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Discovering a Community of Joy!

Discovering a Community of Joy!
On the weekend of the First Sunday of Lent in 2017, I had the privilege of celebrating Mass outside my home parish on a Saturday evening with the people of St. Bernadine's in West Baltimore. "Their home under the dome" as they referred affectionately to their parish.
For those unfamiliar with West Baltimore, it is a community that struggles with crime and poverty as industry and opportunity abandoned the community decades earlier.  

My daughter Faith works with the Sisters of Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry, which supports the community with various charitable services. We stayed at the volunteer house on Saturday night and went to the 5:30 pm Mass. Abandoned buildings and condemned properties abound as you could imagine the neighborhood's heyday as we drove by magnificent churches, old factory mills and remnants of the Baltimore Ohio railroad.

Faith had long wanted Debbie and me to come to town and live the experience she has had at St. Bernadine's.

As I walked through the large oak doors of the church, I was greeted with a warm welcome by the ushers and handed a prayer card with the Prayer of St. Francis and a pencil and was invited to write my prayer intention. I could not help but reflect on recent "home improvement" choices deployed at my home parish and take in the visual impact of this vibrant inner-city church. My mind wandered to the many homes I have visited throughout my life. I could not help but contrast accessible homes with those which were opulently adorned, yet often lacked the authentic welcome of a home with warm hearth and heart.

Each usher went out of their way to move from their greeting of familiar parishioners toward their new visitors. Toward the end of the Mass, many would proceed as in the communion line to pick up a random prayer card which we all committed toward prayer for the month. What a wonderful way to engage in our prayer for others!

As we proceeded to the pew, my eyes scanned our surroundings, noting the murals of what I perceived to be pictures of an ethnicity accurate Middle Eastern Jesus. This building was worn down in places, yet the spirit of the people, the Body of Christ outshone any grand priestly garment or golden adornments. The small altar was close to the congregation, surrounded by choir seating, a grand piano, and various instruments. The procession began and our celebration commenced.

Visually, I was the minority, in a predominantly African-American congregation, yet soon my initial observations would melt away as the inclusive atmosphere proved to me that our differences did not separate us from being in communion with the true Church, the Body of Christ.  Welcoming glances were directed our way, especially during the extended kiss of peace, where the parishioners moved from their pews to extend Christ's peace.

The joy, love, and welcome of the people were palpable and sincere. Their pastor Msgr. Richard Bozzelli was accessible, authentic and down to earth. I was happy to see a bound copy of the Bible alongside the missal and songbooks in each pew. It so happens that in working through his homily, Msgr. Rich encouraged the opening of their Bibles to reference passages surrounding Sunday's readings.

The experience of this parish family deeply touched my heart so much so that I had to return the following morning and participate in the 11:30 Gospel Choir Mass, but that's an article for another day. I left St. Bernadine's vowing to return soon. I could not wait to share my experiences with my home parish.

All too often we can reminiscence of days gone by, where parishes were segregated by semi-homogeneous neighborhoods, posturing us toward inner parish focus, rather than outward evangelization of the salvation of Christ. There can be a tendency toward “group-think”, as we reject the unfamiliar and create our own the expectation of "church".

I would imagine that God does not want gold to decorate our worship space, but calls us to conversion, and preparation of the most important space, the temple of our hearts. I have yet to hear a lapsed Catholic or convert testify to the beauty of a church building leading them to conversion or spiritual growth.

I fully trust the working of the Holy Spirit in our midst.  I encourage all to pray that the wounds and divisions we experience, locally and throughout our country, maybe healed as we grow closer through adversity, by the grace of God.

To quote St. John Vianney: 

“Remain humble, remain simple. The more you are so, the more good you will do.”


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