Therese lived in the group home next to the church in Nova Scotia where I worked. She was painfully overweight; her clothing didn’t fit. She hadn’t bathed and wasn’t able to breathe or move comfortably. Her medication made it difficult for her to follow the prayers and hymns. She fell asleep during my sermons, not ALONE THERE; her snoring, escalated by her breathing problems, echoed through the church. Once or twice she even forgot where she was and lit up a cigarette right there in the pew. She wouldn’t speak or make eye contact with anyone.
Parishioners began to complain: She doesn’t belong here. She couldn’t be getting anything out of it so heavily medicated. She shouldn’t be allowed to ruin it for everyone. The poor woman was the subject of more than one parish council meeting: Her presence was a serious distraction; she was a deterrent to visitors. And someone noted that she ate too many donuts at coffee after mass.
Finally, one parish council member had had enough of the complaining and lack of compassion. She was determined to make a friend out of our troubled visitor. So the council member, Ann Marie Fougère left her usual pew and began to sit next to Therese. When the snoring started, the Ann Marie gave her a gentle nudge; she helped her find her place in the hymnal; she quietly reminded her to put the cigarettes away and leave enough donuts for others during the coffee hour after mass.
Anne Marie’s unheralded kindness was all Therese needed. She began talking to people. She made eye contact and made a point of shaking hands with me after mass: “Bless you,” she would say. A few months later, I received a phone call from the Therese’s social worker. The social worker explained that Therese had never been accepted by any group or was she able to sustain a single positive relationship until she started coming to church. She was now making friends in her group home and had begun to bring them to her church. “Thank you for welcoming her,” the social worker said to me. “I’ve never been to your church, but I know that it is an exceptional place.”
After hanging up the phone, I sat for a moment, pondering that word: Exceptional.
In this difficult situation, one parishioner manages to embrace the spirit of Jesus’ instructions in today’s Gospel: that to follow Jesus means to take on the hard work of building community by welcoming the stranger, the disrupter, and the estranged. In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls us to take on his work of reconciliation: work that is grounded in love for the other, work what begins with respect and love for every human being, work that seeks God’s justice and peace above all. Life is a constant challenge to be in sync with the many communities we are a part of: family, school, community, church. That awareness is Jesus’ point in today’s Gospel: God asks us to call out the best in one another, to celebrate what unites us. Gospel-centred reconciliation is not about punishing those who wrong us but confronting those misunderstandings and issues that divide us, grieve us and embitter us in order to repair broken relationships and rebuild community in the compassion and peace of God.
Gospel-centred reconciliation confronts those misunderstandings and issues that divide us, grieve us and embitter us, not out of anger or a need to “even the score,” but out of a commitment to imitate the great love and mercy of God.
May we have the courage to take up Jesus’ call in the Gospel so that someone may use that word exceptional about our parish community here in Monkstown.