our Masses are celebrated in the Cathedral (though we have no noon Masses).

    The next time you’re in the Southwest, stop by.

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