What would you do if, during Sunday Mass, a dishevelled individual with an overpowering odour sat down next to you?
By Mark Reidy
Are you more likely to greet them with a nod and a warm smile or rather, clutch your wallet or handbag closely and discreetly put some distance between yourself and this stranger? Would you seek them out afterwards and make them welcome or would you strategically occupy yourself with those you know, so that you wouldn’t find yourself trapped in an awkward conversation?
According to a number of those I know who are homeless or mentally ill or suffering with addictions, their personal experience with Catholic congregations has been a negative one. Those individuals who have been courageous enough to wander into the inner sanctum of a church have usually left feeling unwelcome and even further alienated.
There is obviously something amiss.
When Jesus walked the earth He went out of his way to embrace those who had been rejected by society: those with leprosy or in prostitution and others that society at that time considered to be sinners and living outside the favour of God. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners,” Jesus said (Mk 2:17).
So what has gone wrong over the past 2000 years? That is not to say that all who attend church are righteous, as we all fall short of the perfection of God, but why does there seem to be an absence from our churches of those who dwell on the periphery of society? Where are the homeless, the mentally ill and others who feel rejected by the broader population? Have we become such a comfortable middle class community that we have unconsciously erected barriers that deter those who challenge us or make us feel uneasy?
I couldn’t help but ponder this predicament as I watched the tragic unravelling of Brisbane’s St Mary’s parish under the leadership of Father Peter Kennedy.
Here was a congregation that seemed to be filled with fringe-dwelling individuals who had found a place to call home.
The homeless, the indigenous, single parents, mentally ill, refugees, the divorced, those with homosexual tendencies and those who had felt wounded by the Church, were among those who felt embraced by this parish.
Sadly though, this haven for those who had felt excluded was being built on the foundation of some erroneous doctrine being espoused by Father Kennedy. He had become a bridge for the marginalised, but unfortunately it wasn’t a bridge that was leading them back to the true Catholic faith.
So does this mean that it is an either/or proposition? That the Church can only be all-embracing if it compromises on the fullness of truth that has been entrusted to Her?
Or that living out this truth will mean that some must be excluded from it?
It cannot be. St Paul tells us that the church must be a place “where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, Barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col 3:11).
In other words, everyone is equal in the eyes of God. That is not to say the choices of all are to be embraced, but that each person must be welcomed as a son and daughter of God.
The problem we encounter today, therefore, where the broken and marginalised do not feel welcomed or treated as equals, does not stem from the teachings of the Catholic Church, but rather from the implementation of these teachings. The issue may at first appear so complex that most people do not know where to begin, but in reality, the first step is simple.
Perhaps the next time you encounter someone that makes you feel uncomfortable, you can choose to not follow your urge to turn the other way, but instead ask yourself what Jesus would have done. You never know, the hand that you reach out with may be the one that leads them to knowing the fullness of God’s love.