We walked into the large sanctuary of a southeast beach parish and slipped into the back pew. The room was full of retired couples, perhaps a few local families, and some vacationers. A few rows in front, a middle-aged couple sat down. He was wearing black athletic pants with three white stripes running down the sides, and the noise of his flip-flops first drew my attention as he walked down the aisle.
Since I was a young teenager and explored the many cathedrals of France, I noticed and loved something about traditional Catholic architecture: these buildings commanded reverent silence. When my family of seven toured Notre Dame, I realized we were speaking in whispers. There were many visitors to the rose window and the gargoyles that day, but the noise of the sightseers was not loud. The building commanded quiet.
As the flip-flops passed me and the women in the row behind began speaking in loud whispers to each other, I looked around the sanctuary and silently took note of how standard it seemed; how normal it all was. It could have been the sanctuary of any evangelical Protestant church once the stations of the cross were removed from the wall and the altar put away.
My husband always said that walking into a church should feel unfamiliar, almost like walking into another world. Because it is, in fact, precisely that. Worship enters us into the heavenly places, and the act of the liturgy is other-worldly. Perhaps it is more than an experience of the other-worldly. It is an experience of the World. The true World. The World where someday we will again be Man and Woman, where Earth will be the place that God first intended it to be. This sanctuary felt very much of this world. And I found myself frustrated.
The liturgy continued, and I wrongly took note of the worshippers around me. Few opened their hymnals to join in the opening hymn. When we recited the creed, my husband and I seemed to be the only ones to bow during the recounting of the incarnation. The greatest test of my frustration always comes at the Lord’s Supper, when my not-yet confirmed husband and I sit in our seats, allowing the many worshippers to pass us on their way to the Blessed Sacrament. When I look at their faces or watch them receive, sometimes I want to grab them and shake them by the shoulders: “Do you know what you are receiving? Do you know how much this is worth?”
In my journey to the Catholic Church, I often heard that the Church is a church for sinners. It was spoken and written in a beautiful way, and I would nod my head and affirm the beauty of the idea. It is the church for the lukewarm and the fallen, the poor and the simple. But what I forget in these moments when I survey the worshippers and examine the architecture is that I am that sinner. I am the lukewarm and the poor. I am the leper who comes to Jesus for healing and I am the rich man who cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. And this Church is for me, as it is for them.
The Catholic Church does not need a triumphalist on the night of the Easter Vigil. She does not need my confirmation to make her more beautiful or to make her more like a pure and spotless bride. Even as I am convinced of the aesthetic implications of our architecture or the need for a renewed traditionalism within the Catholic Church, a common sanctuary or a few too many modern hymns for my taste do not change the reality of the Mass.
As the priest raises the host, the flip-flopped vacationer, the elderly woman with a rosary wrapped between her fingers, and the five-year-old who whispered loudly throughout the entire liturgy can all lower their eyes and bow their knees in reverence and affirm together, “My Lord and my God.”
We are all beggars before the Lord, happy to eat even the crumbs that fall from His table. Yet, He gives us more than crumbs. He gives us Himself. And He gives Himself equally, no matter the sins confessed that week or the times we failed to genuflect before the tabernacle. He gives Himself despite the hymns that might not be what we consider appropriate to the liturgy, and He gives Himself despite all of our judgements and criticisms as we join with His body to do the very thing we are criticizing.
The Catholic Church is a church for sinners. And that is a beautiful truth, for it is a Church for people like me.