Slightly dehydrated from a day of walking through the Vatican museums, my equally tired mother and I made our way to the crypt under St. Peter’s Basilica. It was 2008, and I had just graduated high school. Before I began my life-long goal of being a member of a competitive speech team at the local community college, we went to Italy.
As we rounded the corner, taking in each sarcophagi holding the bodies of popes that I knew a little about, sort of, we came to the big kahuna. Pope John Paul II, who was leading and praying our church through arguably some of the toughest years of her modern existence, was laid to rest in a marble tomb just five years before we visited. I looked over at Mom as she let some tears fall.
This was my first realization that the church is bigger than the sweet parishes in which I was reared. If a humble polish priest, charged with leading God’s Church, can impact a group of individuals thousands of miles away in the middle of nowhere, Illinois – to the point that it makes one of them cry simply by seeing his burial place – then, there has to be something to this.
Flash forward to my junior year at the University of Evansville, and I once-again sleepily made my way out of the trolley and into St. Mary’s Church in Grantham, United Kingdom, for Mass. I was there for a semester at Harlaxton College, and I was feeling the pull of my Sunday obligation. Mass began in this small-but-seemingly-vibrant parish community that I was glad to be a part of for just a short time. I knew going in that Mass would be the same as it was at my St. Joseph’s at home – but this awareness never became an encounter until that morning in Grantham. Save for a few specific announcements, each Mass part was sung. The Confiteor was said and communion was consecrated as they would be at any other church across the globe – except with a lovely accent. That was the only difference. Our liturgy is the same across the globe, save for the language; and I think that’s a beautiful thing.
Walking through London the following weekend, I was struck by the number of people walking all around me. Keep in mind, I grew up in a very small town and read about the world and its history constantly; but I was never so immersed in the…mass of it. All of these people who had lives, stories, needs, desires, limits, abilities were here; and, that day, it seemed like they were all in one place. No wonder so many businesses keep going, nonprofits keep supporting or schools keep teaching; there’s so many people!
Christ came for all of that. He taught his disciples to form a Church to get all of it back to Him in Heaven. He called up the Church Triumphant to pray for us in Heaven, and the Church Suffering to give us something to pray for, too. He came to save the people walking around on the streets of London that day – including little me, who was (probably too) slowly walking along the damp sidewalk, awestruck at the number of souls around her and (definitely) sending a quick wink at our creative God.
That was the next moment I realized that the Church is, indeed, a universal one. From the grandfatherly voice of the priest in Grantham to the worn-out financier on the bench by St. Paul’s Cathedral that rainy day, all of us are called to be the hands and feet of Christ – and to bring others with us.