We don’t have a Cry Room in our parish, for which, I am grateful. We also don’t have an Incontinent Room for elderly adults who have lost control of their excretory functions. Neither do we have an Argument Room for couples who fussed all the way to Mass and feel a need to continue the fight, nor a Slouching Room for teens bored out of their minds. We have a church. There, all the baptized, regardless of skill level or current mood, are welcome. Well, mostly welcome.
Last week, a friend of mine, the mother of an eight month-old son, received an anonymous letter from another member of the parish. The writer asked her to stop breastfeeding in the pew at Mass, calling it disruptive and embarrassing. It seems her baby makes sounds while he eats. It’s true; I have heard them, the wordless humming of a contented child, as well as the occasional slurp when the milk comes too fast. Sometimes he pulls away from his mother’s breast to watch the people around him rising or kneeling or bowing, and sometimes he pulls away just to smile at us.
The lame and the blind and the deaf gather there with those of us whose infirmities are hidden, or disguised.
I like to watch this little boy and his mother. They prompt me to reflect on the way I am welcomed to feed upon the very Body of the Lord, just as this child is welcomed at his mother’s body. The signs of God’s mercy are everywhere before me at my parish. The angry letter sent to my friend made me consider some of those signs.
We usually sit near the family with the noisy, needy baby boy. My eighty-eight year old mother, who lives with us, also has needs during Mass. Sometimes she begins to cough uncontrollably, and is in distress until one of us rises and leaves in search of a cup of water. (My mother is of a generation that will not, under any circumstances, bring a bottle of water into church.) Our coming and going is a distraction: The rustle in the pew as we climb over, the click of heels on the wooden floor as we walk out and back in. Yet hospitality demands that we care for my elderly mother’s needs.
Another member of our parish is a man who suffers grievous brain injury. His vertigo won’t allow him to sit in a pew. His wife brings a folding fabric-covered chair that hugs the ground and the man reclines there, petting the service dog that helps him keep his balance and his calm. Dogs in church are an uncommon sight, as are beach chairs, but hospitality demands that this man’s needs be met.
Before he died, we had a parishioner in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. It seemed that the only thread holding him to his former life, his true life, was communion. That he remembered, that he knew. The problem arose when he began his desperate race each Sunday to receive the Bread and the Cup. He would push others out of his way, even, one memorable Easter morning, elbowing roughly past already nervous First Communicants and reducing some to tears.
He was not removed from St. Mary’s. He belonged there, and we all knew it. Instead, special care was taken to address his needs, and Eucharistic Ministers knew to take the sacrament to him as soon as communion commenced, sparing him anxiety, and sparing fellow parishioners further risk of trampling.
There are people in my parish who drool and who babble and there are people in my parish who weep and who talk to themselves. The lame and the blind and the deaf gather there with those of us whose infirmities are hidden, or disguised. We are welcome there, we, the baptized. We are the ones called to live the inscription on the fifth century baptistery at St. John’s Lateran:
The brood born here to live in heaven has life
From water and the fructifying Spirit.
Sinner, seek your cleansing in this stream
That takes the old and gives the new person back.
No barrier can divide where life unites:
One faith, one fount, one Spirit make one people.
We are God’s brood, with needs according to our age and our infirmities. As God watches over us all, let us tend one another, caring for our brothers and sisters as God cares for us, feeding one another as we are fed.
– Melissa Musick